The key to Innovation is Usability

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As a Gen X-er, I am part of the last generation who remembers rotary phones, black and white television sets and manual typewriters. The last century saw the greatest acceleration in terms of technological advances. However, when you try to understand how new technology typically gets adopted, you start to realize that science and technical progress are often only part of the answer.

Innovations see various types of adoption curves that may be attributed to different factors. Take the telephone for example. Our grandparents probably still remember having to go through an operator to make any call, and sometimes wait for 15 minutes before being connected to their cousin on the other end of the planet. What prevented them from being connected directly was mainly due to non-availability of technology as it took a few decades before the advent of automated exchanges that now allows us to be connected to anyone in a matter of seconds. In this case, there was little resistance from users as usability and convenience far outweighed the costs of using human operators.

Fast forward a few decades. Before I was born, my mother was working as a stenographer-typist. She went to school to learn shorthand writing (stenography) and to type at speeds upward of 60-70 words per minute. At her time, commercial typewriters had been on the market for some time, so we might wonder why there was still a need for such skilled people when pretty much all knowledge workers had access to typewriters. This is a perfect example of innovation that experienced resistance, not because of technology, but because of usability. In fact, it seems pretty obvious that the time and effort it took an average person to type a letter on a commercial typewriter at the time was still a barrier. It was definitely way too costly (read time-consuming) for executives to do it themselves. Even the latest electronic typewriters of the late 70s needed extra care and time to swap the consumables (tapes, ribbons, discs, etc). To that, you need to add the investment in time and skills that were necessary to type documents. It is only with the introduction of Personal Computers and word processing software that typing became a mainstream activity for white collars, and that we saw less of a need for skilled stenographers and typists like my mother.

With the advent of document scanning and capture technologies, most organizations have been able to transition to digital mailrooms and in-house scanning operations to process the growing volume of their documents. Advanced capture technologies have also allowed organizations to reduce the staff required to handle and process those documents. We are still far from a paper-free world but organizations have been encouraging their constituents (employees, customers, and partners) to increasingly interact with them electronically. We all know that the technology is there for people to go digital, so what is the barrier to adoption?

Similarly, tablet PCs have been around for more than a decade (remember the defunct Newton?) So why did it take 15 years for users to massively adopt the iPad? One word: usability (and a heavy dose of marketing from Apple to support it didn’t hurt either!)

Organizations, both public and private, are starting to release highly innovative applications to their employees, customers and partners that allow them to reduce costs and gain a competitive edge. Will you wait for your competition to jump at the chance to get ahead of you?

by Shadrach White