Roadblocks on the Information HighwayLast time, in the inaugural issue of this column, I provided an overview of what we call the Technology Gap — the gap that exists between the rate of technology innovation and the rate at which consumers are adopting technology. I also talked about some of the potential causes of the Technology Gap, which were identified by the AMD Global Consumer Advisory Board (GCAB), including:
- a lack of relevance of some technology products
- issues with trust
- problems with systemic alignment
- socio-economic factors
- complexities associated with technology
In this, the second installment of the column, I want to explore this last factor--the issue of technology complexity and the need for simplicity--referencing a groundbreaking AMD GCAB study that’s just been released. The research is the first, to my knowledge, to quantify the impact of technology terminology, complexity and confusion on technology adoption.
How deep goes the rabbit hole of technology complexity?
We’ve all been there. You want to buy a high-technology product, maybe a PDA, a PC or a digital camera. But where to start? Chances are you’re facing--at least initially--a bewildering array of acronyms and confusing terms routinely used to describe the product. It’s as if there’s a foreign language that everyone speaks but you. Pull out a Sunday circular in any major newspaper from a retailer that sells these types of products to see what I’m talking about. Terms such as “Bluetooth,” “WAP,” “SMS,” or “Wi-Fi” appear frequently in these types of communication and on Web sites. But who understands them? In the United States alone, the high-tech industry spends over $10 billion dollars annually advertising their products. We wondered: how much of that communication is missing the mark?
To better understand the extent of this issue, the GCAB’s Simplicity & Complexity Committee fielded the first-ever “Technology Terminology and Complexity Study.” The committee members include: Jim Blasingame, creator and host of the U.S. nationally syndicated, weekday radio/Internet talk show, “The Small Business Advocate;” Mark Boleat, United Kingdom consumer policy and business representation consultant and a board member of the National Consumer Council (NCC); Dr. William Halal, professor of management at George Washington University; and Dr. Barry Wellman, sociology professor at the University of Toronto and the director of the University’s NetLab.
The results of the study indicate that the technology industry scores a failing grade on communicating about their products to the consumer community and that a “clean up” of the technology vocabulary is in order to help bridge the gap between technology innovation and consumer adoption. Rather than making it easier for consumers to purchase technology products, the confusing, complex terminology of the technology industry is actually having the opposite effect.
Here’s what we found
Essentially, we gave a technology literacy test – like a vocabulary quiz – to more than 1,500 consumers in China, Japan, the United Kingdom and the U.S., to see how well potential buyers understand the language of consumer technology, and how a lack of familiarity with the technology lexicon might impact their plans to purchase certain types of products.
We hypothesized that consumers delay the adoption of many technology products and services because they believe that technology is intimidating, confusing and more complex than it ought to be. And, our research study indeed confirmed this hypothesis.
For instance, we found that the terms technology marketers regularly use to describe and advertise their products are not well understood by consumers across the board. Despite all the money being spent by technology companies advertising and marketing to consumer audiences, only three percent of our test-takers achieved a perfect score – identifying all technology terms correctly.
We also found that only slightly more than half (65%) of those taking the quiz could correctly identify the definition of “megahertz” from a lineup of three possible answers. It didn’t seem to matter whether respondents were experienced home PC users either. This is particularly interesting, as a vast majority of PC advertisements include the word “megahertz.”
These results also point to the notion that the technology industry has created a language barrier that may be contributing — in a big way — to consumer delay of technology product purchases. We found that, on the whole, our “less knowledgeable” respondents who scored the lowest on the technology terminology test (those who got six or less terms correct) are the most likely to delay the purchase of a variety of technologies.
What’s more, not only are consumers confused about technology terminology, they also consider certain technology products “complicated.” And this perception that consumer technologies are complicated prevents people from purchasing new technologies — also a big contributor to the Technology Gap.
For example, we found that PDAs — perceived by many to be a current “hot” technology product — seem to have a troubled road ahead, as a large portion of even the most proficient consumers (those that got more than seven terms correct) — a startling 40 percent — indicate that they would delay their purchase of a PDA because they think the technology is too complicated.
And, new technologies, such as the digital camera and PDA — ranking #1 and tied for #2 respectively as most complicated products — are not the only types of products users perceive as complicated. Also noteworthy: the home PC, something many of us in the technology industry take for granted as the “granddaddy” of all consumer technology products, ties for #2 with the PDA in the ranking of complicated products.
Our study results also showed that mobile phones are perceived to be one of the least confusing technology products. We hypothesize this may be because cell phones are largely an extension of an existing technology ingrained in everyday life — the regular telephone.
However, given what we’ve seen of consumer reticence to adopt complicated high-tech products such as digital cameras and PDAs, consider what might happen as mobile phone manufacturers incorporate these potentially confusing functionalities into their phones. . . .
And, finally, our study showed perceptions that consumer technologies are complicated — and that these perceptions are tied to purchase delays — are widespread. A large proportion (more than 40 percent) of consumers who delay their purchases of complicated technology products say, for example, that the Internet and computers are confusing to use. The study indicates that more than 60 percent of consumers wish to have things just work and do not want to spend time setting them up. And, nearly half of our survey respondents say they don’t want to purchase anything they consider too complicated to set up.
Wait a minute. . . you’re with AMD. What are you going to do about it?
By now you might be saying to yourself, “Pat, you’re with AMD, a high-tech company. Aren’t you part of the problem? What are you guys going to do about it?”
The short answer is that we all have to do something about it. We’re all in this together. Clearly, the high-tech industry isn’t getting the full value of their marketing dollars when, for example, more than a third of the consumers we spoke with don’t understand the term “megahertz” — which, as stated earlier, is used in a vast majority of PC advertisements.
For now, the AMD GCAB is simply trying to shine a spotlight on this important issue. And judging by the response from the media and the high-tech community to our study results, we’ve apparently struck a chord. (This topic was the #1 thread in a leading high-tech chat Web site, with over 900 entries in the six-hour period after we released our study results!) For now, our study has helped quantify the scope of this problem a little more fully and, we hope, motivated those involved to examine this issue more closely.
Bottom line is the technology industry must simplify its vocabulary so that consumers around the world can better understand the benefits technology can bring to their lives. In coming installments of this column, I’ll talk more about some prescriptive actions the industry can take to help consumers.
In the meantime, you can find the detailed results of the GCAB Committee’s study online and can take the survey yourself to see how you compare with our study’s respondents. http://www.amdgcab.org/Or, feel free to respond to these thoughts via e-mail at: email@example.com.