Product Development/Customer Experience Obsolete power: Is planned obsolescence really there to bring extinction to gadgets faster than we want? Or is it the pioneer in bringing consumer experience to the next level?
In 1954, industrial designer Brooks Stevens defined planned obsolescence as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” Taking this to heart, electronics manufacturers began increasingly pushing out new products with higher frequency, driven by a constant desire to be the hottest new tech on the block. Planned obsolescence became an effective way to encourage innovation, and also ensure healthy competition. Newer versions of products tend to vastly improve the consumer experience, adding features that were not previously available while creating a more dynamic marketplace in which the consumer can help dictate what companies should make. So what does this mean? According to an article from Slate.com, planned obsolescence used to indicate that a gadget worked best on the day you bought it, but fell under the continuous stream of new products, leaving consumers, especially early-adopters, with high costs. But nowadays, an evolution in planned obsolescence means that gadgets are continually improving for customers, at a pace sometimes faster than anyone could expect. Also, gadget functions are no longer so
fixed, thanks largely to downloadable updates. So your mobiles, tablets and PCs can stay current, at least in terms of software and usability, though of course things like disk capacity, processors and wireless internet speeds cannot be updated that way. “Continuous improvement is the new planned obsolescence,” said Bob Michaels, senior vice president for technology & telecom research at Synovate. “The challenge for businesses is to harness the new technology developments in a way that directly taps into consumers’ needs. The end result is the same – new gadgets that do new things - but their focus also has to be on getting the design and price right, and optimising and communicating the benefits, in order to make all this ever evolving technology relevant to the masses.” In order to encourage innovation and focus on continually improving their products, a manufacturer has to stay on top of what their customers are doing and thinking. An example is the smart phone market, with many consumers moving from purchasing several single-use products to all-in-one gadgets. In a recent Huffington Post article, the powerful trend of ‘bundling up instead of trading up’ explains the decreasing demand for certain single-use technological products. Although all-in-one gadgets typically offer more convenience, quality may not always be as good as standalone gadgets. “The more a device does, the less it has the capacity and capability to do one thing very well,” says Jason Oxman, senior vice president of the Consumer Electronics Association. Yet the desire to have the latest and greatest tech gadget – whether for convenience or simply to keep up with the Joneses – seems ever-present. Synovate’s Global Trends survey (conducted from July to September 2010), found that nearly all of the 28 countries surveyed (except for Brazil, India, Russia, Serbia and Spain) recorded higher percentages of individuals intending to buy a smart phone in the next 12 months rather than a regular mobile phone. Whether planned obsolescence is fuelled by consumers’ insatiable demand to stay on top of trends or by the relentless momentum of technological advancement is something of a chicken or egg situation. It may just be that the goal for today’s consumer is simply to keep consuming. “Before, people might save for a sofa, or a bed,” says Professor Gerald Gorn, chair professor of marketing at the University of Hong Kong. “Now it’s for the consumption experience. The future is now.”