Consumer electronics have delighted us and transformed our lives, but they've also added new kinds of frustration. Some of these annoyances are unavoidable-change of any kind involves adjustment, and many new electronic products require learning a new set of commands. Other, more avoidable aggravations, however, seem to result from companies' greater focus on competitors than on consumers. When customers buy laptops only to see better, cheaper models introduced three weeks later, or discover bugs in their new smartphones, or lose work on their PC because of another software update, it's both annoying and stressful. But for manufacturers, such events can spell disaster. Professors at Emory University's Goizueta Business School warn that consumer electronics manufacturers need to treat their customers with more care or face a loss of loyalty and lower sales.
Consumer electronics and angry customer 2.0
This summer, consumer fatigue may be especially acute. Benn Konsynski, a professor of decision-making and information analysis at Goizueta, rattles off a long list of market changes in the last few months alone: HP and Microsoft have decided to shelve HP's Windows 7-based tablet computer, which had been touted as HP's answer to Apple's iPad. HP announced its purchase of Palm in late April, leading to speculation over the future of Palm's flagship mobile operating system, WebOS, which, as it turns out, will now serve the foundation of HP and Microsoft's revamped tablet computer. And two or three new mobile phones supported by Google's Android operating system seem to be released each month. Even Apple, which usually earns high marks for ease of use, ran into trouble with a bug in its new iPhone.
Altogether, it's creating a lot of anxiety in the market. It's a huge pressure for the consumer, Konsynski says.
For the consumer, the stress begins long before the purchase. First, which product to choose? At one time, a particular product came in just a few models. Today, literally hundreds may be available.
Ordinarily, modern shoppers are good at dealing with these kinds of choices. They negotiate supermarkets and their 30,000-plus items every day. Even a cup of coffee isn't the simple purchase it used to be: Starbucks proudly claims it offers 87,000 drink options, yet the coffee giant's customers aren't turning away overwhelmed.
But a mistaken latte order is a decision that doesn't last. What's different with consumer electronics, however, is that selecting the wrong product or model may impact a customer's life for months, if not years.
For consumer electronics companies, this level of uncertainty is bad news: consumer behavior researchers know that having too many choices actually discourages consumption. As Barry Schwartz noted in his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice, an overwhelming number of choices can demotivate customers. In one typical study Schwartz cites, when consumers had the chance to try one of six kinds of jam, 30 percent eventually bought a jar. When researchers offered consumers 24 choices, the number of buyers fell to 3 percent.
The solution seems simple: cut down the number of choices. However, it's easier to do that for jam than for a cell phone. In a 2009 survey on feature fatigue conducted by Rockford Associates, a consumer technology research group, consumers were given a list of 12 popular capabilities found in mobile devices and asked to indicate the four capabilities they could not live without. The result: 75 percent of respondents said they would be happy if their phone did just four things. The catch: only 40 percent agreed on what those four things should be. In order to meet the needs of those 75 percent, the company needed to offer a product with eight features.
Making it worse this year, according to Konsynski, is the growing variation between service contracts. Concerned about the drag on their networks, some telephone companies are now capping the amount of data that can be downloaded to a smartphone, or offer complex trade-offs between this or that feature. It's become a factor in deciding how to proceed, he says.
The risk of obsolescence adds another set of worries. Will that new reader remain a valued possession, or will it end up like a 21st century eight-track tape player, almost instantly outmoded?
Even in a more mature technology, similar concerns persist. Should a customer buy now, or wait until the end of next month, when a new version is released that will be better and cheaper?
For companies, it's dangerous when consumers start thinking this way. Some firms have failed simply because of this kind of competition between what they offer now and what consumers believe they will offer next year.
But buying the product is only the beginning of the frustration.
A 2009 survey of 4000 British and American mobile phone users found that 85 percent found their new cell phone difficult to set up-an experience bad enough that 95 percent say they would be more likely to try new services if they were easier to install.
New software can be similarly challenging to learn, with the added difficulty that the product itself may keep changing. Automatic updates can also be aggravating. Sometimes, software engineers fix bugs or come up with new features that help the consumer. Other times, the update mostly helps the company by making it easier, for instance, to track the way the program is being used or to ensure that it's not used in a way the company does not approve.
Some of these updates trigger automatic restarts-a problem if you've stepped away from your desktop for a few minutes and find that your work has vanished. Steve Walton, associate dean of Goizueta's Executive MBA Program and an associate professor in the practice of information systems and operations management, finds these updates especially annoying, and he doesn't believe he's alone. I think there is a chance that people will start to see these updates as not providing significant incremental value, but driving the company's ability to control the way that the owner uses the technology, he says.
Walton's warning to companies is to make sure that the update does something that helps the consumer. Action item for the company: make sure the upgrade does something that provides meaningful value to the user, not just to the company, he says.
Jagdish Sheth, a professor of marketing and corporate strategist, suggests a number of other steps manufacturers can take to reduce frustration among consumers:
First, create some kind of migration path to keep the customer from feeling cheated, such as a trade-in for a physical product or a discount that helps them feel they aren't losing money. In the business-to-business market, he says, part of IBM's success was due to its efforts to ensure that there was always a strong market for used mainframes.
Second, segment the market by sales channel. Offer one set of products with Best Buy, for instance, and another set at Radio Shack, tailored for those stores' particular clientele and sold at the right price point for that store.
Third, slow down the release. Sheth says that slowing down the release can defeat the expectation that a newer and cheaper version is on the way.
Whether for good or for ill, it's unlikely that the flood of new gadgets, or new versions of existing gadgets, will slow any time soon-and often rising with that tide is consumer electronics fatigue.
People get all excited, they get all wrapped up in the new devices that keep coming out, one after the other, month after month, year after year, and at some point, they get tired, says Jeff Kagan, an independent telecoms analyst in Marietta, GA.
They cross over the line where they just say to themselves, it's just not worth it anymore, he adds. They're focused on the new stuff, and not on their lives. They're not focused on their work, on their families, on their relationships; they're just focused on these new devices.
But Konsynski believes instead that no one really opts out; they just arrive at the same place later.
He also doesn't see consumer fatigue as a negative, ultimately. Instead, he considers it a reflection both of competition and of underlying technology changes, such as the rollout of stronger data networks.
Technologically, such change seems likely to continue. Moore's Law, which holds that computing power tends to double every two years, is as true now as when Intel co-founder Gordon Moore first noted the phenomenon in 1965. Similar rates of long-run change are now evident in computer memory and screen displays, all of which will undoubtedly make new products possible that will continue to delight-and frustrate-consumers.
The good news is that the pace of change is variable. Products tend to plateau for a time, then get replaced by something new, Konsynski says. The stability is ephemeral. But so is the chaos.