The power of convenience

Make MagazineMake magazine cites me in a recent newsletter.  They liked one of my lesser-developed arguments:

“We should never underestimate the power of convenience,” Alexander said. “Wearable computing can make things easier for users, and that’s enough to drive adoption.”

True enough.  Shel Sax (Middlebury College) was the first person to get me thinking about the power of convenience when it comes to technology and its usage.  We were discussing mp3 players, podcasts, and student use around 2004, and Shel emphasized that that tech succeeded because it was very accessible, easy to use, available nearly all the time… convenient, in other words.

Convenience is a vast force in the universe.  It’s why many people drive a car rather than take the bus, or watch a movie on Netflix streaming instead of schlepping to a movie theater.  Convenience is why so many of us use mobile apps rather then Web apps or even the Web on mobile devices.  That’s why we use Windows or Mac operating systems instead of going to the trouble to learn and deploy Linux.  That’s why carefully scaffolded and easy to start computer games beat difficult-to-start-and-run Second Life.

Convenience isn’t a bad thing in itself, although its outcomes can be awful (cf global warming, acquiescence to horror, etc.).  It’s like oxygen: massively present, a force of nature.  We can’t out-moralize or legislate or browbeat it into shape.  What we can do is work with convenience and appreciate how it shapes our work.  Look out for the desire paths as they form.

That’s why I’m looking hard at wearable computing, and not just because of the latest Apple rumor.  Wearables afford convenient access to different slices of computing.  For example, consider the Jawbone Up circling my wrist as I type this.  It tracks my footsteps.  I could certainly do that myself with an old-fashioned pedometer, or even with a pencil-and-paper journal, estimating steps per trip or whatever.  But the Up is far more convenient.  It entails less work on my part, plus generates fine charts more easily than I could.

Consider the LG Heart Rate Earphones, which apparently manage the trick of playing audio files into your earholes, then sampling your heart info while they’re in there.  We can have fun thinking up connections between music and heartbeats (beats per minute!), but the key thing here is easy of access.  It’s convenient for LG to combine these functions, and will likely be convenient for users to receive this extra information.

Augmented reality, movies playing upon the eyeball, videocording from the head, etc: some proportion of users will get into these functions because they are easier to perform that way than others.  Ease could trump the problem of appearing threatening or nerdy.  The flipside of creepiness is convenience.

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