- The light bulb (Edison) was introduced in 1879; we didn’t see major productivity gains from it until the 1920s.
- Computers existed in the 1950s and 1960s, but we didn’t see major usage until the 1980s.
- The Internet even theoretically existed in the 1960s, but we didn’t see it widespread until the 1990s.
People like to think that technology moves fast and disrupts everything, but in reality it’s a pretty slow arc a lot of the time. The reason is pretty logical: when something new appears, we (a) probably don’t know exactly what to do with it and (b) our friends and like-minded peers probably aren’t using it yet, so it can feel a little weird. (For example, when the Prius was first a thing, having a Prius was more likely to get you called “granola” by your friends than for your friends to embrace what you were trying to do. Now I know hard-driving CEOs who drive a Prius. The arc takes time.)
For the visually-inclined, here’s a chart that helps explain it:
“The Chasm” there is the transition from innovations and early adopters — who are OK with a lot of effort to figure out how to use something — and the beginnings of the early majority, who want it to be easy and simple. This is kind of like at work: there are a bunch of people (maybe two handfuls) who can see things for what they are all the time, but most people want to be told, “Our direction is this, and we’ll get there by you doing this.” Those latter people are “early majority” in this case. (There’s even more people in an office who are “laggards,” but that’s for another post.)
If you think about it this way, then, “disruption” — much tossed-about term — is basically when early adopters can connect into the mainstream.
The simplest way to cross that chasm above is through the interface. An average person — lifestyle and intellect — needs to be able to look at your product or device and basically say, “Oh, OK, I do this and then this happens.” And it should be pretty and sleek and basic. This is also, in essence, why we think Steve Jobs is a genius. He (and Jonathan Ive) did that better than almost anyone. Now they’re all billionaires (or dead).
You see sometimes the idea that in the future, all CEOs will really be “designer-in-chiefs,” and that might be true. Design and experience are very important in terms of taking an idea from “used well-enough by thousands of people” to “demanded by millions of people.” You could argue it’s the most important factor. I still personally think it’s not there yet; I think seed money investors still probably look at financials the closest. That said, you don’t get the early financials and user base without good interface. It’s kind of the first brick in the building in many ways, and if that brick is secure, maybe the building can soar. Goddamn, my metaphors are terrible.
Here’s the final, ironic part of all this: a lot of times at work if you work on a project that has visual or design components (as many things do), middle managers will tell you, “Make it flashy!” or “Make it sing!” People love the big flash and colors and random shit that slides in and all that. In reality, that’s horribly wrong. If you want to make money off something — which is the goal of most people — then you actually need to make it pretty simple, mundane and almost boring, because that’s how it will end up being used by the most people.