What makes a technology “WOW”?
For some reason stories about the early days of electricity seem to be circulating. In a recently heard rendition, a person who I respect quite deeply had noted that electricity, in the early days, was perceived to be useless by consumers. It was only until it had been spectacularized that this changed —in this case via women who were, at the behest of a power company, sent out to turn of the century parties dolled up in dresses glowing with lightbulbs. (This is true. You can read about it in Carol Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New). Not only did it become ‘useful’ as a new system of lighting but appealing and seductive. It ‘wowed’ in the eyes of consumers, and got everybody on the same page about how useful and important this newfangled technology was. In that moment of translation between Edison and lightbulb partygirl, technology was made to be magic.
Today, we look to user experience to do this work of ‘wow’ creation. Indeed, that was this person’s point: that the technology alone is not sexy, and there is serious work involved in making it a technology that wows which has little to do with engineering prowess, and cannot be hand waved away as mere marketing. This is a point that I agree with, and have devoted my career to.
Yet something disturbed.
There was an unsettling absence in this origin myth—a myth not at all unique to this particular conversation with this particular person. The absence, the persistent absence I see in rallying cries to delivering better user experience, is the unsettling, not so happy story about what makes something ‘wow.’ The absence in this particular story about electricity is that the “wow” was precisely in making the privileged even more privileged. For example, the early electricity demos that conspicuously don’t get mentioned are the ones where colonial administrators used electricity to literally shock natives into submission, claiming they had magical powers to which the natives should submit in the name of ‘enlightenment.’ Electricity was also sold to large estate holders as a way of zapping undesirables off their property: re-enforcing their mastery over their own land. And while I wish there were more research into new technologies for sex, literally sending electrical currents through women’s bodies to demonstrate male mastery over nature is really not the best precedent to look favorably upon as a good example of “wow”. The “wow”, it turns out, always has a social origin and it ain’t always pretty. In the electricity example the appeal comes from the idea that this technology would give you, the powerful, even more power to wield over others. This appeal, of course, it not at all dissimilar, to what goes on today: technology is said to be a “power” to be “harnessed”, or sometimes “unleashed.” Not coincidentally, it is still, by and large, white, middle class men that are its greatest believers.
The hard side of delivering user experience is how to build in the kind of space necessary to meaningfully address these questions. Is just giving people the most obvious aspect of what they “want” always the way to make money? It seems to me that there is enough complexity in how people think, talk, and act, and enough versatility in what technologies can do, that we need not go down this route. It’s a seductive route, though: if you are trying to convince a senior figure within a company to take user experience seriously, telling him (and it usually is still him) that with the right user experience his technologies will be more powerful than ever is a good door-opening strategy. Calling him a racist sexist imperialist is not. Yet, at some point, this more difficult conversation must happen. User experience people do in fact have more than a foot in the door now. So if technology is really about changing the world, then we need to find more ways to take responsibility for not just the changes we do make, but what we choose to keep the same.