Wednesday, April 13, 2005

If We Buy It, Will Use Come?

I'm sure that we've all had the experience of buying something that we just had to have and then, after the excited opening of the UPS box and the equally excited showing off to your many (bored) friends, the long sunset of said device on the dusty shelf. I know I have.

I've come to the conclusion that personally applying the sort of "use cases" that companies like Intel try to apply to their designs can be helpful. Basically, this boils down to "what are you trying to do?" and "how would you use device X to accomplish this?" Some of ths same sort of thinking is described in Alan Cooper's The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.

That's all very theoretical. So let's look at a specific, personal example. Last time I had a new cell phone to buy (the old one was slipping into a coma), I got to thinking about a smartphone. It would be a bit pricey as would the services, but it would be cool. Time to think about usage models.

OK. I travel a fair bit and like to stay in touch. A smartphone sounds like the ticket, but what would it incrementally do that was important to me? Hmm. Email of course! OK, but I already have broadband at just about any hotel I'm staying at and at most conference sites too. I could even have it at the airport and at Starbucks if I were willing to pay the fees (which would doubtless be less than the smartphone data services would be). I have a nice, compact laptop (a Fujitsu P5000) that I always travel with. A laptop which, by the way, is far more friendly to navigating web sites and dealing with attachments than any smartphone would be.

I could go on with the personal details but, although they're relevant to me, they may not be for you. Cost tradeoffs, for example. This would have been coming out of my pocket. The bottom line is the value of trying to work through how you would use a given device that isn't already met in other ways.

Of course, it can sometimes be hard to predict or grok radically new usage models in advance. Especially when it comes to communication, so much depends on what others in your circle do. If text messaging is the norm, you text message. If it isn't, you don't.

That said, usage cases are at least a framework. If you can't think of a practical (or fun!) reason why you'd use a new gadget or piece of software to do things differently--you probably (though not certainly) won't.

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