The only tech question you need this year: So what?

What do these headline grabbing announcements from the tech industry actually mean for adland?

As we start a new decade, the tech industry is buzzing with innovation - but what do these headline grabbing announcements actually mean for adland? VMLY&R's Gracie Page argues that the question that matters most is....

"So what?"

Two months into this new decade, and we’ve had more Big Tech announcements than I could shake a smart-stick at. That’s a stick that counts and calculates my average shake rate, obviously. Although such a device wouldn’t have looked out of place at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, I’m happy to report recent tech news has been sporting more meaningful headlines. BOSCH’s smart-fridge now tells you what to make with your wilting veg helping to reduce food waste, Snapchat have launched a mental health support system in-app, and Pinterest’s new augmented reality features collapse the discovery-to-purchase funnel even further. And there’s plenty more on the horizon.

Tech maturation, wake-up calls and re-writing rule books

This year is going to be one of tech maturation, wake-up calls and re-written rule books. But it isn’t just product launches hitting the news. Kickstarter staff are unionising in the US, Ofcom’s remit has been expanded in the UK, and the Irish Data Protection Commission blocked the launch of Facebook’s Dating service due to go live on Valentine’s Day because they didn’t play by the rules.

When it comes to how brands use consumer technology, we’re also in need of an update. TV cut-downs shoe-horned into social, one-off VR builds that 1% of an audience ever get to experience, and new tools used to push the same brand-centric worldviews are just a few examples of why we need to start asking ourselves one very simple question when we design with technology: so what? Ask this at every step of the way, from ideation to delivery.

"So what?" forces us to define the value proposition of our ideas and the role for technology within it.

If we use voice user interfaces to tell someone about our brand, we must ponder "so what?". Only if we can properly answer this question should we continue to pursue that technology. "Voice is good because our brand is used whilst cooking, when you usually have your hands full, and most households put their Alexa devices in the kitchen" would be a good answer to that stinging question "so what?". "Because lots of people have Alexa" probably isn’t gonna cut it.

Although it sounds contentious at best, and condescending at worst, "so what?" is a useful probe. It helps to crystallise the mind on what’s important when building products and services that go on to deliver value and build an emotional connection between consumer and brand. It forces us to articulate why this technology over any other (or lack thereof) is uniquely placed to do the job.

Making life better

Brands who’ll win the decade know that technology is only there to fuel customer experiences that make life better. When the technology disappears, creativity and humanity remain. Making life better makes brands culturally magnetic: an emotional connection is made, and trust is built in an increasingly weary consumer marketplace. But invisible technology doesn’t mean absent technology: just as it takes an expert to explain subject matter in simple terms, one must truly understand technology in order to make it disappear.

If you need a place to start this spring, make it augmented reality, followed by voice user interfaces. These two emerging technologies alone will change the way people use devices in 2020.

So what, you ask? Touché. That’s a question only you can answer for your brand.

Gracie Page is Emerging Technology Director at VMLY&R. For more on emerging tech follow the IPA at SXSWi 2020.

Last updated 28 February 2020