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HARD PUSH FOR Easier Devices

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Gary Shapiro is my hero.
Shapiro, the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, recently chided electronics companies for making products too difficult for consumers to use and understand.
“While consumers love our products, they are also scared of them,” Shapiro said in a speech at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. “They find [them] complex and confusing.”
From the discovery of fire to the burning of DVDs, new technology has always baffled the casual consumer. Most human beings are hard-wired to be leery, if not outright scared, of new things, particularly ones that make noise and emit sparks. (Can you imagine how difficult it was for the discoverer of fire to persuade his fellow cavemen to huddle around the flames? Talk about your tough marketing challenges.)
But Shapiro is right. Whether it’s a high-definition TV or a new digital camera, today’s devices seem to require an engineering degree to go along with that extended warranty.
Electronics stores are populated with signs that scream out technical gibberish seemingly lifted from a “Deep Space Nine” episode. “Digital Reality Creation.” “Calibration System Technology.” “Digital Light Processing.” “Progressive Scan.” “High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection.” Is it any wonder that most people turn around and head back to the cave?
But today’s products are so exciting that many brave souls actually buy something. This despite a round or two of confusing tech talk from a sales clerk who joined the store after a three-month stint at the Gap. However, when the consumer brings home the device, his excitement is often quashed when he tries to learn how to use it. Product manuals usually feature confusing diagrams to accompany those arcane technical terms.
All in all, the consumer is lost-and so is the consumer electronics industry, because that consumer is less likely to recommend the product to a friend. In fact, if anything, he might dissuade a friend from going through such a frustrating experience.
Better Communication
In his CES speech, Shapiro recommended that companies strive to simplify the entire process, from improving instruction manuals to training salespeople on how to better communicate the complexities of new technology. The CEA exec noted that electronics sales are expected to improve in 2004, after two consecutive disappointing years. But he said the industry could see even greater gains if it were to improve its marketing focus.
In past columns, I have pointed out how technology companies are hurting their own cause by confusing the consumer. Shapiro deserves praise for addressing the issue, particularly in a high-profile forum such as the Consumer Electronics Show. After all, his association is dependent on the dues of the very companies he’s criticizing. Hopefully, his membership will take his criticism to heart and start to make some real changes.
Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions .com. His e-mail address is Swann@TVPredictions.com.