I wrote a post a while ago entitled Business megatrends can lift all boats. The two megatrends I focused on were self-service and personalization. But there’s a powerful business driver behind those megatrends that founders can’t afford to ignore: convenience. Tim Wu‘s article The Tyranny of Convenience in The New York Times is lengthy, but well worth reading, especially if you are a B2C company.
Interestingly he starts off with a quote from Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, “Convenience decides everything” which is odd, given that the conventional wisdom is that Twitter is far from convenient and it’s difficulty of use has stunted its growth by putting off mainstream users. And look at SnapChat, which prides itself on difficulty of use and a steep learning curve. Plainly, convenience doesn’t decide everything, even in the world of social media.
While Wu’s history of convenience in consumer technology, such as washing machines ,is well-illustrated, but its his insight into what he calls “the second wave of convenience technologies” that’s truly thought provoking: that the second wave “would conveniencize individuality..” In other words the megatrend of personalization meets the business driver of convenience!
He dates the beginning of this trend to the invention of the Sony Walkman – which I remember well. It was not only convenient, but private and individual. I could listen to the music I wanted to hear, not only when I wanted to hear it, but where as well, like walking down the street in Harvard Square. The Walkman really was the grandfather of the mobile technology revolution.
Most of the powerful and important technologies created over the past few decades deliver convenience in the service of personalization and individuality. Think of the VCR, the playlist, the Facebook page, the Instagram account. This kind of convenience is no longer about saving physical labor — many of us don’t do much of that anyway. It is about minimizing the mental resources, the mental exertion, required to choose among the options that express ourselves. Convenience is one-click, one-stop shopping, the seamless experience of “plug and play.” The ideal is personal preference with no effort.
Oddly enough though – and perhaps because he’s not that familiar with psychology or discounts it in his dialectic on technology – Wu doesn’t connect “personal preference with no effect” to the major psychological benefit: instant gratification.
Wu segues from personal preference with no effort to “the only skill that matters is the ability to multitask. At the extreme, we don’t actually do anything; we only arrange what will be done, which is a flimsy basis for a life.”
He preaches that:
“… let’s reflect on the tyranny of convenience, try more often to resist its stupefying power, and see what happens. We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest. The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity.
This rather Calvinistic dictum really makes no sense. It assumes that convenience will take over every aspect of human life, leaving individuals faced only with yet another problem, the tyranny of choice, not to speak of the proven inefficiencies of multi-tasking.
But I beg to differ and I urge founders to differ as well. Technology not only solves problems, it creates new ones as well, just as automation eliminates some jobs but creates new and different ones at the same time. Computer security is a very difficult problem facing all of us, as is dealing with information overload, trying to tell fact from fiction, the difficulty of obtaining good health care in the richest nation in the world, the failure of a majority of our nation’s citizen’s to learn mathematics and the scientific method, and on and on, in a never ending cavalcade of very hard, very inconvenient problems facing individuals, companies, and political entities.
So rather than discourage founders from providing products and services that increase personal and group convenience I would encourage them! And at the same time encourage all parties to then devote a portion of time and energy saved by using your product to trying to solve the seemingly intractable problems that we face personally, in our affiliations, and as a nation. Think of contributing those savings to the bank of the public good, where those deposits will grow interest and be expending solving those onerous problems we face now and in the future.