How we perceive digital technologies shapes how we accept them

Photo by Maurício Mascaro from Pexels

In the early 2000’s, I was bringing a body scanner to market. It took over 1,000 detailed measurements of a persons body, all you had to do was stand inside a booth for about a minute in your unmentionables. As the company I was with already provided customized clothing patterns for people who made their own clothes, the idea was to take the data and integrate it with the existing custom CAD software to print out patterns that would fit the person perfectly. We also promoted it to a women’s exercise franchise that was popular across North America at the time. The idea was we could provide a cool new technology to shape the fashion and fitness industries. Things didn’t quite go as planned.

We had, what we thought, a clever idea. For both the clothing and fitness market we would provide a print-out of the key measurements such as bust, waist, inseam, leg and arm length. Alongside it, we would provide a front and side “outline” of the persons body. Cool right? Not so much. Turns out, how humans see each other in 3D in the real world and even in 2D on screens or in magazines, is very different from how we actually look. Even when we use fitness models in a scan, everybody, male or female, super fit, lithe or otherwise came out looking like lumps of dough on frumpy legs. The idea was great, the reality was not. Providing numbers only was better and acceptance was fairly good. The technology of that company and any body scanners in fact, never took off on a mass scale and instead, serve niche markets. Largely because of how people perceived the technology itself and the uncomfortable truths it revealed.

If you’re familiar with the management mastermind Geoffrey Moore, you’re probably thinking of the now famous bell curve on consumer adoption of technology, what Moore so aptly calls “crossing the chasm”. Consumer perceptions are a key factor in getting across that chasm. And as technologies become more advanced, the chasm will and is already, looking very different.

Skipping ahead to today and we have digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, blockchain and 3D printing. You’ve probably heard of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Dogecoin thanks to Elon Musk and his kerfuffles with it. In research I’ve done into cryptocurrencies and market acceptance , general consumer perception is that this technology is in a negative phase with the majority of consumers. While it might seem to be a big thing, in reality, cryptocurrencies represent a mere fraction of global money markets and wealth, far less than about .005%. Common perceptions of consumers / citizens are that it is an unregulated Wild West. Which it is. We hear more stories of the failures of crypto than we do successes. And what we “hear” as consumers is critical the perception of technologies and their success.

Then there’s Artificial Intelligence, which in and of itself is not a a single technology, but rather a group of technologies under the nomenclature of AI. There is Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Neural Networks. Sometimes they are combined to solve a problem, sometimes they stand alone and solve a problem. But consumers don’t see, or want to see, AI as a group of different technologies even though they are. Any marketer that wants to fight that battle better make sure their company has a few billion dollars to spend on changing consumer perceptions…and hey, if neither Apple, Google or Microsoft are allocating marketing budgets for that, it is unlikely to happen soon.

When it comes to cryptocurrency, consumers aren’t adopting the technology because of the 4 key factors for technology adoption; 1) trust, 2) value, 3) sociocultural and 4) accessibility. I will discuss these in another post as they need some explanation.

The Big Tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google all understand these factors very well. While Apple has never indicated it is looking at creating a digital currency (cryptocurrency) one could speculate it is on their agenda; they have issued an Apple credit card and created Apple Pay. Facebook is working on a cryptocurrency and one could think Amazon is doing the same along with Google who already has Google Wallet. When either of these companies launches a cryptocurrency it is a signal that consumers are ready to adopt at scale. As Facebook tends to be the cowboy in the this group, they’ll likely try it first. Problem is, first movers in the digital world often fail, a fact that Apple, Google and Amazon know better than the more impulsive Facebook.

Another area that is dealing with the perception issue is Augmented and Virtual Reality. Most consumers simply don’t know how access it. Those that are into technology and are early adopters or visionaries do and they’re a very small segment of the market. They’ll take the risk of buying a more expensive early version of a Virtual Reality headset or using an Augmented Reality (AR) app or capability on their smartphone much faster. There’s a reason that most AR apps developed today are for games. They’re a market more likely to adopt an emerging technology quicker.

There are three major factors today that play a role in consumer adoption of digital technologies; 1) news media, 2) social media and 3) sociocultural signals.

We all know that bad news makes for lots of eyeballs and clickbait, which drives eyeballs and clicks and advertising revenues. News media are quite good at picking up the scary stuff. Technology industry media are the ones focused on the benefits and make their revenues from promotion of technologies. Social media is how consumers today tell one another about things that interest them and will share their personal views and opinions and third is sociocultural signals we send both in the real and physical worlds about how to use a digital technology. These three factors combine to create consumer perceptions around a technology. To some degree, I’m oversimplifying but it’s the gist of it.

One of my favourite examples of how consumers perceive technologies is Google Glass. It is an awesome product. For niche markets. Not necessarily for the general public. Yet. Perhaps later on, a few years from now. When they launched it was to much fanfare and they weren’t cheap either. Within just a few weeks however, the common term people who wore them were given was “glassholes.” It was the beginning of the end for Google Glass as a mass consumer product. But they still exist and have proven extremely valuable in industrial and manufacturing settings among other niche markets. There is speculation that Apple and Facebook are planning such a product. I may well be wrong, but I still don’t think such a product is ready for consumer prime-time. Especially not now where the issue of privacy is front and centre in consumers and legislators minds. The issue of police body cams is contentious enough and a warning signal to anyone developing digital technologies that can easily be regarded as invasive to personal privacy. This is the sociocultural dynamic for perceptions around digital technologies. Any digital technology that is perceived to be intruding on current cultural norms will face quick backlash and is less likely to reach scale as a product.

These are some of the key factors that will impact the success of a digital technology at any given time. As societies shift and change through generations, technologies are perceived in different ways. This impacts their success. Blockchain has been around over a decade but has been wallowing in the pit of disillusion on Gartner’s Hype Cycle for years and it may be sometime until it staggers its way out into common acceptance. But blockchain too, is not a technology that most consumers will ever be that interested in. For it is an infrastructure technology or what I call a “warp & woof” technology that is meaningful to certain sectors and industries but is not so much for consumers. It is unlikely consumers will be as excited about a new blockchain tool as they are about an iPhone or PlayStation.

Some digital technologies, such as the Industrial-Internet-of-Things devices, cybersecurity hardware for the enterprise or virtual machines are focused on business markets and what the consumer thinks or perceives really is not important. But even getting business to buy in to a new technology faces perception challenges of their own.

Digital Anthropologist | Featured in Wired | Chief Digital Officer | UX Strategist