Remember scooters? Only last year every child in America (and much of rest of the world) had to have one. But today? Who cares?
Scooters have gone the way of yo-yos and hula hoops and countless other trends. But while they lasted, they sold in the millions and dominated the consumer market.
"What is it that makes something get momentum and become a big consumer hit?" asks HP Labs researcher Jo Reid. Reid and her colleagues in Bristol, UK have been trying to find out.
A formula for popularity?
It's a question of particular interest to technology companies that sell to consumers. Do people buy products because they are technically the newest and the best, or are they driven by other factors -- factors that might result in a technically inferior product becoming more popular?
That's an important question for a corporate research lab, too. If, as Jo Reid suspects, "technology may not always be the leader for consumer technology products," then the question is, "what is the role of the Lab on the consumer side? Where could the lab add value?"
The team decided to look at the area of "experience," based on a concept espoused by consultants B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore in their book, "The Experience Economy." In an experience economy, goods and services are not enough, the authors argue. Consumers want -- and will pay more for -- experiences.
Reid cites as an example the coffee chain Starbucks, where people will pay more than they'd pay elsewhere for a cup of coffee because they are getting a pleasant experience as well as the drink.
Making the everyday extraordinary
But how does this work when it comes to technology products? To find out, the team looked at technology that, from a research point of view, is considered uninteresting, and figure out how to turn it into a new experience.
What they created was Zap Scan, which incorporates technologies that are, in high-tech terms, positively ancient -- a scanner, a PC, a monitor and a printer.
With Zap Scan, a child (or anyone else) can draw a picture by hand and then use HP technology to scan the drawing and either see it posted to a public website or pay to have it made into a glossy greetings card.
Zap Scan a hit in local museum
After testing the idea in a couple of local schools, the team created a custom Zap Scan area for at-Bristol, the local children's science and technology center.
"The response from the parents and the kids was that 'wow, this was really wonderful,' " Reid says. It turned out that a lot of visitors (some 25% of all the people who scanned their drawings) were willing to pay £1.00 (about $1.50) to print a card.
a painting of the earth by a student that was scanned and printed using zap scan a watercolor of a sunset by a student that was scanned and printed using zap scan a picture of the moon by a student that was scanned and printed using zap scan
And yet they were using technologies that many of these families already had in their homes. So what made the difference?
More fun and more activity
The researchers determined that the answer lies in the careful way in which the experience was designed. Because a lot of the work was done for people, Zap Scan was more fun than scanning at home. But, crucially, the experience still gave them something to do.
"You're physically drawing and you lift the scanner and you bang the button," explains Reid. "You're moving around and interacting with different things."
So how will these insights alter the products that HP produces?
For one thing, this research may point to a way to give a new lease on life to aging technologies like scanning and printing.
Imagining how technologies will be used
And for new products, Reid says it could lead to new designs for digital products, because some elements of physicality are fun. Instead of taking all the work out of a task, researchers and designers may consider that customers sometimes may choose a product that gives a more satisfying experience over one that is technically more sophisticated.
Of course the team is not arguing that HP should stop innovating in the technical field. Rather, their research suggests how HP Labs can extend its innovation into imagining how its technologies will be used.
Some short-term opportunities, says Reid, could include something like HP Jornadas that are made of non-traditional materials, or printers that deliberately show their mechanics. Zap Scan could also provide insights into what e-services people are willing to pay for and what makes a consumer e-service most likely to succeed.
Thinking about 'experiences' and experimenting with 'dull' technology is new ground for HP Labs. And although we shouldn't expect this to result in HP selling the next yo-yo or scooter, it could give the company new ways to tap into and lead consumer trends.
by Simon Firth
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