Welcome to episode 219 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
For our podcast topic this week, we’re going to chat about the trials and tribulations of the early adopter of technology. As an early adopter myself, this is partly a reflection on my own adventures as I sort of try out new types of tech, and sometimes stumble and sometimes do it successfully, because in many cases, the first version of a consumer tech product is not much better than a beta release, and probably should be stated as such. But initial consumer iterations of products are basically unproven inventions in a lot of cases, and not many of them can survive basic QA. In fact, sometimes I feel like I’m basic QA for some of these. Why raise this today? Well, with so many tech products that are just becoming part of our lives, in our homes, in our workplaces, in our cars, in our public spaces, with all of these being released, I’m starting to feel a little bit like early adopters are the guinea pigs for consumer technology, and I want to ask the question, well why be an early adopter, and what the implications are for introducing all this technology without fully vetting it.
The product that inspired this minor tirade of mine is the Amazon Look, the Amazon Echo Look rather, which is this camera that’s part of the Amazon I’ll call it their IoT suite. Although they’re not calling it that, but it’s this collection of Amazon Echo products that can create the connected home for consumers. You have the Look, which is this camera, and then you also have things like the Amazon Echo, which is the listening device plus speaker that can access all your Amazon services, and then there’s the Echo Dot, which is the smaller version of that. They have a portable version of the Echo as well. The Echo Look is essentially this–it takes this picture of you and it can recommend clothing that you might want to wear. This is clearly not a product for me because I tend to dress in blue jeans, maybe some boots or sneakers, and a button-down shirt. I’m not really super fashion-conscious, but this Look product can give you a lookbook, right? You take a picture of yourself-
Yeah. Of course, all these different outfits that you might be interested in. At the same time, there’s all these questions that come up. You basically have a camera in your bedroom now. I mean, I don’t know where you get dressed. I get dressed in my bedroom, so now you’re welcoming Amazon into a private room in the house, and it’s going to snap pictures of you. I’m sure this could work out just fine for some people.
Swingers are going to love it, Jon.
Yeah. It just makes me think, “How many rounds of QA did this go through? How is this going to integrate into peoples’ lives? What are the safety issues associated with this if you don’t have a locked down system, a WiFi system? Is this hackable? I don’t know.” It raises all kinds of questions around early adoption. When I saw the Amazon Look, this is the long way for me to say, I started considering the stuff that we put up with when we’re trying out new tech products. With that said, Dirk, your thoughts on early adoption of the Amazon Look, and are there any tech products that you’ve tried out recently where you’ve been an early adopter?
No, you know, I’m generally not an early adopter. My time and money are just too valuable for it. As you pointed out, the quality of what’s being released is questionable. A lot of times it even looks very fit, and finished, and polished, but in the overall end-to-end experience it certainly isn’t. I just have little patience, and certainly no enjoyment, from dealing with that sort of thing. I usually wait until things are stable and sort of clearly showing a more advanced level of value before I jump in. I did buy an Amazon Echo maybe a year ago, give or take. I guess that might still be considered early adopter for that. I’m not sure. I regret it. I’ve unplugged it a couple of times. Currently it is plugged in, but I don’t use it. Actually, what I use it for is it’s basically a glorified speaker.
It’s just a big speaker for the computer, and it’s a speaker that makes me mad because every time I take my laptop out of range and then bring it back into range, when they sync up it screams, “Now connected to MacBook Pro Two,” with huge volume, like blasting. It’s so intrusive. It’s so stupid. I Google it, and clearly other people are having the problem, but there is no help, no answers from Amazon. I mean, it’s just such an obvious user experience fail. Yeah, I go back and forth again with having it plugged in and not plugged in, but yeah. I mean, look, you need early adopters in order to advance the products and get to the point where someone like me will buy them. But I don’t understand it, unless people have an abundance of time and money to do that, because I just don’t see the value generally.
Yeah. That brings me to one of my first points about being an early adopter is, there is this group of people who are willing to take on the unfinished … I mean, they’re not intended to be that way, but they’re the unfinished products that if they don’t get out into the marketplace, then you can’t get consumer validation. There’s a certain level of I’ll call it the DIY maker user profile. I know that I exist within that. I’m interested in doing a little bit of hacking around the house to try to make automated systems happen. I’ve always been interested in taking apart things, or digging into the code on my computer or what have you. I’m not a good engineer by any means, but I do have enough curiosity, enough willingness to fuss with things long enough to get that perceived benefit that a new product might bring. That’s been part of my personality type my entire life.
But I’m getting to the point here, which is that this early user group, these DIY maker types, are really helping to propel an awful lot of consumer tech right now, because without early adopters, without people willing to waste their money and time in almost a hobby-like fashion to make these things work, and provide the feedback to the company, I don’t think you can have consumer tech as we know it right now. I think that early adopters are actually sort of the unsung most valuable players. I’m not saying this because I’m an early adopter of certain types of things. I certainly am not that way across all technology. I could never afford it, but I do understand this person who’s willing to go out and experiment a little bit and take some risks on things. As consumer tech continues to go down this path of really pushing the envelop with services that are not ready for primetime, I think this is extremely valuable. In fact, I can see why consumer tech companies would be trying to push out products to this group, and maybe, I don’t know, get their buy-in. Without it, I think consumer tech is not going to make it, at least not with the model we have now. That’s point number one.
Number two is that I think there’s a certain level of risk involved in this sort of early adoption when we’re talking about connected products. For instance, there’s all kinds of camera products on the market now. You’ve got baby monitors that are connected to the internet. You’ve got the Amazon Look, which is sitting in your bedroom. You’ve got products that are becoming very intimately associated with our lives now. I can’t help but wonder if being an early adopter is going to require some risk tolerance as well, in addition to this DIY mindset. Dirk, your thoughts on that? I mean, it seems like we’re setting up products now that are so much more intrusive, especially when you’re talking about audio listening, or the camera devices that I just mentioned.
Yeah. I mean, that gets back to a comment I wanted to make when you were saying how early adopters are just so, so valuable. I would say, “Yes, they are so valuable to the company. It’s not clear to me that they’re valuable to the world.” A lot of the technologies being pursued, we don’t need them. They may be better. They may lead to things that are even better, better, better, but to me the jury is very much still out on whether an always-on digitally-engaged existence is the healthiest way for us as animals to live. I don’t have an answer to that one way or another, but I think there certainly is a lack of balance right now as the shift to the digital has shifted us to be more sedentary, has shifted us to be more isolated, has shifted us away from social stuff.
All of these new consumer technologies that are taking digital farther, that are being driven by early adopters, as you pointed out, that’s not necessarily a great path. I would certainly say it’s a path that is … It’s pushing the digital. It’s pushing this paradigm way far forward, even as we are not very good at maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships, or being in good physical health, or a lot of other things that are core and essential to human wellness, and happiness, and longevity. You know, for me the more intricate questions about the interrelationships between these different technologies in the context of pushing forward consumer products, it’s sort of doubling down on something that we’ve probably put too much into in the first place. We are really missing some balance in terms of looking at the holistic self and striving toward a better version of humanity. We just continue to strive toward a more sort of digitally erect manifestation of humanity. I think we’re missing some key facets along the way.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s an interesting take. Yeah. As we become more digitized and tech-affluent, the ability to sort of balance out all of the social factors that you described there are … You’re right, we don’t have a very good way of balancing that and enabling people to have both online and offline lives that are sort of well-integrated.
The last point I wanted to make on this trials and tribulations of early adoption is that there’s an interesting strategic opportunity here I think, especially for internet of things type consumer companies in that the relationships that you’re establishing as an IoT consumer company with your audience are now these sort of continuous relationships. I have a relationship with Amazon that is extended through my Echo device that is this continuous feedback loop now, whether it’s stuff I’m ordering, or things I’m listening to, or what have you. If you think about how that is true for a variety of products in the home, for instance, your home entertainment, or your washing machine, or whatever else it is that you’re going to be connecting, this continuous feedback is a very different sort of relationship than sort of the one-and-done product design, and creation, and purchase cycle that we’re used to in the past.
I think there is a need for a strategic understanding of the early adopter in a company’s innovation cycle now, almost as if it’s not just a sort of user-centered design, or getting users involved in the design process, or even in getting feedback around it. But it’s this continuous relationship that is only just beginning between companies and early adopters, and eventually fast followers and sort of the masses of people. But it’s an interesting trend as these relationships become deepened that I don’t know frankly if I’m ready for any of that, and I’m sort of into the Echo early adoption almost by mistake, because it’s just sort of there, and I love music, and whatever. Seems to work. I do think that from a design perspective we have this strategic opportunity now to relate to companies via these products. That needs to be tapped into and better cultivated. What the output is of that, I’m not sure yet, but I know that the value is there for being part of an early adoption cycle. Dirk, I’m almost certain that this kind of relationship with a company would be entirely unappealing to you, but what’s your take on that relationship?
Well, then it really depends on what the compensation model looks like, right?
The current compensation model is, “Early adopter pay a lot of money and fight and struggle with our crap, and we’ll make more profits and better stuff so that other people get it right out of the box.” If that is the continuing compensation model, I have less than zero interest. You’re correct. However, if there is a comp model and if there is a product or a development process that is striving to output something that I would value, that I see not just as something that’s cool and maybe interesting, but something that I’m really passionate about, and excited about, and think can make the world better, or make my life better in really tangible ways, if I’m not just a mule who’s being used for free labor, if there’s some sort of a reciprocity there, I’d love to be involved because I know that I have insight and ability in helping to improve products in general, along with a lot of experience. If there’s a way that I can be incentivized to contribute some of that in the context of this broader process, yeah, I’d be open to it.
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You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 219 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.