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    What does smart tech really mean to those who use it?

    What employees, shoppers, and citizens really want from smart applications

    New “smart" technology hits the market with tidal regularity. The flow can disorient the average user: all of that amazing new stuff, pushing last year's products into obsolescence, just as last year's pushed the previous year's.

    The churn of innovation can be exhilarating, but the question arises: In the push to develop ever more smart tech—for use in our cities, in our workplaces, in our homes, in the stores we patronize—is anyone asking what the consumers on the receiving end of the process really want?

    What does all this technology mean to them?

    What “smart" means to shoppers

    What shoppers seem to want from smart tech comes down to this:

    • More options
    • A seamless, easy checkout
    • Convenience above all

    Tech that promotes those things can be expected to find favor among consumers.

    A survey of attitudes toward a variety of emerging retail technologies indicated that consumers preferred smart shopping carts that would automatically complete transactions to other payment options, like biometric or voice-activated payments, and to in-store novelties like augmented reality and robot assistants. Biometric or voice-activated payments might point a bit too aggressively towards a sci-fi future—they offer too much of a solution. Consumers are satisfied with a less radical-seeming technology that gets them out of the store faster.

    “Just walk out" payment, which eliminates the shopper's need to scan each item as it goes into the cart and to pass through a payment process at the end of a store visit, is another technology that's a good bet to catch on. There's no added layer of tech, nothing scanning your facial features, nothing obviously invasive. You just…walk out of the store.

    Smart body scanners have caught the interest of some of the world's biggest brands and retailers, who are hoping to cut down on high return rates for clothing and to create new opportunities in mass customization.

    These devices digitally measure and map out the body's proportions to an unprecedented level of precision. If deployed in stores, they could eliminate the subjective judgments and pure guesswork that trying on clothing can entail. For retailers, these machines, as well as intelligent fitting rooms that can help assess fit and deliver alternatives in real-time, promise to cut the costs associated with product returns. And consumers will find that the devices make more purchases into happy ones.

    The retail practice of buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) is another good example of what people want. National Retail Federation data shows that 65 percent of users appreciate BOPIS. But there's still plenty of room to enhance it. In many stores the BOPIS location site can be inconveniently situated, and the process in general can be confusing.

    The answer here might partially involve more tech, such as in-store navigation or smart placards. But that tech doesn't come across as a clever end in itself. It's just a way to get your paid-for product into your hands and you out the door, with a minimum of fuss.

    The point is, even the most brilliant technology that doesn't directly promote convenience, ease, and seamlessness seems secondary to consumers. The tech industry been talking up the use of augmented and virtual reality in retail for years now. Yet while these technologies have interesting potential, they've seen narrow adoption. As of yet, there's little consumer demand for them.

    Relatedly, a separate study found that 49 percent of shoppers said they didn't think facial recognition payments would improve their experience.


    An interesting side note is that the more commonplace the shopping experience, the more shoppers crave smart-enabled convenience. Half of grocery shoppers favored scan-and-go payment for groceries, but less than 30 percent wanted it for fashion, beauty, sports, or automotive purchases.

    Buying cat litter and paper towels is something consumers want to get through as fast as possible. Buying expensive perfume or a Swiss watch is an event.

    What “smart" means to citizens

    The average citizen wants this from the smart city:

    • Solutions to the problems that affect city residents
    • The chance to be an active part of that solution

    Smart city thinkers bring up an impressive range of issues, from better housing opportunities to mixed-land use, from less resource consumption to stronger economies. And they proudly cite the nearly 18 percent compound annual growth rate that characterizes smart city investments.

    Citizens, however, might not always share civic leaders' and techies' excitement at the potential for smart water grids to improve flow consistency, reduce waste, and fight theft, or at the transformation of road surfaces into solar power-generation apparatuses, or at the advent of the driverless city. Consider a 2017 study of citizen interaction with smart city technology in booming Jakarta. The study concluded that “people use applications to make their lives better, be it navigating a traffic-congested city or ensuring that a street light is fixed."

    In other words, they seek concrete ways to incrementally improve the conditions they face every day.

    So for every grid upgrade that excites theorists and forward-looking administrators, it might be a good idea to give citizens something they can wrap their heads around.

    How about a single point of contact, for example? Chicago has rolled out a single app to cover most public works and services requests. That's a start. But in Chicago and many other cities, citizens need to flick through several other apps to manage other daily needs, like navigating public transportation and paying for parking. A hodgepodge of apps is just a fresh coat of paint on the old civic tangle of too many phone numbers to call and offices to visit and not enough immediate answers.

    Unsurprisingly, people do want smart city tech to reduce health risks, as crowdsourced pollution data monitoring in cities like Louisville and Amsterdam have shown.

    And, in this “bowling alone" era when social isolation is an increasing topic for discussion, people would like smart tech to help them get involved in their communities. Deloitte writes that opening up smart city initiatives to citizen participation and giving them a stake in the results changes mindsets, as “the role of government shifts from 'doing things' to enabling participation in civic innovation."

    What “smart" means to employees

    Here's what employees want:


    • The tools to get their work done fast and well
    • A comfortable workspace
    • A culture that works for the employee


    Smart office enthusiasts rightly talk up the advantages of climate-controlled meeting rooms, corporate office water reclamation systems, telepresence systems, and configurable lighting.

    But are they really listening to what employees want? Employees, it would seem, want smart technology that forms a coherent part of the workplace culture that it's integrated into, and that speaks to their values.

    It's true that more workers now give at least some consideration to the environmental impacts their employers cause. So a smart building that reduces that impact is meaningful to them. But many smart office trappings miss the bigger point, which is that people see work as an extension of personal life. They don't necessarily want to spend one-third of their personal lives on the cutting edge of tech-driven societal evolution.

    Very few people actually need “a smart desk [to] remind you to get up and move if you've been sitting too long." The problem often isn't that people forget to get up. They don't forget that at home. It's rather that they work in an office culture that gives people with sore backs an incentive to persist in their work at their sit-down desks, in line with a narrow definition of efficiency. Here, “smart office tech" is trying to paper over a culture issue.
    Employees talk about wanting recognition for individual growth, consistent feedback, and freedom from arbitrary boundaries. Any element of workplace culture that can give them that is "smart," no matter how technically clever — or the opposite — it happens to be.

    Incremental is entirely okay

    Just three technology generations ago, smart devices were huge, rare, and difficult to use. Just two tech generations ago they were a novelty. Today we often speak of computers, mobile devices, and smart screens in terms of how many such things people own on average. It's easy to forget just how deeply and how fast smart tech has penetrated almost everyone's daily life.

    Given that penetration, tech doesn't have to make big leaps in order to provide meaningful benefits. Incremental improvements resonate. A little more convenience, engagement, and efficiency with each iteration will lead to satisfied users in almost every case.

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