The Role of Social Signals & Technology

Remember when you’d be wandering through the shopping mall and it seemed every second person had a light blinking on their ear and some form of cyborg looking device plugged into their ear? Before that, you had to listen to people talking louder than they had to showing they had a mobile phone. Fast forward to the iPod and the iconic white ear buds that were a great signal to thieves that you had something worth stealing. Now those white buds have a wee dangle and connect wirelessly and tell people you can afford to lose things and pay ridiculous amounts of money to replace them. All of these, are social signalling items. They play an important role in society and culture.

If a technology company is lucky enough to have millions of people wandering around showing these things off, it’s an indicator of brand acceptance, consumer trust and value-perception in general culture. Apple is of course, the most successful at this. When this happen a product truly becomes a brand.

In the early days of broadcast radio, the sets were large and heavy. There was no precedent for how such a device would fit in the home, let alone how people went about listening to it. About the only logical place was in the living room. And of course, you wanted the neighbourhood and friends to know you had one. Group listening became a thing. The same followed with television. Cars have long held this concept of social signalling.

It becomes a little more interesting however, with technologies. Having a Blackberry hanging off your hip in a case in the late 90’s and early 00’s was a social signal that not only did you have a cool device, it suggested you were important and that you connected with a lot of people. A key, yet often misunderstood part of social signalling with technology is the signal that you’re part of a social group. That’s actually quite important for the success of a technology product. It’s part of the problem with Virtual Reality headsets; people seem them as a non-social tool. VR headsets are not seen to connect people, rather the opposite. Makers of VR headsets and experiences will have to figure this out. It’s also why Augmented Reality will be popular faster; it’s singular but also inherently more social and transactional. VR isn’t.

For companies developing new technologies, it is critical to consider the social role of a product. Some products are not social at all, such as flying a drone. That’s okay. It doesn’t have to be. The output of the drone, the resulting video or pictures, may be social. But if you’re developing a consumer technology product for the mass market, it’s not just the UX (User Experience) it’s the SX or Social Experience, that needs to be considered. Even better if you can look at your product road map and using design thinking,  consider how the product will evolve and consumer usage. Today, for example, very few people wear Bluetooth headsets and most hide their smartphone in a purse or pocket and have it on vibrate.

I’ve got some more insights based on working with a number of technology product launches. I’d be happy to connect and also, more than happy if you shared your thoughts and ideas below!


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