Build it? They might come

Tom Richardson writes:

What people need is still more important for business than what businesses happen to be able to create – even though the gap between these two sometimes seems quite large.

Without research, and the freedom to pursue ideas that might never be profitable, some of the world’s most successful companies might never have become so. But this is different to throwing money at services that people haven’t told you they want, simply because these services seem to offer something “innovative”.

Innovation is the monkey to our organ grinder. It exists to find new ways of approaching age-old needs, such as reassurance, simplicity and community.

IBM, for example, has been working on a supercomputer called ‘Watson’ that can understand a question posed in colloquial language and respond vocally with an accurate, factual answer. The company says it’s designed for trawling through piles of papers such as legal documents to find an elusive fact.

Poor old Watson; destined to infuriate. It may respond to one of our needs (more time to do things) but even 99% accuracy isn’t good enough for a lawyer. Education helps us develop the ability to evaluate competing claims and make judgments about the information we really need. Understanding the use of language is only one part of that.

Why are we so bad at identifying tools that respond to human needs? They’re our needs, after all. Take Wolfram Alpha – again, an incredible product – that will make a lot of money through an expensive premium subscription that offers complex mathematical modelling. But at its launch in May 2009, it was seized upon by sensationalists at ‘the next Google’.

What Google has done, brilliantly, is to work hard in private on their sterile algorithms, while presenting a likeable human face to its users, with a visual identity that is colourful and simple. Google, like the iPod, is a human technology.

Wolfram Alpha, meanwhile, is a technology for technologists. It arrogantly (there I go again with the irresistible urge to anthropomorphise) tells you the answer, rather than humbly fetching information for you to interpret, like Google. If it gets the answer wrong, there’s no way to click back, think and discriminate.

The same delusion applies to social media. We know that no-one wants to be friends with washing powder. The company knows that plonking its washing powder down on Facebook makes it look awkwardly like the try-hard kid at school.

And, sadly, you can imagine the conversation around the water cooler in the Marketing Department:

“But have you seen the numbers?

“We have to be a part of this. Let’s ride this wave, let’s jump on board, let’s join the conversation!”

No. Go away. Really. No-one wants you here. You’re the wasp in my garden. And by the way, I resent your digital cold call.

The image at the top of the post is from the Museum of  Mid-Century Illustration, and is used with thanks. http://www.plan59.com/main.htm

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