It’s tempting to categorize technology users in terms of quantity: how much time they spend on line, how many devices they own and use. Research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests that this is not the best basis, though, for understanding how people approach a new tool, or what will make one innovation successful while another is not.

A Pew report released today indicates that only 8 per cent of U.S. residents are gadget-philic "omnivores," who "participate in cyberspace and express themselves online and do a range of Web 2.0 activities such as blogging." Four times as many — 33 per cent, overall — fall into groups described in terms such as "lackluster," "hassled," or entirely "off the network" with neither cellular phones nor Internet access.

What’s key in these results is that attitude toward technology is not strongly correlated with its use, or with other demographic variables such as education.

  • There are frequent users of technology who would just as soon not be burdened by their constant connectivity.
  • About 40 per cent of "omnivores" have college degrees, compared to only 7 per cent of the "Off the Network" group — but 41 per cent of the "hassled" and 42 per cent of the "lackluster" groups are also college graduates. Some smart people are willing to use their brainpower to untangle a counter-intuitive user interface, but others are smart enough to recognize and reject undisciplined design that wastes their time.

The Pew results remind me of admonitions in the widely-read marketing book, Positioning, whose authors Al Ries and Jack Trout urge us to "turn things inside out." They tell us that if we want to "communicate the advantages of…a product," we must "look for the solution…inside the prospect’s mind" and "concentrate on the perceptions of the prospect. Not the reality of the product… You must start with what the prospect is willing to give you." It just doesn’t work to say, "I know that this is complicated, but trust me, it’s worth the effort to learn it." The value has to be clear up front.

Every developer is, in a very real sense, a marketer. The moment when a prospective user first encounters an application is a moment of either engagement or discouragement: it’s utterly pointless to resent the user’s failure to drill through difficulty or confusion in search of merely promised value.

Not every user will see a room full of manure and infer that "there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere."

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