Technology affordances

I bought an iPod Shuffle before Christmas. I had actually planned to buy an iPod Nano, but when I walked into the Apple store, I compared the size of the two, and realized that the Shuffle was about one third the size. I like hearing albums in their entirety, but I decided to give the Shuffle a shot for exercise purposes (plus the fact that it was cheaper didn’t hurt).

The other influence was that part of the impetus for buying an iPod was to buy a bunch of songs from iTunes – there were a couple dozen songs I’d heard on the radio over the past few years which I liked, but not enough to buy a whole CD for. Since I was going to be downloading all of these single songs anyway, the Shuffle seemed to work for that – I could load it up with good individual songs from my collection and the iTunes songs, and have a mini-radio station.

What’s been interesting to me was just how quickly the technology affordances of the Shuffle changed my planned usage patterns. With my old Dell MP3 player, it was big and bulky enough that it didn’t really fit in a pocket, so I could really only take it along if I were carrying a bag or wearing a big jacket. The ridiculously small size of the Shuffle means that I no longer have to decide whether it’s worth bringing along music – I just toss it in my pocket or clip it to my shirt and go. I actually haven’t even used it yet for my original intent of jogging. However, I pretty much carry it with me wherever I go now. I’ll wear it while walking the streets or on the subway, and when I get to where I’m going, I wrap the earbuds around it and toss it in my pocket.

Also, the lack of choice on the Shuffle turns out to be a plus – when I’m heading out onto the street, I don’t have to choose what music I’m in the mood for. I just turn it on, and it starts playing music. It presents a very simple choice to me – this song, or the next one. The Shuffle removes the Paradox of Choice from me. Our brains are wired to handle choosing between concrete choices, not from an infinite array of possibilities.

As an aside, one of my favorite Rush Chair stories was trying to get people to work on The Quill, TEP’s Rush mailing. Nobody was doing any of the stories they had promised, so I threw together a bunch of primitive versions of those stories and said that I was going to publish it that way. Everybody said “Wait, I can do better than that!” and got to work. When they were faced with a blank page, they were stuck with too many possibilities; presented with a concrete starting point, they were able to improve from there.

With the iPod Shuffle, there’s no new functionality here; in fact, there’s less since I can’t choose what music I listen to at any point in time. But because the affordances have changed so drastically, it’s able to fit into parts of my life that my previous MP3 player couldn’t.

My other great technology purchase of the past year is the Panasonic DMR-EH75V, a hard drive recorder/DVD recorder/VHS recorder. I’d been resisting the siren call of TiVo for years as I wasn’t willing to pay a monthly fee to subsidize my TV habit, and because I claimed that it couldn’t do anything that my VCR couldn’t. And technically, that’s true. But, like the Shuffle, it makes certain things so much easier that it completely changes my behavior.

In particular, because I don’t have to worry about setting up or wasting videotapes, I’ll record pretty much anything that strikes my fancy. I may never watch them, but it’s okay, because it’s just bits. In fact, there are certain programs that I recorded, and then burned to DVD to clear from the hard drive, but still haven’t watched. Also, the one ability that my VCR didn’t have which I absolutely love in the DVR is the ability to start watching programs as they are being recorded. I hated recording football games with the VCR because I couldn’t start watching until the game was over. With this, I can watch the game in catch-up mode, where I’m skipping through the commercials and catching up to real time by the end of the game. Or when I catch up to real-time, I’ll pause it, read for 15 minutes, and then go back to watching it in catch-up mode again.

The freedom of advertising has also been amazing. It has a minute-skip button, so when I get to a commercial, I just hit that 3 or 4 times, and I’m back to the show. I’ve started watching everything on tape-delay so that I can skip commercials. Football games made this particularly noticeable – when I was at my parents’ house over Christmas, the ads were driving me nuts because there are six TV timeouts every quarter. Each TV timeout is two minutes long, so on the DVR, it’s click-click, and back to action. Having to sit through all of the commercials was infuriating after I’d gotten used to that kind of freedom.

The point I’d like to make (besides giving well-deserved raves to these products) is that the reason I like both of these products is not that I like technology. It’s not because of whizzy-bang features that nothing else can do; as noted above, the actual functionality of these products is not much greater than my previous gadgets. But because of the different technology affordances of these products (the small size and freedom from choice of the Shuffle, the large hard drive and minute-skip button of the DVR), they enable new usage patterns that were not possible with those other gadgets. As Kathy Sierra says, it’s not about the technology, it’s about how the technology enables the user to kick ass in ways they couldn’t before. There’s a lesson here for product development and for marketing. Now I just need to figure out how to apply it to our product at work.

P.S. The long posting drought has mostly been because I can’t think of anything interesting to say. I haven’t done anything that interesting either, although I highly recommend the Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Mostly been working too much, hanging out with friends, watching football and resting up before the term starts up again next week.

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