Tech Talk:The best computing choices require a thoughtful answer to a simple question

Sunday, May 25, 2014

In a rare idle moment on Tuesday, I watched the press event announcing the Microsoft’s Surface 3 tablet. The new tablet looks very impressive and the passion imbued by Corporate VP Panos Panay was palpable, even in an online webcast: 

“It does not matter what store you walk into, the conflict exists. It exists. You walk into a store and you walk up to the sales person. And you can stand between two very clear tables and ask a question: What is it that I'm supposed to buy?
Panos Panay, Corporate VP
Microsoft Surface
"What does the sales rep say almost every time, almost every time, what do they say? 
... ‘What is it that you want to do?’ 
"I don't know. I'm about to spend $1,000. I thought I needed to do everything. And that's how you feel. But why? That happened because of the conflict that we're creating every day. And does that conflict need to exist? You've been told to buy a tablet, but you know you need a laptop. And that's happening. That's a real conflict.”

Mr. Panay’s comments, taken from the transcript of the event, really rang home for me on a few levels.  

When I was the sales rep asking that question quite a while back, the conflict was, “should I get a computer or not.” Today, computing devices are ubiquitous and the conflict is, as Panos states, between “form factors” like desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphone. Ok, he only mentioned tablets and laptops, but the question remains…

“What is it that you want to do? “

Inevitably, most consumers are not ready for that question. As a result it is rarely informative or useful. Often, it is “email and surf the web.” You might as well put your options up on a dart board and throw a dart at it blindfolded.

I find that to answer that question meaningfully, you have to take a few steps back and become a little more introspective. Forget that you are shopping for a computing device and think more about the kind of things that you do to connect, create, consume, or entertain that make life more interesting, entertaining or useful.

Whoa…this sounds complicated.  I am just buying a computer!

True, I am asking you to dig a bit, but that’s because a lot of the reasons we usually use to get these kinds of devices are the ones we see in the news media and advertising. They aren’t our reasons, but reasons “suggested” to us.

As Mr. Paney points out, it’s what you have been told to buy. If those reasons don’t resonate with your actual needs, the device gets added to stack of items in your closet.

Finding the Need behind the Want

I remember when my 88 year-old mother started wondering whether she should get a tablet or not. After some discussion, she blurted, “I just don’t want to be left technically behind!” It was a perfectly valid reason … but one that didn’t require a tablet to solve.

Part of the problem is that many people don’t know what computers and their connective ability can actually do for them. If you thoughtfully answer the question, “What is it that you want to do?,” the result might surprise you.

Listing your Needs

One way to prepare your answer is to take the areas I briefly mentioned earlier and start listing items in each that interest us.
  • Connecting –Communicating with family and loved ones or sharing common interests with like-minded people can build our sense of community and connection.
  • Creating – Writing, sculpting, singing, or organizing are all examples of creative pursuits that engage us purposefully and produce results for others to appreciate.
  • Consuming –Reading, watching or listening to content found in news, books, video, or music can entertain us, broaden our perspective, and inform our choices.

Solving a “Connecting” Need

Let’s say that under Connecting you listed that your family is scattered around the country and you wanted to stay connected to them. Phone calls, especially with today’s mobile device plans, are certainly doable but with the different time zones, it’s hard to get people together for a call.

Using a social network like Facebook might help bridge this gap.  If Facebook seems too overwhelming, a smaller network like Google+ might work. Those who treasure privacy could explore a network like Path (limiting you to 150 connections), Family Wall, or the minimalistic Everyme. While Facebook  can set up group text chats and Google+ also provide video chats through Hangouts, you can also use Skype or ooVoo for this purpose. While video chats on ooVoo have always been free, Skype in April also announced free video group chat as well.

So, here is something that doesn’t fall under “email and surfing the web.”  Its only one area, but you can see the pattern here. Express the need; determine the software or service that meets the need.

Discovering the Form of Your Solution

The next step is to find the form factor (desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone) best suited to what you want to do. Sometimes this is dictated by whether the software or service is available for that type of device.

Generally, all devices work well with connecting, though mobile devices (laptops / tablets / smartphones) let you connect in more mobile situations. Consuming content is well-suited to mobile devices, especially tablets and the larger smartphones. Creation is easier with laptops and desktops.

Another factor is how mobile you are. If you travel frequently, desktops are less useful. Sometimes “mobile” means you would prefer to surf the web from the couch instead of a desk. Think about where you would like to use the device and what tasks (connecting, creating, consuming) you might be doing there.

What really matters

Above all, understand that what everybody tells you about what computing device to buy can be useful. But it is less essential than what you discover about your own needs. That also minimizes the conflict that Mr. Panay described.

Telling your own story when asked what you want to do will not only arm that sales rep with useful information, but can help measure how successful they are at meeting those needs.

“While technology is important, it's what we do with it that truly matters.” 
Muhammad Yunus -Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, banker, economist and civil society leader who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance.

Do you have a follow up on this topic or technical question on that needs to be answered or explored? Please share it with me at Your question may show up here on Tech Talk.


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