Henry Ford supposedly said, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.’ This quotation is often used as an argument against relying on market research in the pursuit of innovation. Bill Gates voiced a similar thought to Ford’s when he suggested that ‘people don’t know how to want the things we can offer them’.
A glance at human behaviour makes it hard to argue against this approach. After all, most technology is what economists call an ‘experience good’ — something whose value only becomes apparent once people have tried it for themselves, like mobile telephony, Sky+ or, come to think of it, heroin. Less than 10 per cent of the population 20 years ago wanted a mobile phone, yet now there are very few who would hand theirs back.
All the same, I sometimes feel technologists could spend a little less time in blue-sky research and a little more time listening to what people say. It shouldn’t have taken 30 years of complaining before tomato ketchup became available in squeezable bottles.
This week, two much complained about problems finally neared a solution. The first good news came with an announcement that ten mobile handset manufacturers will standardise their phone-chargers from next year onwards. The second came from laptop maker Lenovo who announced that it is considering dropping the CapsLock key from future keyboards.
Praise the Lord! Every one of us, with our drawerful of redundant phone chargers and our emails inadvertently typed in capitals, could have told them to do this ages ago. The CapsLock button is now the keyboard equivalent of the human appendix — an item whose only remaining function is to cause pain. In the typewriter era, when you could not embolden text, there was a value to capitalisation. But since 1980 the thing has been a curse to touch-typists, who repeatedly mis-hit CapsLock only to find their last paragraph must be retyped, or their passwords are unrecognised.
It is all too rare, and correspondingly wonderful, to see someone solve a problem we have all recognised for years. The Dyson Airblade, the first warm-air hand dryer which actually dries your hands, is one fine example. But there are plenty more obvious problems still waiting to be solved.
One is the complete reinvention of the telephone call centre. The practice of keeping customers hanging on uselessly for 30 minutes listening to ‘Greensleeves’ is a disgrace to modern capitalism. At least give customers the option of leaving their number with a brief description of what they want, so an appropriate, informed operative can call them back within some pre-agreed time. The current queuing system belongs in 1950s Bulgaria, not contemporary Britain.
The telephone conference call is also due for a rethink. Nobody with an IQ over 75 can have revisited the workings of the teleconference in 20 years. Why can’t the system call out, instead of waiting for everyone to dial in? Why can’t everyone be texted a reminder of the dial-in code five minutes in advance? Why can’t callers be emailed a recording of the conference afterwards?
Then there’s the wire coathanger, your GP’s surgery appointment setting, the woeful rigmarole whenever you collect a rental car, wireless broadband roaming. There is a wonderful book called Obvious Adams by Robert Updegraff. Very few people seem to have read it.