About a year ago I gave my sister- and brother-in-law my old first
generation iPod Shuffle. They had recently purchased a rural property
some hours from Toronto. I thought the tiny white MP3 player, combined
with a device that pipes the sound through their aging Nova’s tape deck
would help them while away the northern drive. It would certainly be a
convenience over a stack of tired cassettes and fading radio stations.
At least, that was the plan.

I showed them how to copy CDs to their home computer, how to use
iTunes, how to transfer tracks to the Shuffle. Twice. All for nought.
To this day they have yet to use the Shuffle. They’re still listening
to scratchy half-broken tapes of "Bellyache Morton and the Gutbuster
Trio", "A 16th Century Terpsicory Sampler" and "Slippy Tyler Sings the
Best of Arlo Guthrie", or acoustic fare like that. It drives me crazy.

Around the same time I showed a friend how to use the social
bookmarking site delicious.com to store and retrieve Web favourites
from any computer, any browser anywhere in the world. He has seven
bookmarks in delicious so far. I also showed him how to use the
remarkable power of RSS feeds to save him time researching. He has yet
to make use of the tool. This too, drives me up a wall.

I’m sure you have your own stories about fruitless and failed attempts
to get coworkers and family members to just try, let alone adopt and
embrace new technologies or social media tools. Why is it so hard?

In both these cases the new alternative – the Shuffle and delicous.com
have absolutely no downside. The Shuffle is superior to cassette tapes
in terms of convenience, fidelity, capacity, size, speed and
flexibility. Storing your browser bookmarks in “the cloud” is, in every
way, more convenient than having them in a single folder, on a single
browser on a single computer. Using RSS feeds instead of visiting site
after site, day after day in hopes of some fresh news nuggets just
makes practical sense.

And, in both these cases there was no fundamental shift of time or
behavior. My brother- and sister-in-law were already listening to music
in their car. My friend was already bookmarking and reading sites. So,
in both cases the technological shifts simply made what they were
already doing easier or better. They didn’t have to make new time, in
fact the changes could save them time. So, why?

The only thing that had to be set aside was habit. And habit, I think,
is the make or break component of the adoption of the new. I mean that
in two ways.

First, the vast majority of the population does not adopt new tech
products or services with the enthusiasm of a Tory pouncing on a
Liberal stumble. In fact, only about 15 per cent of us jump in early.
We’re the fanboys who line up for an iPhone, the first ones at the car
lot the day the new Saturns come out and the folks who know all about
the next shoe from Nike. We’ll put up with bugs, queues, software
updates and high prices because we’re passionate about being on the
leading/bleeding edge of whatever we geek out about. And, our old
habits don’t die hard, we’re more likely to give them a clean shot to
the head and push them in an early grave. Our habit is to change habits
the way gas stations swap prices.

Non-early adopters (marketers call them early and late majority and
laggards) aren’t like that. To them, their tech habits are like old
spaniels and grandma-knit sweaters. They get better, more comforting,
with age. And, they’d sooner gargle badger spit than shoot the dog or
burn the sweater. It doesn’t matter that a new dog would have superior
odor and bladder control or that a fresh cardigan would actually have
intact elbows. Their comfort comes from the familiar, not the features.
And, like all of us, they "satisfice", they stick to old ways of doing
things even though intellectually they know what they’re doing is about
as efficient as Billy in Family Circus making his way to the grocery

Early adopters of web tools don’t do that because they enjoy the
nerdish act of the elegant hack, the deft use of tools that brings
information under control with a minimum of effort.

Second, habit comes into play in how technologies are adopted when,
dragged to the doorstep of a new service or tool, non-early adopters
grudgingly try them out. If latecomers don’t get to the point that the
new technology becomes a habit, they will, like my friend and
relatives, drop it with a haste inversely proportional to their
reluctance to adopt it in the first place.

Often getting a newcomer to make a technology a habit means showing
them how to use simple tools (say Google Reader or the delicious
bookmarklet) that make incorporating the technology into their workflow
almost effortless. Even then, it can be an uphill battle.

Using a new technology is like using a rear view mirror while driving
forward. At first it seems an intrusion and points your attention in
exactly the wrong direction from where you want to go. After a year of
driving, you don’t even know you’re doing it. It just becomes an
integrated part of moving down the highway. And, you couldn’t imagine
using a car without it.

Sometimes I wonder why I continue to try to get my friends and family
to try new tech. Perversely, I guess, it’s become a habit.


Wayne MacPhail is the president of w8nc inc, an emerging media communications company. He’s also a rabble.ca board
member who helped launch the rabble podcast network. Wayne writes a
regular column on technology issues and can be contacted at
wmacphail[at]gmail.com. You can also follow Wayne on twitter.


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...