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How to Avoid the Tech Hype Trap

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Dec 16 2019

Believe it or not, KITT the talking car on Knight Rider had some real-life counterparts in the 1980s. They may not have had grappling hooks or turbo boosters, but for a short time, talking cars were trendy. Almost out of gas? Don't look at the fuel gauge; the car can tell you you’re low on fuel. Forget to buckle up? No need for that annoying dinging sound—the car just asks you politely to buckle your seat belt.

Unsurprisingly, this trend didn’t last long. Car companies gave up the schtick and went back to traditional approaches to notification. But the story of talking cars in the 1980s speaks to a classic move in industry: Companies are often eager to find a way to use the hottest technology, even if it’s not a fit for their team, their business model, or the problem they're trying to solve. It's a classic case of FOMO.

As designers committed to a human centered approach to developing new products and services, we look at things a little differently. We start by uncovering a need—for example, helping tired drivers stay awake and alert while at the wheel—and then search for the right technology to solve the problem. We relish the opportunity to take a journey away from the "tech hype" landscape and explore what problems, challenges, or needs the desired tech may help address. It’s about focusing on the people behind the problem before finding the right technological approach.

How, exactly, do we get ourselves in that mindset? We tapped our design research colleagues in our Cambridge and Chicago studios for their best tips on cutting through the tech hype. Here are three distinct strategies for a technology detox at the start of a project.

1. Start by taking the tech apart and exploring the value proposition, then make decisions

Design researcher Hannah Rosenfeld worked on a project where she had to dive into a potentially-disruptive, blockchain-based technology that could have serious applications in the fintech space. For some products, it was the perfect fit. She needed to figure out, though, if it was the right fit for what she was working on.

Throwing an existing, well-formed product that uses the tech in front of her team might have shifted the customer focus away from the big picture toward feedback about functionality and usability, questions that matter on the latter end of product development. Instead, she and her team unpacked the functional and emotional benefits of the technology—what blockchain could unlock for customers or allow them to do that they couldn’t before—and used these as the basis for their exploration. From there, she was able to develop early stage prototypes she could put in front of customers to test the resonance of potential benefits rather than the appeal of an ill-understood technology.

In doing so, Hannah was able to highlight for her clients the potential impact and inherent limits of the current technology as well as make recommendations for how they could evolve their offer to align with real world challenges.

2. Try on a few different options to find the right fit before committing

When a team from the Cambridge studio was working on a project to create an immersive, digital experience for a new flagship retail store, they needed to dive into the role tech would play.

To explore this question, Gabe adopted a Goldilocks approach, taking the team on an inspiration trip to three museums, each with contrasting approaches to using technology: a cautious museum that sticks to straightforward displays of content in the museum and online; a lavish techno-fantasy museum with touch screens in every corner; and museum with a more careful balance where physical artifacts are brought to life with additional layers of digital content.

From the museum with the more cautious approach, the team learned about its core values, and how it carefully leveraged digital technology by offering online access to its archives for audiences that might not otherwise come to the museum. At the tech-heavy museum, we saw best-in-class interfaces that were great at engaging one visitor at a time, but missed out on opportunities to connect people in shared activities. And at the museum that created a balanced approach to digital and analog displays, we saw how stories projected onto artifacts added a layer of depth to what we learned.

By taking the Goldilocks approach, Gabe and the team generated a shared set of design principles that articulated the role digital technology should play in their store and how it would be used strategically to tell the story of the brand.

3. Think of fantastical means to address concrete needs

When former IDEO design researcher Ovetta Sampson was working on a project about technology-enabled cabinets, her first question was, what human need would this technology serve? She could have started by having her team prototype a few different kinds of tech-enabled cabinets, but she needed to answer the question above first.

Short on time, Ovetta framed a brainstorming session around literature from cognitive scientific research and fantasy novels. She used the Max-Neef Fundamental Human Needs Scale, a human development matrix, to ground the team. Starting with a human need like freedom or identity, she asked team members to add a magical action to real-life objects to help focus on how it could meet a human need or motivation.

The team was inspired by fantasy novels where characters have magic objects that help them accomplish tasks (think Dorothy’s red slippers sending her home in The Wizard of Oz). By pairing research about real needs with a fantastical vision for how to address those needs, Ovetta and her team gave themselves the flexibility to dream up big technological solutions while staying grounded in the reality of human needs and motivations.

Businesses will always feel the pressure to maintain a competitive edge, and the allure of new technology will often present itself as the solution to staying ahead of the curve. Sharpening our skills as advocates and practitioners of human-centered design—and making sure we put user needs first—is critical. Whether you’re partnering with a client, or taking on a project of your own, resist the FOMO of new, shiny technology. Start with user needs, then search for the right solution. Shift the conversation from tech-first to humans-first.

Special thanks to IDEO alumna Ovetta Sampson, who contributed to this article. Illustrations by Katie Kirk.

  • Gabriel Mugar

    Design Researcher, IDEO Cambridge
    Gabriel is a design researcher at IDEO Cambridge. He is most excited about working with communities and organizations to design opportunities for learning, collaboration, and storytelling.
  • Hannah Rosenfeld

    Senior Design Researcher, IDEO Cambridge
    As a senior design researcher, Hannah puts her innate curiosity, love for people and creative problem solving skills to work transforming compelling human stories into impactful solutions for (and with) her clients.
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