Nouns and Verbs

by Larry Marturano

April 4th, 2011

I love the Hype Cycle. If you work in technology, you’re probably already a fan like I am.

If not, here’s a quick primer. Every year since 1995, Gartner publishes a set of reports on the state of technology in a variety of industries. And as they’ve been doing since 1995, Gartner uses the Hype Cycle to describe individual technologies’ status and fortunes for mainstream success. The Hype Cycle says that a technology goes through a predictable series of stages on its way to mainstream adoption. In the first stage, Technology Trigger, a technology is introduced. The media or tech blogosphere picks up the stories on early proofs of concept and demonstrations. This sets the stage for a rising tide of excitement until the technology reaches the Peak of Inflated Expectations, where it seems widely expected to beat sliced bread, cure cancer and eliminate all human suffering, sometimes all at once. Some companies jump into the game, but soon there are widespread failures as the technology fails to meet lofty expectations. And so begins the Trough of Disillusionment, a point at which companies fail or merge, and the technology can only survive if it meets the needs of early adopters. If it does not die, the technology reaches the Slope of Enlightenment and the Plateau of Productivity, as it matures and realistic applications of the technology emerge, along with viable business models.

Why is the Hype Cycle so much fun for me? For one, it’s always interesting looking back at the technologies we all thought were going to rule the world. Remember JINI, holographic storage, or the 3-D web? I didn’t think so. In a sense, it’s also like the ultimate Vegas odds board for geeks. Gartner publishes Hype Cycles in almost 70 areas yearly, so it’s cool to pick what emerging technologies appearing in the Trigger stages you think will be the Next Big Thing and then follow them in the tech press. In the latest incarnation, 3-D Printing, Tangible User Interfaces, Autonomous Vehicles, Mobile Robots and Human Augmentation all appear in the Trigger stage. Which will be a bust? Which won’t we be able to live without? It’s a high stakes game with the whole world watching.

From a technology standpoint, it’s all good fun. But from a design standpoint, I often wonder just why a technology has to go through all of these stages. It seems awfully inefficient. Can’t technologies ever just move right to the Plateau of Productivity? It seems odd and a little frustrating that the Hype Cycle rings so true.

To me, it’s all about nouns and verbs.

When you think of a technology or a product as a noun, you concentrate on what it is, its object-ness. My late mentor Jim Wilson called noun-thinking our inherent physics fixation. You become dazzled by the sheer achievement of the demonstration, overly fascinated by the whiz-bang quality of the thing itself, without worrying too much about its real utility. I remember the first time I experienced immersive virtual reality, in a CAVE at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I stood in a ten foot cubic box, wearing glasses and amazed at how I was instantly transported far undersea, with schools of fish seeming to swim right through me. I was in physics fixation heaven—I was so overcome by the novelty and technology that I didn’t stop to think about what real problems were solved by people experiencing virtual schools of fish swimming through them.

But a verb is something different. A verb implies action—and useful action, hopefully. When you think of a technology or product as a verb, you think about what it can do for people. You think about the problem it solves, the usefulness of the thing in everyday life. You are verb-thinking. An application is no longer a thing—it is an act.

A product or technology can get through the Trigger phase and rocket up the Peak of Inflated Expectations just being a noun—perhaps it’s always been so and always will be. People are always attracted to novel technologies that seem like magic. But that excitement only takes it so far, and perhaps the Trough, too, is inevitable. In the classic Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore gives us another way to think about the Trough. Early technology enthusiasts are willing to invest time, money and incur risk in adopting new technologies in early stages of the Cycle. But the mainstream thinks differently, and the qualities that attract them—proven value and return on investment, ease of use and integration, low and predictable costs—are almost exactly the opposite of what attracts the early adopter. Moore asserts that products fall into the Chasm when companies cater to their early adopters and refuse to mold the technology into a comprehensive solution to a practical problem. I think this is exactly what is going on in the Trough of Disillusionment.

Getting out of the Trough requires providing practical value. It is a lot about a technology’s transformation from technology-as-object to technology-as-actor, the emphasis evolving from “what it is” to “what it does.”  Technology enthusiasts respond to the noun, but the mainstream responds to the verb.

As a technologist, this is what first drew me to design thinking, and to user-centered design in particular. From a product development point of view, user-centered techniques can help lift you out of the Trough by helping understand the practical problems the technology can solve, and identifying all of the pieces you need to provide a complete solution for your customers. Adopting a customer-centered new product introduction process including front-end user research, cross-functional teaming, and early experimentation and prototyping gives you a systematic way to do verb-thinking, always emphasizing the utility and value of your technologies, and avoiding the perils of the Trough. As Don Norman points out in his book, The Invisible Computer, institutionalizing user-centered design techniques like Contextual Design can help.

I was happy last month to see that Vitality, a Boston-area startup headed by David Rose, was purchased by Patrick Soon-Shion, a serial entrepreneur-turned-venture-capitalist. David spent more than 10 years shepherding ambient display technologies through the Hype Cycle, experimenting with and commercializing everything from ambient orbs to picture frame-like displays to alarm clocks at his first company, Ambient Devices. But the compelling value turned out to be in medicine—GlowCaps, an ambient reminder system for medications embedded in prescription container caps, is the reason for Vitality’s acquisition, and his exit from the Trough. Vitality’s website says that applying ambient displays to medicine is the result of David’s struggle with medication compliance himself, but I can’t help wondering if ambient display’s trip through the Hype Cycle might have been shorter had a physician or two stumbled upon the ambient orb a bit sooner.

Tags: Contextual Design, design, innovation, new technology

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