4 Hard Lessons for Older Adopters of New Technology

Whenever a person unfamiliar with modern technologies decides to jump in and adopt, there are a number of hurdles to be overcome. The difference between current technologies and older, non-digital (or non-software-based) equivalents (if comparisons even exist) can be difficult to grasp for the older adopter. The challenge is not insurmountable, but older adopters of new technologies aren’t always prepared for what lies ahead. Current technologies aren’t produced, marketed, sold, or supported like technologies were 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Cultural assumptions for technology knowledge and usage are radically different, as well.

So with the holiday giving season upon us, a time during which many younger users will gift new technology to those older, I’d like to highlight four difficult lessons such new adopters will often learn the hard way:

1. A baseline understanding of technology is presumed.

No manufacturer wants to explain software, menus, battery chargers, etc. anymore. If you don’t know those concepts already, you apparently missed out. From support persons to salespersons, all will assume you have some benchmark amount of technology knowledge. When they realize you don’t, they may or may not take the time to try to help you.

2. Learning to use the technology is your responsibility.

Gone are the days of extensive help manuals and manufacturer-supplied training with every product purchase. It is assumed you either know how to the use the product already, will figure it out on your own, or will, at your own initiative, find some source for educating yourself.

3. Less than perfect performance is acceptable.

A technology or device may not perform perfectly as advertised. This is a culturally acceptable — often expected — tradeoff for the modern consumer’s ability to access and acquire rapidly evolving technologies. Gone are the days of a product performing perfectly — with quality, accuracy, and consistency — with the only exception being when it is struck by lightning. Your PC software will have bugs. Your digital camera’s fancy autofocus system won’t always work as billed. Your GPS will not necessarily help get you to your intended destination. Glitches, bugs, crashes, and performance anomalies are routine. It’s part of the technology experience. It happens. Reboot, retry, ignore, live with, go on.

4. You must support yourself.

In addition to dealing with unintended performance problems, this includes managing your technology’s integration with other technologies and dealing with obsolescence issues that will approach much faster than you think they should. Note: the company, manufacturer, or vendor of your technology does not want to hear from you. They have made direct contact with a human being virtually impossible. It is assumed you will expend the effort to attempt solving any problems with their product, generally via vague, impersonal means like Web sites with “knowledge bases” and on-line “support” forums filled mostly with users as desperate as yourself. The salespersons at the point of purchase likely cannot help you either. They merely sell the stuff. Yes, you paid for the technology, and now you must “pay” again to support it with your own time, energy, and willpower in proportion to how badly you desire the technology to work for you. The rest of the world accepts this when it come to technology. You will have to also, or risk being left behind.

Now, I’m sure there are exceptions to these for some technologies out there. But do you agree with the above for most consumer-level technologies? What would you change or add?

Finally, if you’re planning to gift technology to an older adopter this holiday season, consider that you may also need to gift yourself in the form of support for that technology. (This is the rule in my family as it deals with older members: “If you gift it, you support it.”) If that’s not possible, consider preparing your gift recipient for the commitment involved with adopting a new technology, drawing from the above lessons as needed.

Happy Holidays!

UPDATE/ADDENDUM: After observing the marketplace for a bit longer, I’m adding two more lessons to this list:

 5. Your new gadget won’t work forever.

Compared to what older adaopters are used to, devices and their capabilities will be surpased, superceded, or obsoleted at an astonishing rate. Some are even designed to have an intentionally short life span. Manufacturers are no longer spending as much time to make older devices work with new technologies (backward compatibility). For the newcomer who wants to maintain capabilities, this mean being prepared to spend more money more often.

6. Many technologies are more than a once-and-done purchase.

With widespread connectivity and reliance on network services on the rise, purchasing digital capabilities isn’t like buying a stereo or desktop PC of yesteryear. For internet service or data packages on which many technologies rely, new adopters need to understand it’s not just the intial purchase but the on-going costs they need to be prepared to pay, just like a utility. In fact, many new technologies are effectively useless without network service of some kind. That service isn’t in the upfront cost. Budget accordingly.

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2 Responses to 4 Hard Lessons for Older Adopters of New Technology

  1. eksith says:

    It’s that initial hurdle that keeps people from enjoying technology.
    I don’t think it’s fair for the industry to completely bend over backwards to accomodate users completely alien to modern technology, but I do expect some leeway when it comes to usability. Not all users (even of the same generation) will react the same to… say… a user interface for example.

    That said, there are really no precedents for those who have been completely out of the loop to become early adopters, but I’m hopeful that will change in the future.

    We’re seeing a trend where technology molds to the user (as it should) and not the other (as it is/was). If that can continue then knowlege “of” the technology may be a moot point when it comes to adoption.

    You don’t have to know how it operates. It just does what you want.

  2. Ben K says:

    Agreed on all counts, eksith! I sure hope you’re right about future “intuitive usability” for “non-technical” early adopters. My concern is that the initial hurdle is continuing to grow in the meantime.

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