In the Age of Technology Killers, Why Some Just Won’t Die

For those of you who were watching the inaugural season of “Saturday Night Live” in 1975, you likely remember Chevy Chase’s bit on Weekend Update about Generalissimo Francisco Franco still valiantly holding onto his effort to remain dead.

That phrase has been occurring to me over and over again as I listen to pundits in the technology space. The PC is dead – but it still walks among us, does it not? Email is dead, but I still read plenty daily, don’t you? Is it that technology, like the walking dead in the zombie apocalypse, just won’t die, or is there something else at work?

In an article on ExtremeTech, Sebastian Anthony called the desktop PC a “stumbling, apathetic and commoditized beast” as he predicted its demise in Nov. 2014. I wonder what he was writing his story on that day – a smartphone?

I’ve been reading that email is dead for the better part of a decade … usually within an email news update. One of the more memorable was in Nov. 2011 when John Naughton at the Register reported that no less than Mark Zuckerberg had predicted the end of email and went on to remark that perhaps it was a biased opinion since Facebook was launching a new app called Messenger that month.

What about newspapers, which were supposed to be replaced by the Internet years ago? I still get a paper copy of The New York Times every day. In fact, in The New York Times this morning, I saw an article that debunked the myth of the death of printed books, a death that was predicted with the development of digital e-readers and cloud-based libraries. Despite Borders declaring bankruptcy in 2011 (arguably more from being a slow follower into the digital space partnering with Sony for an undistinguished e-reader), the retail book business is healthy. According to the American Booksellers Association, there are nearly 600 more brick and mortar bookstores in the U.S. today than five years ago.

My point in this blog is not to say that technology never dies – I am not predicting the Zombie Apocalypse of Technology, where punch card readers and phonographs roam the aisles of your local electronics store.

Instead, I’m suggesting that technology will remain viable as long as it meets consumers’ experience expectations and needs. I can’t find a record player, cassette tape deck or CD player in my house because digital music enhanced my ability to listen and stream seamlessly.

The reason email won’t go away any time soon is because it’s the prevalent, ubiquitous form of written communication. When email first appeared on the technology stage, I remember everyone sending an email to “see if your e-mail address worked,” an activity that millennials find somewhere between ludicrous and hilarious because to them email just works.

When technology just works – and does it better, faster and more intuitively than its alternatives – it will not die. So really this blog is about the importance of designing for the full user experience. When natural, easy experiences meet real needs, then a technology will live on. When the pain of use of a solution (for example, going to the record store) is sufficiently higher than the alternative and the result is indistinguishable or inferior, then the solution will be hobbled. In this simple sentence is the real conundrum of technology planning – what makes a result indistinguishable or inferior? This question represents the soul of user experience-based design.

In the e-reader, digital news scenario, there is no doubt that more stories are available, searchable and readily readable in the digital world. This led to predictions of the demise of print media more than five years ago. However, I believe, that reading is only the first step to consuming written material. We often read to learn and that requires memorizing and retaining.

The eidetic Dr. Spencer Reid on CBS TV’s crime drama “Criminal Minds” remembers everything he has ever seen – including where on a page the fact in question was written. In the digital world, screen size, browser configuration, ad insertion, scroll bars and a host of other factors conspire to prevent a fact or sentence from being displayed in one place, making it harder to remember. Since it’s more difficult to make the location-based associations the brain needs to recall facts, many people say they feel like they are not really reading on an e-reader.

The feel of paper is another often quoted need among printed media readers. In my opinion, it’s not just the emotional connection to the ink on your fingers, it’s also that when hefting a paperback book in hand, you can tell whether or not you’ll be able to finish it on a four-hour airplane flight. The same cannot be said when looking at a book on an e-reader.

Unfulfilled user experiences prolong the life of print media at the expense of digital media, and provide a clue as to how to design for user experience in technology. E-books may compliment print, but print, because of its unique user experiences, refuses to die. It’s not about what the technology can do, it’s about what the user wants – and even loves – about an experience or activity.

So here’s to the continuing struggle of PCs and print and email to become and remain dead – may they live long, so long as we need them!

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