I’m writing this article from a small Caribbean island. Residents get around on horses, roads remain unpaved, and rain water is collected on rooftops. Here, technology is limited to the must-haves: outboard motors, diesel engines, above ground telco cables, satellite dishes.
Visitors come to places like this to escape the pace at which life moves in their respective cities—to disconnect. Large parts of the island have little to no electric light, yet, in the evenings, the faces of locals and visitors alike glow in the blue lights of their personal devices.
This class of technology has become the matter that binds us. It is equally at home in both emerging and mature economies. This is technology as a natural extension of who we are and what we aim to do. Even on this remote island, it is ubiquitous.
Back in our bustling cities, tech conferences fill with angst-ridden attendees hunting for the next “disruptive” technology. “Disruptive” suggests an advance so radical that it interrupts the present. It breaks us out of our habits and forces a rift between what we know and what we desire. It rarely communicates the benefit to the consumer or the potential to move a great many forward.
This pursuit of “disruption” has become an unhealthy distraction for product companies.
We are drawn to technology that recedes—technology that is empathetic and forgiving and integrates into our daily lives. Products that do this well require deep reflection to dream up and develop. They require an equal understanding of both our limits and our latent desires—introspection, not interruption. We want brands that empathize with us, and products that intuit what we want.
A hammer, the internet, a buoy, a heart stent. The most useful products integrate so deeply into our day-to-day experience that they become invisible. They are products that solve something more meaningful than the technological innovation contained within. Truly successful products disappear behind their utility and ubiquity.
Utility is not a romantic term. It implies that value has been exchanged between user and product. The more useful a product is over time, the deeper the relationship between user and product becomes. Utility is a reflection of thoughtfulness: the product has been created with the needs of the end user in mind.
Ubiquity is a higher order goal. The ubiquitous product has achieved such a level of reach and value that it improves the lives of many. Unlike disruption, ubiquity is rarely the result of a single organization. It requires many working on the same problem, over time, continuously leap frogging one another’s technology.
Rather than looking for the next “disruptors,” we should seek ubiquity and utility. True innovation is the byproduct of something more fundamental:
Products that solve a real problem that many share.
Products that connect us to people and things we care about.
Products that tap into something fundamentally human.
Products that create new contexts for humanity.
Products that do more than one of these have the potential to move beyond “disruptive” and sustain relevance long enough to disappear.
Technology, like engineering, should be felt only if it fails. Truly successful products should become almost invisible to consumers, not disruptive, and companies need to see the difference. We assume our connected devices will light up the night on this remote island, and we expect new solutions will arise and then disappear into our daily lives. Technology should be everywhere and nowhere.