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The Digital High-Five: Technology Products Gain Social Usability

January 2010

By Claire Brooks, President, ModelPeople Inc.

Over the years that ModelPeople has been conducting technology research, we have often observed how many new products lack what we call social usability; that is the ability to deliver technical utility and simultaneously enhance human interaction. These products may have been a hit with geeks but failed to make the "must-have" list for most consumers.

By contrast, this month’s CultureBlog is full of new products and applications which, our international City Correspondents report, are becoming indispensable precisely because they integrate invisibly into and enhance human interaction; that is, they have true social usability. Thanks to innovations around networking and mobile applications, the passive pleasure of one-way entertainment has almost disappeared. Today, both information and entertainment can be socially interactive in real time. These innovations have social usability because they allow people to share what they enjoy in the moment, and get instant feedback from their social networks, enhancing the entertainment experience.

For example, the Copia online reading community, described as "Facebook meets Netflix for readers," allows e-book readers to share their thoughts with other members. For our New York Correspondent’s friend, Twitter may have replaced the laptop when she wants to share her experiences of the big game on TV, but in the future, look for a new generation of Home Theater TVs or PCs to fully integrate entertainment with real-time social activities like chat or sharing personal media. While our City Correspondents with new babies use Flip mini video cams and Skype to keep their social networks updated on junior’s progress, for our still-single Correspondents, social networking is blossoming beyond the digital page.

Apps like Gowalla (popular in Berlin) and Loopt (taking off in DC) fuse the functions of social networking, GPS, and virtual city guides. Users can find out not only what their friends are doing, but where they are and what else there is to do in the area - all at the touch of a smartphone screen.

On the other hand, a new European device - the poken - bypasses the "getting to know you" phase of a relationship by making it easy to transfer your personally edited profile to someone else’s network. The poken uses a familiar friendship ritual - the high-five, or in poken’s case a high-four - to exchange social networking data between two devices. These innovations are being adopted, we believe, because they facilitate social behaviors dating back to our tribal origins. They engage a real human need to share thoughts and emotions in real-time through an exchange of recognizable social interactions like the high-five.

It is a lack of human physical and emotional engagement that limits the potential of many technologies, as demonstrated by the mainstream success of the Wii gaming platform, which swept away attitudinal barriers to lone video-gaming. We predict that the kinds of technologies we’ve written about in this CultureBlog, which deliver true social usability, will bring digital networking and entertainment to its full potential: away from the screen and into a cherished role in human society.

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