- The "Mom & Dad" Test -
Back in the late 1980ís, a friend of mine had a car with a touch screen dashboard. This little gadget did everything - you could set your favorite radio stations, change the air temperature, calculate your estimated time to arrival, adjust the side view mirrors, display your average gas mileage, order dinner, do the laundry (well, it did most things, anyway).
Most cars today have many of the same features, but they use the old fashioned knobs and buttons, rather than this nifty, new touch-screen technology. The functionality was accepted, but the technology was rejected. The same can be said of the video phone, the digital audio tape, and the CB radio. This got me thinking: what makes one technology successful, while another falls flat on its face? Why did the touch screen dashboard go the way of the dodo, while web browsers sweep the nation and the world? After careful consideration, I believe I know. The answer lies, of all places, with my parentsÖ
Thatís right - good olí Mom & Dad. My parents are truly wonderful people, but they pretty much define the term "technophobe." My father runs his own business in the same room as a computer, but still does his accounting with a notebook and a pencil. My mother once left the VCR clock blinking for three days, until I got home from college to reset it (NOTE: It should be said, in fairness to Mom, that when I moved out permanently, she did finally learn to program the VCR). Whenever Iím faced with a new technology, I consider whether I could ever convince my parents to use it. If not, itís usually not long for this world. I lovingly refer to this little metric as the "Mom & Dad Test."
If I showed my father a car with a touch screen dashboard, I bet heíd say, "These darn computers are so complicated - what was wrong with the old way?" While statements like this make those of us in the technology fields shudder ("Whaddayah mean you need a laser printer? Your dot-matrix one was fine up Ďtill nowÖ"), his reaction teaches us a valuable lesson. The dashboard appeared to him as new technology, not new capability. The interface is too "in your face;" too noticeable. Compare it with cable television, a technology that Mom & Dad had no trouble adopting. The TVís user interface didnít change much at all. The remote control is pretty much the same; now there are just more channels to choose from. The technology behind cable TV is orders of magnitude more expensive and more complex than a touch screen dashboard, but cable TV does its job and stays out of your way. My folks see it as new capability, not new technology. Therefore, it passes the Mom & Dad Test, while the touch screen dashboard fails miserably.
Now, letís talk about electronic commerce. Who are the consumers that weíre aiming at here? Thatís right, Mom & Dad. For online shopping to really become mainstream, someone has to invent a technology that passes the Mom & Dad Test. I think the Internet is on the right track, but the web browser doesnít stand a chance.
Wait a minute. The web browser - a failure? Did he just suggest that the most successful software product since the word processor is a dinosaur waiting to happen? Did he say that this "killer app" will die a quick and painful death? Did I just read that the software product Iím using RIGHT NOW to read this @#%#$^! article will soon be as popular as the phonograph?
First of all, to use a browser, you need to use a computer. That means you have to get off the sofa, turn off the TV, hang up the telephone, and go sit in front of the PC before you can buy anything. Right away, the interface is "in your face." Itís a technology, not a capability. The most interesting advance on this front is, of course, TV-based internet access (e.g., WebTV). If the browser could be reduced to just one more button on the TVís remote control, it immediately scores some hefty points on the Mom & Dad Test.
Second problem - buying things on the web is, at best, cold and impersonal, and at worst, downright scary. How would you feel if you handed your credit card to the clerk at your local department store, and he/she said "You are about to provide me with your credit card number in a public setting. This is sensitive, private information which could potentially be stolen at some point during the transaction. Are you sure you want to continue?" Not exactly a warm, fuzzy feeling, huh?
The Internet is in desperate need of a marketing department. Commerce needs to take place in a setting where the customer feels comfortable. Sure there are security risks, but any Marketing 101 course will teach you not to highlight them at the point of sale! If youíre worried about liability, put the warnings at the bottom of the screen in 4 point font like the car ads do on TV.
The fundamental problem is that today, the seller only controls the content, not the selling environment. The browser makers, the Internetís "commercial landlords," have historically had little incentive to advertise on behalf of the electronic vendor. This is beginning to change, though. New software is coming along that that handles all the accounting, cash management, etc. that is required for electronic commerce. Suddenly, the web browser is part of an integrated "electronic commerce suite," and the manufacturers are forced to consider ways of making the environment more consumer-friendly.
Problem number three - electronic commerce has yet to truly add value to the shopping experience. The best examples Iíve seen so far of web-based shopping just about approximate a trip to the mall. Those of us who live and work in the technology world may find this fascinating, but my dadís reaction would surely be, "What was wrong with the old way?" For electronic commerce to really become mainstream, we need to start exploiting its unique capability to integrate with the rest of our world. Some quick examples:
Implemented this way, electronic commerce is not a separate technology. Rather, it is a new feature of something else, something less intimidating than the big, bad Internet. In other words, implemented this way, electronic commerce scores high marks on the Mom & Dad Test, and slowly but surely becomes a lasting part of our world.