Every year, a new slew of gadgets promises to solve all of our problems. Manufactures are constantly adding more features in hopes of getting us to upgrade. I’ve managed technology for an institution that had a large “gadget budget”. Employees were able to request pretty much anything they wanted as long as there was a slight chance that it might in some way make them more effective at their jobs.
I noticed that some people seemed to use the technology very well and it seemed to make a big difference in their productivity. On the other hand, there was another group of people who never seemed to get much of a benefit out of their tools. What was odd, is that the ineffective group usually had newer, faster, shinier, more feature rich gadgets than the effective group.
Over time, I began to see that the difference between the two groups was fundamentally about how they approached technology. One group would spend time thinking about how they, personally, worked and what areas were slowing them down. When they came to talk to me, they usually had a very good definition of the problems that they were looking for technology to solve. We would sit down and find a more effective way of accomplishing their current activities. Sometimes it involved a new PDA or piece of software, but often it involved learning how to use a feature of something that they already had.
A typical email from someone in this group:
I’m having trouble keeping contacts both in Outlook with on my cell phone. I’ve been setting aside a few minutes every morning to make sure they are up to date, but invariably I end up missing an important contact that I need when I’m on the road or that my assistant needs when I’m out off the office. Is there anything we can do to make this work smoother?
The second group generally spent more time at Best Buy looking over the latest PDA’s and cell phones. They also tended to talk with friends to find out what they were using. They would find out about a new feature and imagine ways that they could use it in their work. They would usually approach me looking for a specific device so they could do something that they weren’t currently doing.
I was talking to Ted from XYZ Corp. the other day and he showed me his new Z9000 digital personal assistant. He had some pictures of his kids at a ball game on it that he could show as a slide shows. I was thinking I could really use this when making sales calls because I could scan in product photos to show clients instead of just describing it to them. Can you get a Z9000 for me?
If we buy Bill a Z9000 and get Joey setup with some type of automatic synchronization system they will both be very happy. Bill will scan in photos each week and put them on his new PDA. Joey will keep his phone synced with Outlook. Everyone is happy right? Yes, but revisit in two months and you will find that Joey is still using the syncing software, but Bill has stopped putting photos on his PDA.
Why is this? Weren’t they both happy with the solutions? Yes, but there is a fundamental difference in how they both approached technology. Joey wanted a solution for something he was already doing. He had a system in place that he was using, but he was looking for a way to make it better. Bill had found a way to use technology for something he wasn’t already doing. Joey had started with a problem while Bill had started with a feature on a gadget.
When Bill heard about the Z9000 he imagined having it. He imagined pulling it out of his pocket and showing it to people. He imagined how using it would make him a super salesman. He imagined ways that he could use each one of the features. He imagined how much better his sales presentations would be if he could show photos on his Z9000. In effect Bill found a solution and created a problem to solve. Joey found a problem and then located a solution. Joey is already in the habit of syncing his contacts manually. His solution just requires him to do what he did before, but in a way that is more efficient. Bill’s solution requires him to learn a new habit, so it doesn’t actually save him any time. He is now doing something that he wasn’t doing before.
There are times where learning a new habit is the perfect solution to a problem. However, if you find yourself starting with a solution or product feature and working back to a problem, it is a good indication that you aren’t going to end up with something that increases your productivity.
This article was originally published on 9/20/2005 on www.productivity501.com.
David Hoelscher says
That’s a pretty good distinction you’ve made. It can be subtle, but in general it seems like a pretty good way to gauge buying decisions. It can be diffcult to decide if you haven’t fully defined the problem. For example, Joey may have been just fine with manually updating his cell phone because he didn’t know alternatives existed. But then he sees a friend using automatic syncing softwarwe, and he recognizes that he could use it as well. In that case, he wanted a feature and “worked back to a problem”, but it seems likely that he will benefit equally well, and have long-term sustained use of the solution.
I would say that if someone expresses a problem and looks for a solution, it would signal a definite benefit from finding said solution. Finding a problem from a solution can make you more productive, it cannot do so with nearly as much certainty as the problem->solution path.
I really like your distinction. I’d say that there is a 3rd group, albiet a rare 3rd. This group is going along fine and dandy, not knowing they have a problem. A friend proposes a deal to buy/get a solution that they had never thought about. They do it and it makes their life so much easier! They weren’t like either guy, but a sort of mix between them.
This happened to me. I was taking my computer everywhere because I couldn’t stand to be without my info (cal, etc). A friend of mine offered me a deal on a treo so I got one. it has truely changed my life.
This post was excellent.
I think this is also an excellent thing to do when you are ready to make a new purchase of any kind. Think of the things that you need first, and then find the product that meets those needs. It doesn’t matter how many features a product has if it doesn’t solve your core needs.
As a Professional Organizer, I often find a lot of people in the second group-they also want to be the first ones to have a new product. Ironically, they aren’t always the best technology users.
I think everyone can always use the benefit of learning more efficient ways to use technology, myself included.
David M. Brown says
There’s still an open question about the second user, who started with a feature and “created” his problem. He thought it would be helpful to be able to display product pics to his clients. Well, is it? The “decline” in productivity may end up being a net gain if he can find a way to do the new chore efficiently. I’m sure that as a technology user I’ve often fallen into both categories — finding a way to do a current task more efficiently, and realizing there’s a solution to a problem I didn’t know I had. The real issue is whether it’s all that important to solve the problem you didn’t know you had.
Mark Shead says
@David – You are correct that sometimes technology helps us find new things that add value. However, most of the time when people create a problem in order to justify buying technology, any benefit is going to be short lived.
David M. Brown says
It’s true that one can buy stuff like a kid finding new toys, without real thought to bottom line productivity gains. But that didn’t quite seem to be the distinction made in the examples given.
Whether creating/identifying a problem is counterprodutive depends on how one defines what one is doing and whether the technology fosters it or just turns out to be a plaything. That can’t always be known in advance. When I was using a typewriter and carbon paper, the advance was from manual to electric to electronic. Then electronic to electronic+monitor. One question is: How can I use a typewriter more efficiently? Buying a PC does not help me with that question at all. But if the question is: How can I be a more productive writer?–it’s obvious the PC helps. It also helps solve problems I didn’t know I had or would have, like how to surf the Internet, and how to surf the Internet without being assailed by viruses.
Surfing the net wasn’t something I was “already doing” with my typewriter. Looking for information relevant to my chores and pastimes was something I was already doing, of course. Bill wasn’t already carrying around electronic pix of his products.But he was already trying to inspire enthusiasm in his products and make sales. You’re onto something about more purposeful and less purposeful ways of considering technology. But I think finding problems, or questions we hadn’t thought to ask, is one one of the essential things creative and productive people do.
I’ve got a slightly different slant on this.
If you’ve ever watched the TV program The Woodwright’s Shop, you’ll be amazed to watch what can be done with the simplest tools handled skilfully. I once watched him take a very sharp axe and a log and create a chair.
On the other hand, there are people with a shop full of expensive power tools who cannot construct a well made box.
My point is, some people take the time and effort to master a simple set of versatile tools and can accomplish more with these simple tools than others with much more elaborate tools.
I was reading the article and I was surprised someone else had the same impression I always had: “the inffecective group usually have a better gadget”. I first noticed that when I started working for a computer company over 10 years ago. Some customers would buy the best computers, get the fastest internet service, the best printers, and they never knew how to use them properly.
On the other hand, there were some customers that would buy not so fancy equipments but were able to do “miracles” with what they had.
I loved that you shared this impression!
Also, it was very true the analysis about Joey and Bill. I still meet people who buy solutions but not really knowing how to use them and most of the times, some sort of change (small or big) is necessary and the user never considers that, even though this change will become a habit.
Mark Shead says
“The ineffective group usually has a better gadget” is a good way to put it.
People who are effectively using their tools usually don’t have enough time to go out shopping for new “toys”.
I couldn’t have said it better. It’s all about holding the latest and coolest gadget, not how efficient it is at improving your productivity.
Martin Baundo says
I think that those people who are illerate to computer literacy must gte help from those who are literate.