The Expectation Epidemic

Technology moves at a breakneck pace. And that pace of change seems to be ever-increasing. This we all know.

What has lately been surprising to me is how quickly consumer expectations change. It doesn’t happen with everything. Some technologies have fairly lengthy adoption curves. But there are others that seem to have gone from novelty to mass expectation – almost overnight. It is truly remarkable how quickly the change has happened. Let’s look at two examples, both tightly related to smartphone proliferation.


I took this photo during a trip to France last year. This room, outfitted with a few iMacs that created an interactive exhibit, was deep in the bowels of Versailles. The little girl went running up to the computer and immediately began to try and interact with the machine by touching the screen, completely ignoring the keyboard and trackball that was on the table directly in front of her (I had to take the photo quickly, so I couldn’t get a good angle on the input devices). She spent maybe 15 seconds touching various icons on the screen, but when nothing happened, she stormed away quickly. Using the keyboard or mouse seemed to have never occurred to her. It was touch or nothing; and she was not happy that the machine wasn’t responding.


Touch screens have been around for a while, of course. But it is only recently that they became mainstream devices, perhaps starting with the iPhone. Followed quickly by iPod touch, touch devices from other consumer electronics companies, and of course the iPad – we’ve gone from a rare touch device in a public place to more than 100 million touch devices in pockets and pocketbooks the world over. And it has taught an entire generation that touch and gesture control is simply the way that you interact with computers.

I’ve heard dozens of stories like mine – from others who have witnessed the expectation epidemic in action.


Looking back on the history of the mobile phone is a fascinating exercise. A colleague recently charted significant innovations dating back to the invention of the first network in the early 1970s. There’s a long void of basically very little interesting phones from that point through to the introduction of the Motorola Razr in 2003. That’s more than 30 years of largely incremental, tiny steps forward. And it continued for a few more years, until in 2007, the iPhone suddenly changed everything.

When it was first introduced, the iPhone was a very closed system. Apple developed nearly every piece of software that appeared on the device for its first year of existence. Then, of course, in 2008, the iTunes App Store launched, all hell broke loose, and the iPhone really came into its own. What has followed is an absolutely stunning period of innovation, rapid acceleration of change, and massive consumer adoption.

But here’s where it gets even crazier. EMarketer reports that according to an October 2010 Harris Interactive study, 76 percent of survey respondents believe that all brand name companies/organizations should have a mobile application to make shopping or interacting with them easier. So in other words, we went from nothing – effectively no mobile application stores in 2008 – to the vast majority of consumers fully expecting you to have an app just two years later.

The rub, of course, is that people have extremely high expectations from applications. The same study showed that 69 percent of respondents agree with this statement: “If a brand name company’s/organization’s mobile application is not useful, helpful or easy to use, it negatively impacts my perception of that brand.”

So What?

The point here is simple. We have entered a period of history where digital technologies are driving massive disruption and incredibly rapid change in consumer behavior and expectation. As I said early on, there are certain technologies that seem to move from novelty to expectation almost overnight. What it means is that innovation in marketing is more important than ever. Understanding what’s coming next, placing some smart bets, and experimenting to find out what works with a particular technology or media channel – and timing it so that you hit the stride just before it becomes the expectation – will create massive competitive advantages for the best marketers.

So what’s the next disruptor? The potential candidates are everywhere, but I’m betting on TV apps and two-screen interactive experiences. This whole converged TV space is heating up quickly. Sit idly by at your own risk.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.