Technology and (the Lack of) User Value

About a year ago Mark Zuckerberg released a video clip about the result of his personal challenge of 2016: Jarvis, a simple AI to control his home.

Back in December 2016 this was cutting edge technology: a smart home assistant you could talk to or chat with. It was able to play music, inform Zuckerberg about events, recognize faces, and control household applicants, of course.

(There is also a writeup about how he built Jarvis which is a good read.)

But from todays point of view Jarvis is not even above average anymore. With Alexa voice interfaces became mainstream. She can do most of the things Jarvis could right of the box. (Yes, yes, she does not have Morgan Freemans’s voice, I give you that.)

And if you want to improve Alexa to match and supersede Jarvis’s feature set, you can also do that quite easily. It took Zuckerberg about 100 hours to build Jarvis. You would need significantly less time – even if you are not a programmer. Yes, the nerd barrier, which is shielding access to these technologies, is crumbling.

Today, it’s about picking the service and the provider you like best (Amazon, Google, Microsoft, IBM) and no longer about finding out to implement these things.

You can, for example, use Node-RED to introduce new devices or skills to Alexa. You can build a chatbot with it, which I did to remote control a Raspberry Pi. (I‘ll  blog about it some other time.)

If you want to play with face recognition, you could use the AWS Rekognition service. It allows you to do scary things like these with a few lines of code:

But even though the technology is there, and it has become this easy to implement your own ideas, the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart home are still of little relevance to „normal“ people. Why is that?

I think the answer is pretty straightforward: Technology is not an end in itself, only a means to an end. New products and services will be regarded useless if they don’t fulfill and address a specific user need. Technology needs strong partners.

“Human-centered development requires three equal partners, three legs to the triad of product development: technology, marketing, and user experience. All three legs provide necessary and complementary strengths. Weaken one leg and the product falls. The three legs stand upon the foundation of the business case and support the product itself. Weaken the foundation of sound business practices and the company may not succeed. And finally, the product must be appropriate for its position in the technology life cycle. An emphasis on technology is inappropriate for products in the consumer cycle of a technology.”

Don Norman – The Invisible Computer, 1998


(If the quote sounds vaguely familiar, the Design Thinking community „borrowed“ the idea and made it popular as a venn diagramm, BTW.)

That a technology-only focus is not enough, is easy to forget, because playing with new things is fun, and is easy to rationalize: „Hey. Let’s look at the early adopters, they’ll understand our great new technology.“
Yeah, right.

It’s also the easy way out, because companies are usually good at developing technology. They do R&D and there’ll always be a market for something new, so they think. But often the users and their needs are only regarded in hindsight.

Yes, focussing on users before focussing on technology is uncomfortable and hard. Their mundane problems might not need fancy technology and they will ask these horrid „why?“ questions when you show them new stuff.

But if you move that task to the end of the process, or neglect it altogether, you might have created new stuff that answers no one’s questions. And then you need to run ad campaigns to sell the concept idea. Take this one for example:

When you are busy in the kitchen and have your hands full, the first thing that comes to your mind is a smartphone app.
Probably not.

P.S.: And I am not singling out Bosch. You find the same lack of value proposition from all the other Smarthome players as well – E.ON, Telekom, AVM, you name it.