Different eras in human history are marked by the innovations that changed society. From the Bronze Age to the Industrial Revolution, our relationships with productshave fundamentally changed the ways we work, think and live – often permanently.
The digital revolution has put us right in the middle of another huge shift in human behavior and mindset, feeding our natural predilection toward convenience. And while the jury is still out on whether or not digital proliferation is actually doing more good than harm, there is no denying that when it comes to product innovation, people are experiencing disruption just as much as industries are.
The culture of convenience didn’t start with Uber, but there isn’t a better example of a modern-day product that gets us to ask the question, “how did we ever exist before this came along?”
Every generation has these types of products – surely America’s grandparents have told many a tale of life in the living room before the invention of the remote control – but what sets Uber, Airbnb and countless online retailers apart is the type of convenience they offer. Whether it’s the (relatively) unvetted driver we put our blind faith in, or an apartment in an unfamiliar city, or a mattress we’ve never laid down on, simply having these options at our fingertips is better than the alternative.
Our expectations have shifted, almost overnight.
On-demand digital products have changed us so much, we’re going out of our way to never go back to the old way of doing things. Take what happened in Austin, Texas recently. When measurements passed that led to the eventual exodus of Uber and Lyft from the city, residents didn’t simply start hailing yellow cabs again. Instead, theybegan organizing word-of-mouth, grassroots ride-sharing programs and finding former Uber drivers on Facebook willing to make the rounds under the table.
Is this truly a more convenient way of getting a ride? And does it matter? Good products aren’t just good for their own sake, they make predecessors look completely undesirable as well.
Even those who may be more inclined to tell a “back in my day” story than to hop on Snapchat are realizing the power of today’s innovations. Seniors are increasingly getting in on the on-demand game, from using grocery delivery services to hosting a surprising number of Airbnb travelers.
This further suggests that, even though the technology must be learned, the human brain gravitates toward the more personal, customizable and convenient option every time. The best products are able to capitalize on this bit of biology and, in some cases, even rewire the brain entirely.
The biggest example of a product altering the human brain in recent years is GPS technology. GPS trackers aren’t new, but they’ve become so precise and are used in nearly every on-demand tech product that we can hardly remember a world without them. GPS has fundamentally changed how we drive, how marketers reach their target audiences, even how we date. And it’s also fundamentally changed our neural grey matter.
Numerous studies have shown that reliance on satellites for navigation has actually made us worse at orienting ourselves in the world and less likely to engage with and therefore remember different aspects of the environment. It’s the “use it or lose it” axiom at work – the less we have to consciously make sense of our surroundings, the worse we’ll be at it. And yet, despite these findings, we probably get more anxiety thinking about unfolding a giant paper map while holding up traffic in a foreign city.
The fact that a product can have such a profound effect on our brains is remarkable. It places a whole new meaning on “survival of the fittest” – everything we need to survive fits in the palm of our hands, so the playing field has become more even. Successful products start by solving niche problems and grow as we expect the same convenience in other areas of our lives. Once we get it, there’s no turning back.