Sitting in the Agafay Desert an hour from Marrakech, I'm struck by the silence. Without my phone, the dinging of my Apple watch, the sounds of my digital life assaulting me, I'm surrounded only by only the natural world. I've become a stranger to this kind of solitude.

I believe our true nature is to sit in oneness with the nature, at least for those of us who grew up in the pre-digital age. But while it is our most primitive state, today, it makes most of us feel unsettled. The endless buzz of the modern world and our attachment to our devices has made it difficult for us to feel at ease when we're not connected to someone or something. The proof is in the panic we experience when our connections cease. Where's my phone? Facebook is down? I can't connect to WiFi? Where's the remote? My Philips Hue lights aren't working the way I want them to? Ugh, WiFi is down again!

When we're disconnected, we quite literally become untethered. The growth of connected technologies--those that can be worn, carried, attached, and linked together--promise us a life in which we are seamlessly connected to systems, devices and people so we can focus on the more important things in life. The promise is almost as if the world of connected devices will return us to our natural state of being at peace, or at the very least at ease. But if being at ease is what we seek and so much connected technology is available, why aren't more people buying and connecting as many connected devices as possible?

Plenty of reasons come to mind: The technology is confusing; it's still too new; much of it is stuck in the hype cycle; devices are playthings for early adopters; consumers who have bought them don't use them consistently and so others don't see them as necessary. The fact remains that the mass adoption of connected products is still largely confined to mobile phones and mobile computers.

But what about all the other gadgets? Connected watches, fitness bands, tablets, home cameras, connected thermostats, home security devices, the  Amazon Echo, smart ovens and refrigerators, smart air conditioners, power cords and the rest? Why are they not seeing mass adoption, especially given that they were all built to make our lives simpler?

Beyond our concerns for privacy and data security, I have two theories. The first is it's just too soon. Digital natives will be the first generation to drive mass adoption. Gen-Xers like me are non-digital natives and we've spent more than 30 years doing things manually. We learned technology as a second language and so we're likely to continue doing most things the same way we always have. While we enjoy the novelty of connected products, we're still capable of managing the world manually, and truthfully, we enjoy the sliver of solitude that comes with not being connected to one more thing.

My second theory is that connected devices are in direct opposition to our human nature because technology is still largely unpredictable. Years ago a client asked me why every time we made a change to their digital platform, something else stopped working. My answer was simple, Technology is unpredictable. How many times has your phone reset in the middle of a call? How about the spinning beach ball on your Mac? These things happen, and they happen for different reasons, but the fact that they happen makes us reluctant to adopt more connected products than those we see as being either essential or irresistibly novel.

We recently did some interesting strategy work for one of the leading telecom companies in the U.S. to find potential areas of opportunity within the connected ecosphere. They wanted help understanding what was stalling the mass adoption of connected products and devices despite an ever-increasing supply.

We identified three primary factors:

  • All human behavior is driven by our instinctual desire to survive and our innate fear that the choices we make threaten our survival.
  • In order to reduce the tension that arises as a result of our fears, we seek to control as much as we can.
  • The perception that we're in control assuages our fears, giving us the sense that our survival is more predictable.

Read those one more time. Survival and predictability sit at the center of what drives our decisions. Why would we buy and connect more things to an infrastructure that's already fairly unstable? I posit that the largest factor holding back mass adoption of connected devices is their complexity of use and attendant lack of predictability. Even setting up these devices is difficult for most, including me, and I consider myself well above average in technical competence.

To make the next round of connected devices desirable, you'll need to focus on the following:

1) Ease of Setup

Things need to be quick, easy, and simple to set up. Reduce the interface to the essentials--more like  Apple, less like  Linksys.

2) Ease of Interconnection

Consumers want things to work, and to work with the other things they have. Universal protocols and standards are a basic consumer need. Companies need to satisfy those needs instead of fighting against them by creating their own proprietary standards and closed architectures. 

3) Predictability of Performance

Connected devices need to work at least as reliably as the primary products we rely on today. Remember the frustration the first time your cable TV service went down? And later on the still greater frustration when the phone service in your Triple Play bundle stopped working every time the cable went down? The last thing I need now is lighting that doesn't work when my WiFi goes out. Down time, up time, reboot time, and automatic reconnection should be as seamless as they are with my iPhone.

4) Integration Rather Than Addition

The human body isn't growing any new appendages, and we don't need more devices to wear on our wrists. So figure out how to make your products live alongside existing ones. As much as I love my Apple watch, it's taking up real estate I'd rather dedicate to my regular watch. If Apple had integrated the watch into my existing strap, I'd probably use it far more often.

5) Familiarity of Use

Getting people to adopt new patterns and behaviors is tough. To better your odds, design devices so people can control them as they do the things your creations serve to replace. Instead of making me open an app to turn on my lights, give me a motion sensor that detects my finger as I gesture from off to on. Not to keep plugging Apple (though I am a shareholder), but the brilliance of the iPhone was less about the device and more about how they patented natural finger movements for controlling it.

Today's connected devices are ahead of their time, driven by designs and technologies that are in opposition to our basic human needs. You can help create a more intelligent future if you're willing to do more than simply chase trends. Start by solving real problems through technology and design rather than interrupting those things that work just fine the way they are. 

Published on: Jan 18, 2016