Inattention deficit disorder

In his series of blog posts about why context matters, Jamie Smith writes:

I believe that personalisation goes wrong when no one’s asking about the customer’s context, or no one’s listening. It’s being sent a ‘targeted’ advert for a car, not knowing you just joined a car club. It’s being recommended a book on Amazon based on your shopping history, not knowing you actually hate the author (your previous purchase was for a friend). It’s being sent coupons for pregnancy products based on your shopping history, when you haven’t yet told your family you are expecting a baby.

The best reason I can think of as to why context matters is that the highest aspiration of technology is to recede into the fabric of life.  Companies competing for our attention will soon find that we value much more those who compete for our inattention.  Philips made a really cool smart LED light bulb but it cannot be operated from the switch in the wall.  You must use an app to make it work.  The bulb is great but the implementation is exceedingly dumb.  At the very least, a new smart LED bulb should work exactly the same as a regular bulb because that’s how people know and expect to operate lighting.  What’re we supposed to do?  Duct-tape all our old iPhones to the wall next to a switch that has itself been duct-taped over?

What I proposed to the folks at Lifx (who have a smart LED bulb competing with Philips) is a wall switch based on a Decora momentary-contact rocker.  Rather than directly control power to the outlet, it sends on/off/dim signals to the bulb.  In its default state, this combination of switch and controller directly replaces the old bulb and switch.  The bulb still needs a controller to send operational signals, but in this case that controller is in a form factor that users understand naturally and intuitively – a wall switch.  In this implementation the bulb and controller-disguised-as-switch both recede invisibly into the fabric of life – until and unless you deliberately tell it to do something else.  On Day One it requires no learning curve or otherwise competes for your attention.  When you specifically want to expose the advanced functions, you still have the app on the phone.  Anyone visiting the home can operate the lights without special training or equipment.  It is entirely possible a visitor could stay with you for a week and never even know the color of the bulb is changeable.

When people have a choice between the product that competes for, requires for its basic operation, an increasing share their attention versus an equivalent product that aspires to become invisible and whose use is natural and intuitive, guess which one they are going to want?

There is also a scalability issue.  When you compete for attention you can get too much of it.  We’ve all heard the stories about people who are addicted to online games, porn, gambling and so on. These businesses in the ultimate expression of success in their business model are parasitic, devastating the lives of their most passionate customers. So how much of my attention is too much to ask for?  Will you as my vendor ever intentionally decide you have enough of it?  Does that answer change if a competitor still has a share?  Attention is a zero-sum game and the only basis on which to compete for it is to risk gaining too much and becoming parasitic to your own customers.

Compete for inattention and your market scales much better.  The first electric motors were envisioned to directly replace the steam engines of the day.  The first proposed consumer use was a big motor outside the home transferring motive power to appliances using belts and pulleys.  Today we are surrounded by miniature electronic motors everywhere.  They are in disk drives, watches, fans, printers, vacuum cleaners, shavers, you name it.  We know they are there but only if we stop to think about it.  In the ultimate expression of success in this business model, you never experience the motor.  It is an invisible component embedded in a device.  What you care about is the device itself and the function it performs.

At its best, mass personalization aspires to also be invisible.  That absolutely requires context, and it requires pull.  Rather than figuring out where I am and hosing me down with spam, give my devices the means to figure out where I am, the means for me to express preferences, and have the device request things on my behalf based on that context rather than push them at me.  Not only will I not be sent a coffee coupon while speeding past the bistro in a train, my device will know I don’t drink coffee and not request one.  Rather than having advertisers pay to reach me, have them instead pay into a pool from which I draw when I select the ads I’m willing to see.  If I want an ad-free experience, I get no credits against my monthly bill.  If I set up preferences to accept ads, the credit for the ones I view and use goes to my monthly bill.  The technology recedes into the fabric of my life, the only exceptions being that things I personally value show up only in contexts where and when I care about them.

The problem with marketing and product design today is too much competition for attention and not enough competition for inattention.  Marketing suffers from inattention deficit disorder.

Bottom line: Attention is finite.  Compete for it at your peril.  Inattention is infinite.  Capitalize on that and the possibilities are endless.

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