Mon, 07 Mar 2005


Buyers overwhelmed by much technology

Tobias Wiethoff, Deutsche Presse Agentur/Hamburg

Once upon a time, everything was simpler -- more boring, perhaps, but simpler. Telephones came in one flavour: with a cable attached to the wall. A calculator sat on the desk and did one thing: calculated.

Today, there are computers -- and computerized things that attach to computers. There are NTBA boxes, ISDN units, DSL modems, WLAN routers, just to name a few. And all this stuff is childishly easy to install, say the salespeople at the computer stores. You might have a problem, of course, if there's no child at home to help you out.

The overflow of technology doesn't stop with devices that attach to or replace the telephone connection, either. Instead of record players, radios, and cassette decks, we have multimedia PCs and DVD recorders.

Audio is no longer recorded, but "burned." The most popular "burning" formats have names like CD, CD-R, CD-RW, SACD, Video CD, VCD, SVCD, DVD, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD+RW, DVD-RW, Audio-DVD, MP3 and JPEG. Got that? Even car stereos have complex menus and tiny knobs that force drivers to now and again look away for the road for minutes at a time.

A recent poll by researchers at Research International in Hamburg, Germany, indicates that mankind is splitting into two roughly equal groups: those who are excited by technology, and those who feel overwhelmed by it.

According to the study, 57 percent of the population agreed with the statement that technical devices are getting more and more complicated. Some 45 percent indicated that they have lost the desire to keep up with all of the individual "tools" that are available. More than a third indicated that they are so overwhelmed that they put off making any new purchases.

"They've developed a real buyer's block," says Katrin Ossenbrueggen, who led the study.

Anyone who takes buying their electronics devices seriously must undertake an extensive market study in advance. Many others throw seriousness to the wind and make their decision based on the last few remaining factors that they can understand.

This means that 34 percent of the customers indicated that design has now taken their top spot during decision making, while 33 percent pointed toward the price.

Older people in particular often feel increasingly put upon by technological development. Many of them come in contact with innovative products only when their children or grandchildren give them as gifts. About 56 per cent of cell phone owners over the age of 60 have the feeling that they only comprehend a portion of the cell phone's functions.

"This isn't my world any more," reported a 63-year old retiree resignedly in the poll by Research International. "I am happy that I don't need to keep up with the next 20 years of technological development any more."

In reality, the market researchers' numbers may even be under- representing the problem. People often shy away from admitting embarrassing facts when they take polls. Nobody wants to reveal themselves as a technological nitwit.

Maren Meyer knows this well. Her company, SirValUse, checks technological devices and Web sites for their user-friendliness.

"Our most important method is to observe," Meyer says. "Many test persons indicate after the fact a Web site was easy to use, yet we saw that there were major problems," Meyer says.

As far as SirValUse can see, user friendliness is being taken more and more seriously by manufacturers. The firm more than doubled its revenues last year. In the best cases, these efforts can help make increasingly complex technology somewhat manageable.

Yet sometimes measures taken under the guise of user friendliness only make things worse. The so called iDrive in the BMW 7 series was intended to lead to a dashboard that was more manageable. During a test by SirValUse, the rotary knob failed miserably -- "overly complex," they judged.

Devices overstuffed with bells and whistles combined with overwhelmed consumers feeds the vicious circle. Nor is there time for the weary to catch their breath. "The innovation cycles are getting shorter and shorter, so short that even the manufacturers no longer have time to try out the products," explains Henning Withoeft from the German consumer testing organization Stiftung Warentest.

Consumers also contribute to their own sense of being overwhelmed. Frills-free devices, such as remote controls with few buttons, are viewed as crutches for low-income consumers and have no chance on the market.

"We have been for several years now been pointing at the fact that hardly anyone can exhaust the possibilities offered by a US$1,000 computer, yet many run to the discount retailers when they have them on sale."

There is one consolation for those who are simply flabbergasted by it all: As technology devices proliferate, they also continue to get smaller, making them easier to toss out the window.