Good Solutions Create Problems

The advent of cheap, fast manufacturing and instant sales channels is overwhelming us with products. New search methods are required to connect buyers with sellers.

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I am amazed at the array of products available these days – products that I had no idea existed or needed. And yet, globalization has made it possible for anyone with an idea to get the product made cheaply and can sell it on amazon, even giving it lots of attention by claiming it is worth 10 times the cost to produce and then discounting it 80%. When 3D printing becomes a little more affordable I am sure the number of products will explode further. Just today I saw a heated shaving foam dispenser and rechargeable, heated slippers. I am disappointed that it did not have a USB 3 port in it.

But half the time, when I actually need something, I have no idea how to look for such a product. I want a thingamy bob with an extra twist that would make it useful for coupling my two gizmos. How does one look for it? We don’t have the requisite names for the things we want. The success of manufacturing and sales sites, such as Amazon, has instead created a new problem – how do you turn a push technology into a pull technology. There would be almost no benefit for the person who makes the exact device I need using the existing marketing strategies, which are based on push – attempting to persuade people that they want what you have to sell.

Search should be the technology that comes to the rescue, but it is woefully lacking. It cannot understand features. It does not comprehend what things actually do. Perhaps machine learning techniques will find a way to turn my abstract product request into things that actually match what I want to buy. However, given the existing ability of sites to predict what I need after I have just bought the exact product they now think I might want — or trying to tell me that people interested in product X also buy product Y – I am not expecting much.

There have been sites in the past that tried to turn the sales process around. You advertise what you want and companies bid on fulfilling the need. It still suffers from the language barrier. How do I describe what I want succinctly without providing a full specification for the product?

There is also the problem of persuading people they need something they haven’t even thought about. I have attended a lot of talks this year about the IoT – and in every one of them I have been amazed at how an industry was turned around by a company not originally knowing that something would be of value to them. After they find it out, it has a huge impact on them. This is not the usual sales problem. Perhaps it is a little like blind calling, except you have to engage the customer long enough to make them think they actually have a need that you might be able to solve.

Many people have said the IoT will go through a trough of disillusionment, but in my opinion they are wrong. The IoT is not a product. It is a change in the way we think. It is about accepting things can happen differently, that data has value, and that machines can find patterns in the data that humans would never have thought to look for. Once found, you can translate that into something that will provide an increase in productivity or quality, or a decrease of waste, that was never considered possible. The IoT will only stall if people stop looking for interesting ways to use data to create benefit.

It is unfortunate that most of the technology advances we hear about today do not create benefit – real benefit. They are for the advancement of the technology. Do I really care if a computer can beat the world champion Go player? Do I really care if a company can provide better ads – well, maybe if they actually could understand what I want. But I am not sure what leap has to happen to make some of the technology provide real benefit to me.