When tech trends align with human nature: Ka-ching!

Ecclesiastes says “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong … but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

So too, in the world of gadgets, sales are not always to the cool, or customers to the clever. Many a nifty innovation has withered on the vine before the eyes of indifferent consumers.

But if Dr. Eric Haseltine is right, we need not chalk that up entirely to chance, and it’s within our power to see why some technologies win and others lose. It’s a matter of simple human nature.

“When something wins,” says Haseltine. “it wins because it meets some need or want. It pushes people’s buttons, hidden buttons we didn’t know were there.”

A neuroscientist by training, Haseltine has moved fluidly through his career from defense contractors (At Hughes Aircraft, he worked on virtual reality for flight simulators and user interfaces for fighter pilots) to entertainment (at Disney Imagineering) to electronic intelligence (He had a high position in research & development at the NSA after 9/11.) and brings experience from all those fields to bear when he looks at tech trends.

Haseltine, now a consultant, cites several factors pushing technology along: Devices are becoming more intelligent and more ubiquitious. They’re offering greater quality and realism, and new devices are being introduced all the time, offering constant novelties to consumers.

But those “push” factors, he says, must line up with “technology pull” to really take off, and that’s the part many people ignore.

“Pull” isn’t driven by what’s happening in technology, but by fundamental human needs. Haseltine cites four key areas where human nature provides “technology pull.”

  • People are experiencing information overload, so they want their lives to be simpler.

  • People always want novelty and have a hunger for new experiences.

  • People have an enduring need for community, so they are looking for things that enhance their relationships.

  • And people have a growing need to feel mastery — that is, to have a feeling of control over their experiences.

When these factors line up with the trends pushing technology, says Haseltine, the result is a tech winner.

Apple, for example, has been especially good at providing individuals novelty, simplicity and control through new, smarter, more ubiquitous devices. (It hasn’t been as successful using technology to enhance community, where social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are leaders.)

Yet consistently, consumers have been more enthusiastic about Apple products than tech watchers. Haseltine calls critics skepticism “hubris.”

“Critics assume we really understand people, that we know what consumers want,” he says. “We don’t. We learned something about people with the fact the iPad was a winner, or the iPhone was a winner, or iTunes was a winner, or Google was a winner. We learn something about the human condition we didn’t know before.”

The same thinking, says Haseltine, extends to content as well.

“I think people go to movies to feel more alive. And also to feel hope. They project themselves onto the characters, it makes them feel good about themselves.”

In “Jurassic Park,” he says, CG dinosaurs provided novelty, but were also so much more lifelike they added emotional punch to the pic. On the skein “24,” he says, viewers who felt frightened and emasculated after 9/11 found an, in-control hero in Jack Bauer who reassured them the bad guys would be caught and punished.

“I think you can predict that people are always going to have a need to feel those feelings, and if you give them a way to get it to them more powerfully with technology you’re generally going to win.”

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