Posted by: structureofnews | October 3, 2010

Adapting Technology to Us, and Vice Versa

Or, more precisely, how we adapt technology to our needs, and how technology changes us as well.

This video, of an artist using the iPad as a canvas, is a great example of how new technologies can enable us to do all sorts of unexpected things.  And that it’s an important thing to bear in mind as we peer into our crystal balls and try to create new types of news products for a fast-adapting public on fast-changing platforms.

There are other examples here of how people are adapting to the iPad/adapting the iPad to them.  Which is impressive when you consider this is a device that’s only months old.  And that it’s a reminder that, whatever we believe about how we’ll interact with it – or any other device – we’ll only really know when it happens.   Actual behavior trumps logic and prediction every time.

Remember the Apple Newton?  It didn’t change us very much, although there was much hype at the time; the Palm was a big step forward, but never seemed to get huge traction.   The Walkman changed some of the ways we listened to music, making it a much more personal affair (remember boomboxes?)  The iPhone and the iPod touch, with a switch to an app-centric model of computing, may yet change the way we interact with computer programs.   Blackberries changed how millions of businesspeople spent their free time – eyes glued down, chained to emails, and in many ways sped up the pace we do business.   Some of this could have been foreseen before the product came out; some could not.

The broader point is that we adapt to our environment, and these days that often means new technology and software.   We use them for purposes they were never designed for, and they change us in unexpected ways.  I read a book a long time ago, “When Things Bite Back,” about the unintended consequences of new technologies.  It has a darker vision that I’m raising here, but the gist is the same – we adjust to technologies as much as they adjust to us.

So what does this mean from a new news product point of view – beyond suggesting that we don’t really know how customers will respond to our new offering until we show it to them, regardless of what the market research shows?  Only that we shouldn’t bet the farm on logic and predictions; the ideal way to move ahead in an environment where things seem to be changing rapidly is to take small, quick steps, gauge reaction, iterate and try again. Rinse and repeat.

It’s less the grand vision that will get us ahead but how fast we adapt and learn from our mistakes.



  1. I completely believe in the incremental step-by-step approach to new products, whatever they maybe – though it doesn’t remove the need for doing as much planning as you can upfront to make sure you have laid a solid foundation to iterate from.

    But there are a couple of important corollaries to this approach.

    1. If you are in a mainstream media organization, then chances are that your technology will not allow this. Too many proprietary systems, too many interlocking systems, too much infrastructure.

    2. If you build from a relatively flexible base, then you will need a group of content people (we might even call them editors) who need to understand the limitations on the base. There will be some limitations. And have a clear set of hypotheses about what they expect to happen when they make a change.

    3. Looking at the commercial side, if you are aiming for some sort of commercial sustainability then you will need more than a break-even situation. You will need to generate some R&D investment capital as well.

    4. You will need to constantly watch the metrics on anything new, to see whether the movement you expected is what happened or did something completely unexpected take place – or did nothing take place.

  2. I still tend to think that market researches do help, even though the current situation is often that new platforms are ahead of our strategies. At least they help predict sometimes.

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