Pain Is Good
Jan/Feb 2012
Tim Lindner

No, I am not a sadomasochist. I am, however, an observer of the human-machine relationship. I have followed the adoption cycles of connected devices in both B2B and consumer venues, and have come away convinced that pain drives people to accept technological remedies that have some undesirable side effects.

Why are some consumer-facing devices overwhelmingly adopted with high praise while others retreat from general introduction into the market? It comes down to how much pain the device eliminates in our lives.

I have observed a direct correlation between pain and device adoption; the higher and more persistent the pain a user experiences in some activity, the faster the adoption rate for the device that relieves that pain.

Let’s look at an example of a connected device that took away a lot of pain and became ubiquitous within a single generation of users.

In 2007, I was part of a team presenting the “go-to-market” strategy for a retail-focused remote monitoring and remediation service. Connected devices were extensively integrated; the service would not work without them. The retail space was a major new market and we were building upon the success of having one of the world’s largest retailers as a first adopter. We were presenting to the president of our division, a man who had lived through three generations of consumer and professional product development. He was “tech savvy,” as we said in those days.

The presentation went well, and we were wrapping up with small talk, touching base with colleagues we rarely saw and, in general, waxing philosophical. Someone, in a voice designed to get everyone’s attention, asked the president a personal question: What single connected device had the greatest impact in his life for the good?

He paused and then said: “EZ Pass.” Silence ensued. This was not what anyone was expecting to hear.

By way of explanation, in the New York area, EZ Pass is the name of the RFID-based toll-collection system. Around the United States, it’s called by different names, but the fundamentals are the same. The “tag” in your car connects to the reader positioned at the toll barrier as you approach, and assuming you have a sufficient account balance to pay the toll, you move through without stopping. You even get a “thank you” message as you pass through in some places.

As the moment of stunned silence passed, our president proceeded to give us a simple explanation: It made his everyday life less frustrating. It was convenient and eased a process that was extremely bothersome at best. He could not ever envision a return to the days of tokens and cash toll payment. We all got it.

What everyone in that room understood was the pain of the toll collection process before EZ Pass was introduced. Our daily commute had been painful because we used tokens or cash. Whether you had to make change with a toll collector, or endure the delay when the “automatic” token/exact change machine didn’t function correctly, delays were inevitable. During rush hour, the lines backed up for a mile or two. The extra time added to the daily rush hour commute to get through multiple tolls made wake up times earlier, the drive more frustrating, and the arrival time inconsistent.

In short, it was a persistently painful part of our lives. We, like our president, had all become first-generation adopters as the system was implemented on the highways in our area. We couldn’t wait to get it. Yet, when we did adopt EZ Pass, some of us were aware that it would record when and where we were as we progressed through our daily commutes. This was a potential privacy issue (like GPS in phones has become).

The intensity of the commuter pain greatly outweighed the privacy concern, and we, that first generation of adopters, gladly jumped on the bandwagon. And while we know there’s a database record in the cloud somewhere, keeping track of our comings and goings, very few of us care. Abandoning the digital solution to return to the analog precursor (tokens and cash) is not desired by the millions of EZ Pass tag holders.

I should note that the introduction of EZ Pass was not an act of altruism on the part of the highway authorities. The positive impact to their bottomlines from reduction of labor (the armies of toll collectors), the reduction of accidents that massive backups produced, and the improvement of traffic flows with the attending environmental benefits to the communities around the toll plazas, were the real reasons for this technology’s introduction. Commuter pain relief was, however, a wonderful side effect.

The adoption of EZ Pass went viral; states and their highway authorities created collaborative and reciprocal networks, further easing the pain of the long-distance traveler.

The introduction of consumer-facing connected devices, now inclusive of mobile phones, tablets, and other “smart” handheld devices is impacted to a greater or lesser extent by the consumers’ wariness of the ability of these devices to invade one’s privacy. Yet, iPhones and other similar connected devices have been broadly and enthusiastically adopted, while other devices such as smart meters for homes are facing intensive resistance.

Why? An iPhone takes away a lot more pain in one’s daily life than a smart meter in the home. Both have the potential to record and report (sometimes without our knowledge and approval) to a range of interested parties on our usage (the applications flowing through the device to the user and back, etc.), to characterize and label that usage, and in some ways, to exploit it. Yet, the iPhone is broadly accepted because, with its access to hundreds of thousands of useful applications, the pain of having to use multiple devices to “live” has been reduced or eliminated. The iPhone as a device is all you now need to do most anything you once had to do on multiple devices.

How very opposite the smart meter is: What pain does it really take away for me? I am not the focus of the device. If it relieves no personal pain, why would I want to have it reporting on me?

I am a marketer; the “pain relief” paradigm is powerful. It has proven itself. The trick is to understand what pain your device will relieve, and if it is not much, the effort to position the product is an uphill challenge.

Let me conclude by postulating a formal premise: The more pain a connected device can eliminate for a broad base of users sharing that pain, the faster and more pervasive its adoption—even at the expense of potential privacy concerns.

Corollary: The higher and more persistent the level of pain endured, the less resistance to user adoption, especially if the device greatly reduces or eliminates that pain.

Corollary: Enthusiastic consumer acceptance leads to viral adoption rates. Very broad adoption makes the device and its use ubiquitous.

Qualification to the premise: Only first-generation adopters fully experience the risk/benefit tradeoffs leading to the adoption decision. Once the device is ubiquitous, succeeding generations of users assume its use to be a normal part of the ecosystem. Its ubiquity makes it nonthreatening. Broad adoption reduces any chance of elimination due to initially suppressed concerns, such as privacy. The benefit continues to outweigh the risk.

In the end, the human condition is intimately entwined with pain and its avoidance. For all the positive things that can be said about a device, we are conditioned to more favorably respond to it if it really does take away some painful thing in our lives. So, when designing a device and its applications, find the pain points it will relieve, don’t add any pain, and sell it like the drug makers have done so successfully since the invention of modern advertising: Take one of our devices and the pain will go away.


Tim Lindner is senior vice president, sales and



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