Mobile Digital Technologies As Extensions Of Our Brains – The Good & The Bad

This is the story of a dilemma that fellow, city-dwelling digital natives MIGHT be able to relate to. I was flying solo in a neighborhood of New York City that I don’t typically spend much time in, and I needed to find a good place to grab a late afternoon lunch. It was past the typical lunch hour, so eyeballing prospective establishments for hustle and bustle wasn’t really an option – they were all empty.

Where did I immediately turn to help discover a suitable lunch spot?  My trusty smartphone and the limitless supply of innovative and intuitive apps – something I’ve realized have become almost a sixth sense in various different situations.

My first step was to pull up the Foursquare app and its “explore” feature (no, I don’t keep Foursquare’s “radar” on – it’s a battery drainer). When using this feature near Big Fuel HQ, some awesome recommendations show up, based on where my colleagues have been, how many times they’ve been there and what is popular on Foursquare. When I’m in a popular neighborhood, similarly helpful friend-based results will show up.

In this case, however, I was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – more of a family friendly neighborhood, and one that not many of my existing Foursquare friends frequent. Foursquare’s explore feature did its best to pull in options that are “popular on Foursquare,” but they didn’t carry as much weight as a recommendation from a friend with similar interests. Foursquare’s closed network and smaller base of users wasn’t up to this task.

Next, I decided it was time to cast a wider net of restaurant reviews via the Yelp app – I really didn’t want to settle for a place I had been before, or waste time and money on a mediocre lunch. When I’m at home on my computer, Yelp.com is my go to place for food reviews.  It is integrated with Facebook connect (allowing me to clearly see my friend’s opinions), but is also open to reviews from the entirety of the interwebs unlike Foursquare’s closed network of friends. Location services is used efficiently, so even if I don’t know where I am, Yelp will find me, and find a restaurant that I’ll enjoy. Finally, Yelp’s “review highlights”  for every restaurant allow me to quickly see important information or recommendations for that particular venue.  Yelp’s mobile app offers many of the same features, including block-level filtering, really helping to drill down nearby options. I was even able to mess around with many levels of filters, including different food types, best rated, etc.

But here’s where the frustration set in. By the time I had efficiently set all of my filters, I was getting cold, feeling a little silly standing in the middle of the sidewalk messing with my smartphone and more hungry than ever. I should have started out with the Yelp app and not wasted time with Foursquare in this particular neighborhood. In the end, I took the “safe route” and grabbed a sandwich from Lenny’s – a chain of lunch spots that operates in nearly all of New York City’s neighborhoods and that I had eaten many times before.

This lunch adventure led me to a bit of a realization – I can’t be the ONLY human being becoming increasingly reliant on my smartphone. Are we progressing (or regressing?) to the point where a large portion of society EXPECTS digital technology to act as a seamless extension of our brain? I demanded instant gratification in the form of a lunch recommendation and I expected my smartphone to deliver. There were definitely “apps for that,” but it took a bit of toggling and optimizing – I wanted it to be even easier.

Across industries, digital technologies are resulting in higher levels of efficiency that simply didn’t exist even a few years ago. Nearly 40% of all mobile users have smartphones and that number continues to rise rapidly. At the same time, smartphone users are having trouble finding the apps they need. According to a recent survey conducted by T-Mobile32% of smartphone users feel it is difficult to find the best application for them. Mobile apps have come a long way, especially following the explosive growth of iOS and Android, but it’s still surprising to see how few mobile app developers truly understand what users are looking for.

Soon, success and failure in the mobile app world will depend on developers building a user experience that is simple and intuitive – something that will use an advanced technology to make a process more efficient. A natural extension of our brains.

You can follow Ross on Twitter @RossSheingold and on Google+ http://gplus.to/RossS

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  2. 01/25 2012

    Fascinating piece. I pushed back against getting a smart phone for a *long* time, because I didn’t want to be so reliant on digital technology. Yet even though I only finally succumbed in September, already there are numerous occasions where my default is to check some app or other for information.

    I suppose the good and bad of the smartphone is that you’re never *not* connected. That can be hugely convenient, but it also means that you have to *choose* to switch off sometimes; and that can be difficult (just think of the annoying habit of people who can’t help but react in a Pavlovian manner to every text or email alert, even if they’re with company).

    On the app front, I think it’s more important to start having better apps, rather than more apps. E.g. I often see it touted as some advantage of the iPhone that there are 500,000 apps compared to say 350,000 for Android, but really – are you going to be struggling to find an app to do what you need from a choice of 350,000 in the first place? More important is to consolidate those apps and see great, intuitive interfaces for functionality that people really need.

  3. 01/25 2012

    I totally get it… Living in NYC, I also have experienced the “Lower East Side=Great Recommendations” vs “Upper West Side = Slim Pickins” syndrome… I love my mobile devices and can definitely see my offline life merging bit by bit with my online self. I even wrote a song about it called Wanted Dead or Online (http://youtu.be/g4vYxOpCS94) 🙂

    Great post… Heading out to Lunch in a few minutes and thinking about sparking up my Android device and looking for someplace new to grab a bite. Thanks for the inspiration 😀

  4. 02/1 2012

    @Robin – couldn’t agree more! Quality is so much more important than quantity when it comes to apps! Here’s a great thread on Quora that touches on “App Fatigue” http://www.quora.com/How-can-app-fatigue-be-prevented

    @George – Love the video! A lot of what you’re talking about is touched on in great detail in Brian Solis’ latest book “The End Of Business As Usual” (http://www.briansolis.com/books/) I’m halfway through the book and there are so many great examples of the way digital technologies are changing the way we live. Would love to hear if you found a great place to eat – or you can just leave a Foursquare tip, or Yelp review 😉

  5. 06/18 2012

    […] I’m starting out a blog post with something I wrote a few months ago on the Big Fuel Content To Commerce Blog. It might be self-serving, but I’m especially satisfied after last week’s launch of the new […]

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