Tim Rich: I’ll give it a go – after you

Although Tim Rich is suitably impressed with the functionality of the Segway HT human transporter, he cannot help but be amused by its unusual form

It was a secret called ‘it’. Then IT. Then Ginger. It had some other names too, until December last year when it was finally launched. What was it? Perhaps the most significant development in personal transport for decades – a small, stand-on vehicle able to carry someone from A to B quickly and quietly using two wheels, a platform, an electric motor, gyroscopes and tilt sensors.

The real name of it is the Segway HT – H for human, T for transporter. Anyone who has seen one move will tell you that it’s impressive. The gyroscopes and sensors monitor the user’s gravity centre about 100 times a second, calculating how the HT should respond. If the person leans forward the machine moves forward; if they lean back it moves back. Business Week magazine recently awarded the Segway HT ‘Gold’ at its Annual Design Awards.

It is an amazing work of design, but I’ve a problem with the HT. Every time I’ve seen it at work a little voice pipes up in my head saying: ‘Impressive, yes, but the person riding it looks really silly’. And, in truth, looking through my eyes, they do. People don’t ride scooters, bicycles or sit-on mowers like that. So, as much as I admire the extraordinary functional performance of man and machine, I just can’t quite feel right about the Segway HT.

No doubt such a conservative response has afflicted many attempts to innovate. So how does a manufacturer of a ground-breaking product counter such reactions? In Segway’s case the answer lies with its business strategy, which – by accident or design – also serves as a user acceptance strategy.

Segway is concentrating on showing large organisations the benefits its device can bring. For example, the US Postal Service is trialling it for deliveries, Michelin for factory working and the Boston Police Force for street patrols. BAE Systems has just announced it is marketing the device to the aerospace and defence industries in the UK.

If such organisations adopt the HT its use will become a familiar event. Its appeal could then spread to a range of interesting and high-profile companies, transforming the HT from a business device to a lifestyle statement. Imagine – the sight of young couriers speeding around a city might be enough to make the HT and its unusual, leaning action fashionable.

The 100-times-a-second user obsession of the HT came to mind because there are some interesting debates going on in the world of usability and user-centred design (the latter being a strange term in my view, as any design that’s not user-centred is either art or refuse). One strand of these conversations is about the way companies ‘test’ innovations. Clearly, it is difficult to gain a picture of people’s true feelings towards something genuinely innovative, not least because most of us are wary about embracing the unproven and unfamiliar. Besides, user testing can only tell us what people feel about something today – it can’t state what they will feel about the same thing tomorrow, and tomorrow is when successful innovations become accepted products and objects.

Some clinically rational champions of user-centred design will have you believe that ‘the user’ is an entirely predictable unit of existence that makes decisions based on functional benefits alone. This ignores the important roles emotional, instinctive and unconscious desires and fears play in a user’s entire experience. Take the HT. It is clearly functionally excellent, but the majority of people will probably feel uncomfortable about using the device until they have some social or cultural references with which to understand what it means to use it.

User testing that privileges participation over anticipation can’t help solve the problem of getting people to engage with something new. The usability of a thing lies as much in the idea of using it as in the experience of physically interacting with it – something many manufacturers seem to be forgetting in the rush to get their latest ‘innovation’ into the sweaty palms of the public.

It’s often said that innovation is about a leap of the imagination, but the imagination referred to is usually that of the innovator. I’m more excited by the idea that successful innovation requires and inspires a leap of the collective imagination. Unfortunately – and I’m somewhat embarrassed to reveal this dark stain of user conservatism in me – lots of other people might have to leap on to a Segway HT before I feel I want to.

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