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Mar 15, 2021

Why some of the most useful technologies are not adopted

There is a whole theory of innovation diffusion, first put forward by Everett Rogers in 1962. We know – more or less – how innovations are adopted. However, there are curious exceptions. Certain very useful and simple technologies are met with incredible wide-spread and inexplicable resistance. Below are just three examples:

  • Mail Merge was part of Word at least since 1995, if not before. It is perhaps one of the most useful features in a word processing application. It allows to create labels, envelopes, individualized letters and emails using a spreadsheet or any table.  By all measures, this is a simple feature. You write a letter, link it to a table with names and email addresses – and voila, send hundreds of emails, all different. While many support professionals know and use it routinely, very few regular people do the same. From my experience, many still do not even know it exists.
  • Outlook has been around since 2002. The most useful feature it has – you can look up whether people are free or busy, when scheduling meetings. I believe it was available right from the start, if not before. And yet, incredibly, 20 years later we still waste hundreds of hours every year trying to schedule a meeting. The success of Doodle, an alternative scheduler, is a result of a mysterious resistance by so many people to adopt an equally simple Outlook feature (There is an Apple equivalent for Exchange servers). The 20-year-old Outlook calendar is actually way better than Doodle, the work-around. Why, why? I have no idea.
  • Google doc is a revolutionary product introduced in 2006, 15 years ago. The whole point of it that multiple people can edit at the same time. You do not have to send multiple versions, wait for each other to edit. No one must take suggestions, and re-enter them into the master document. The feature was so useful that MS copied it for its new Office 365 and did a good job at it. And yet, 15 years later, it is amazing how many people do not dare to write in a doc. They will send emails with suggestions, but will just refuse edit or suggest, or comment right on the google doc.

More examples can be found. People refuse to use very useful innovations with low threshold of learning. Each of these could be learned in under 15 minutes. This cannot be simple laziness or lack of time. I do not know what is going on with these but have a hypothesis. Sometimes an innovation hit a subconscious taboo. People resist without even understanding why. For example, seeing if anyone is busy or not may feel like intrusion into someone’s private life. It is like looking into a diary. Writing into someone’s Google doc feels like physically intruding into someone else’s notebook. Not sure what is going on with the Mail merge. Perhaps it is eerily close to speaking to someone who you don’t really remember or now. The awkwardness is in pretending to be personal and individual, while not being such. It is a fear of being discovered.

We need to employ psychoanalysts in the business of technology implementation – not just user exerts, but someone who understands the ego, its desires, and fears.

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