Technology and the power of pain

What are the essential characteristics of successful technologies, and why do people use it in the first place?

There's a geek version of the question, "What is the meaning of life?" It's this: "Why do some technologies take off while others fail?"

More specifically, what are the essential characteristics of successful technologies? And why does anyone use new technology in the first place?

I've focused a lot of my career looking for answers to these questions, and here's the short answer: pain.

I'm indebted to my friend Pip Coburn, author of "The Change Function," who puts it very succinctly: "People change habits when the pain of their current situation exceeds their perceived pain of adopting a possible solution." In other words, new technology is adopted when it appears to remediate the pain felt by the lack of said technology.

But there are several gotchas. First is that the "pain" isn't always obvious. For example, what was the "pain" that people felt before iPods? It's a trick question. You'd probably say, "the inability to carry your MP3 tunes with you" -- but you'd be wrong. You could do that long before the iPod -- I had a 60G MP3 player from RCA years before the iPod came out.

No, the real pain was that I looked like a real old-school "pocket-protector" style geek, with my clunky black box that had the ease of use of an IBM MVS system. The "pain" that Apple addressed with the iPod was being able to bring your tunes without looking like a dork, and to configure your playlists without a computer science degree. Remember all those billboards with hip, trendy people dancing with their iPods? The point is that sometimes it's not the feature-function that matters -- it's the secondary issues, like design and ease-of-use.

A second issue -- particularly key for enterprises -- is that the "pain" felt by organizations isn't the same as the pain felt by individuals. I've touched on this before, with Alexander the Great's invention of the sarissa. The sarissa is the 16-foot pike with which Alexander armed all his foot soldiers. From the soldier's perspective, a 16-foot pike is literally painful: It's heavy, unwieldy, and not nearly as much fun as the weapon of choice in 330 BC (the short sword).

But armies aren't designed for the ease and comfort of soldiers. From Alexander's perspective, the "pain" was losing battles -- and sarissas cured that pain, helping Alexander to defeat the Persians and conquer the civilized world.

The bottom line was that the pain of the crisis accrued to Alexander, and the pain of adoption accrued to the soldiers. But because the pain of lost battles (to Alexander) exceeded the pain (to soldiers) of carrying sarissas, the sarissa was adopted.

Any IT executive who's implementing, say, a security architecture is well aware of this challenge: What's best for the users as individuals may not be best for the organization as a whole. (Try that next time a user complains about not being able to install software on his desktop!)

The bottom line: Technologies succeed if the net effect of adopting them is to reduce the perceived pain felt by the adoptees (whether individuals or organizations).

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