Culture and the Internet of Things

Image by Chen from Pixabay

You can, now, finally, spend over $500 on a toaster with a smart screen. You can, as one brand says, have “your toast, your way.” It even has a way you can heat cookies. And avocado toast is brought to a whole new level and you can make a sandwich in your toaster, all features apparently, you can only do with a touch screen on the front of your toaster. Then there was that “smart” juicer, Juicero, with their $400 machines. Then there was the uhm, smart condom. Never made it to market.

There are a litany of Internet-of-Things devices that have been consigned to the digital dustbin of failed products in the past few years. Apparently, some are still coming to market. And failing. What’s going on? Two things.

Culture

The primary reason, is cultural and a failure of a startup to do its proper research and see this. There are some successful IoT devices, but they tend to be niche markets, such as smart clothing, or resonate with a major cultural trend, like fear and the Ring doorbell/camera/microphone. Spend anytime online researching smart fridges with screens and you’ll quickly see consumers regret the purchase.

And many consumers today, do their research on smart products. And that is where cultural indicators can be found on IoT devices for consumers. The Ring camera and others like it, have succeeded due to a culture of fear and mostly in the American market. They don’t do well in Canada or European markets as there is less of a culture of fear. Famously, there was Google Glass, which failed miserably. People wearing them were called “glassholes.” Yet they found success in niche markets where such technologies are found useful and culturally acceptable, such as in factories to assist with equipment maintenance.

In research I did regarding smart fridges, a common comment of dislike was the amount of ridicule from friends and family when people bought one. This is social shaming. When other people read such comments, they become afraid of social ridicule, which plays a vital role in acceptance of technologies within a sociocultural group.

It is culture that will determine if a product succeeds or fails. And culture relies heavily on people talking about things, telling why a product works and also sharing experiences. The stories we tell are how we decide as a social group, what we think is acceptable or not. It is the final phase that will decide the fate of an IoT device. There are other factors.

Our Habits | Rituals

Habits are an element of culture. We have our personal habits that are part of our personality. We have habits that are cultural norms, such as Americans and Canadians love of getting their morning coffee at a drive-through. This is not a morning habit in the UK or EU. IoT companies fail to consider habits, which are rituals of living (don’t conflate ritual with religion.) Rituals feature very heavily in how we conduct our lives. Consider your morning and evening routines, which are rituals. We have social group rituals as well. In North America, many business meetings have very little small talk, whereas in Europe and the UK, a little social dance as a preliminary is more common.

I once did research on an IoT device for toilets. The case against it was largely determined by rituals and how Western cultures view the bathroom as a place of being. Our bathroom routines are highly ritualized and while the routine is hard, there are commonalities of privacy and bodily cleanliness and behaviours.

Screen, screen, everywhere a screen.

In the technology world, driven by the culture of Silicon Valley, a screen is the answer. Screens enable more data to be shared and tech culture is driven to distraction by data. This has lead to a culture of problem solving and a failure to think critically. Do we really want statistical data on how much fruit we let go bad in the fridge in the last six months? How often our toast was perfect? Assuming consumers want more data analysis in their lives is an assumption that has more often than not, proven wrong.

Increasingly, screens are being seen very differently by consumers. They are increasingly being viewed as data collection sources and an assumption that someone, somewhere is collecting data on us. Especially if it is a screen we interact with. This is creating an undercurrent of mistrust with touch screens, especially in public places.

Creating More Problems and Overcomplicating

Many software products end up failing because they become overly complex, bogged down with features. And trying to solve a problem that does not exist. Am I really going to take time, at the dinner table, to pull out my smartphone, ensure it’s connected t o my salt or pepper shaker and check the level? or will I just glance at the transparent bottle and instantly see how much salt is there?

The Complex Dance for IoT Devices

There are lots of reports using lots of types of data on why about 75% of IoT devices fail. The analysts views are data informed and have valuable points. Yet they always miss the cultural aspects of human behaviours around the failure to adopt; rituals, social acceptance and no real perceived problem.

For a consumer IoT device to become broadly accepted to the point it can sell at volume to be profitable, they face a complex dance of culture, problem-solving and social signalling. If this recipe doesn’t quite come together, an IoT device will fail and as we see, most do.

A failure to understand the role of culture in any technology significantly increases the chances of failure. Too often companies think in terms of a “user”, and don’t think of humans. They only think of a social group as a “cohort” and have largely dropped psychosocial and cultural elements from the development of personas. Another failure to think in terms of individuals, not social groups of humans.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.