Emblem with Hope, Tribulation, Envy and Tolerance (1529)

The Trials and Tribulations of the Early Adopter

There is a certain kind of person who’s an enthusiastic user of untried, emerging technologies. They are unintimidated by radical new devices and are willing to dive, sometimes without looking, into services that are incorporated deeply into their lives. For example, last week, Amazon released its Echo Look, the next piece in its burgeoning IoT empire, which appears to me as experimental a service as they come. The Echo Look is a connected camera device that snaps photos of you, dressed in various clothes, to create a virtual repo of the images so that Amazon’s AI can give you fashion advice. While I am clearly not the target market for this sort of product — I would wear jeans and a black shirt everyday if I could—I understand the people who would purchase and use this seemingly ludicrous IoT gadget all too well. They are the hopeful tech enthusiasts, the celebrators of the new and untested, the shallow rise of the bell curve; they are the early adopters.

The Amazon Echo Look, for AI-enabled fashion advice
The consumer tech industry owes a great deal to early adopters. Without such optimists, who would be the guinea pigs for questionable products, that only might someday be of benefit?

Who would pay some exorbitant price for a first generation experiment with few features and weak support, barely a step above a functional prototype? Case in point: the entire first wave of fitness wearables. While you could argue that the whole category is really just transitional technology on the way to embeddables — i.e. in-body sensors and computing—let’s stipulate for a minute that eventually there will be a worthwhile wearable that has mature software integration and durability and all those things that can make connected products worthwhile.

Now, in order for us to get to that evolutionary product, some group of people, myself included, have to establish the market, by first purchasing the earliest iterations of this wearable category—like the GoWear Fit armband from BodyMedia for about $250 in 2008—to track things like their steps, calories, and sleep cycle. As a wearable newbie, I mistakenly wore the armband too tightly for an entire week — ensuring that the sensors were in constant contact with my skin—but resulting in a huge blister underneath the wearable that hurt horribly. Blisters aside, the GoWear Fit was on the large side, tracking was sporadic and synchronization with the cloud service kind of a pain, but overall not insurmountable.

The BodyMedia GoWear Fit, a first-generation fitness tracking wearable

Today, of course, you can purchase a wearable like the FitBit Flex 2 for a third of the price, which does everything the GoWear Fit could do and more, like give you call and text notifications, all with a smoother, more integrated experience. And, the FitBit Flex fits on your wrist, not on your arm, which is a slightly nicer experience and doesn’t cause blisters.

The Diamond Rio PMP300, an early portable mp3 music player

Back in the mobile computing dark ages of 1998, I bought a Diamond Rio PMP300 mp3 player, the cutting edge of portable music at the time. For just a few hundred dollars you could store your tunes on a whopping 16 MB of internal memory. While the device could handle just a few, low fidelity tracks, the portability and small size were attractive to me. I planned to use it as a recorded music input for my electronic music band. Of course in 2001, the iPod made it possible to hold not just a few songs, but your entire music collection in a similar form factor and at a similar price point. My decrepit Rio player suddenly seemed less like a smart, game changing purchase and more like a piece of junk. So it goes with early adoption.

The Amazon Echo, hands free speaker you control with your voice

And a couple of years ago I made another hopeful guess, purchasing the Amazon Echo which currently sits in my kitchen and lets me listen to music, hear the news and sports, check the weather and set timers for the food that’s cooking. At dinner, my kids delight in yelling nonsense words at Alexa, the Amazon AI bot, to see what music title the service the will identify from their ridiculous shouting and play. “Alexa, play bita-bit-boo!” So far we’ve discovered plenty of not-so-good new music as a result of this experiment. Although, I do very much enjoy the playlists I can make with Prime Music.

For at least some of us early adopters there’s an experimental, DIY ethos similar to that of hackers and makers. We want to make new technology work. We want to try out new things, to struggle with the half-baked services and dig into the manuals and online help, to configure and re-configure until the potential of the technology comes through. So, for all of you who are OK with the first rev of a new consumer tech product, for everyone who looks at these and sees what they could be, flaws and all, just know that your trials and tribulations are appreciated, and that it’s definitely worth the effort, if not the price you paid.

If you’re interested in emerging tech like wearables and the IoT, you might like Designing for Emerging Technologies: UX for Genomics, Robotics, and the Internet of Things, a book published by O’Reilly Media that I edited, which features essays from designers and engineers at groundbreaking organizations like Adaptive Path, MIT Media Lab, Intel, and Autodesk.