Thursday, December 23, 2010

Finding potential applications for technology, e.g. the Smartphone

In his thesis “Potential use of GPS on the Smartphone”, Jürgen Brandstetter investigated if there are methods to find systematically new application ideas. I suggested that Maslow's hierarchy of needs could help to identify human needs for which new technology could lead to more satisfaction. Maslow's pyramid orders needs and suggests that more basic needs must be satisfied before higher level needs are addressed.

The lowest levels are physiological needs, like drinking, eating, sleeping, clothing and shelter. The second level are safety needs - avoiding and protection from dangers. Then comes “love and belonging”, esteem and finally self-actualization.

The students thesis started mostly as a review of iPhone applications to find hotels, restaurants, friends and using trackers. To a degree, smartphone applications are “solutions in search of a problem” - often a very particular problem, suggesting a niche for one of the thousands of specialized applications. They seem to follow a rule that only very specialized applications can be made simple enough to be usable without lengthy instructions: a restaurant finder for a city (and each city its own), a finder for tenis courts, etc. In the long run, an inefficient method, requiring much learning from users.

Thinking through the student's thesis, I realized that Maslow could indeed serve as guidance:

The first level needs are physical processes; the smart-phone can help to find places offering the pertinent affordance (e.g. a place where one can eat or sleep). Commonalities for all such applications are: which affordance? How urgent? How close? criteria to identify the optimal solution and finally guidance to move to the selected place. The commonality is confirmed technically: the thousands of different “find best x” applications use mostly the Google Maps API for showing location and providing wayfinding instructions. Maslow suggests a that a general find affordance to satisfy primary need application is possible. This would avoid the problem of, say, a hotel finder, which claims nothing is found, even-though a local youth hostel could satisfy the need for sleep and shelter.

Applications to inform us about dangers - both physical dangers, from inclement weather to landslides and tsunamis, and social dangers in areas with high criminality - seems equally possible to avoid and protect us.

Smart-phones and social networks experiment at the moment with methods to satisfy “love and esteem” needs: finding friends nearby, finding locations where social contacts are facilitated, but also telling others “what is here” to gain esteem in a community are current.

Numerous computerized helpers exist to increase our self-actualization; smart-phones with GPS can, for example, track our movements and document to ourselves the running or bicycling we have done, localize photographs taken etc.

In summary, Marlow's hierarchy of needs seems to provide a useful generalization and classification of human needs. It could be used to build more general applications than what is currently provided. The levels of needs indicate generalities between needs and usable to reduce the myriad of particular applications to a few more generalized ones. The approach follows more the “need to the solution” path and not the, often unsuccessful, reverse.

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