Popularity Can Kill Technology's Coolness
February 12, 2014

Losing Edginess Spells Doom For Tech Products

[ Watch the Video: When Technology Loses Its Edge ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Technology products that lose their perceived edginess can soon find their popularity fading, according to a new study from Penn State University that looked at what makes these products appear ‘cool’ to users.

"Everyone says they know what 'cool' is, but we wanted to get at the core of what 'cool' actually is, because there's a different connotation to what cool actually means in the tech world," said S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications, Penn State, and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory.

Sundar and his team found that trends for technology which are seen as cool may move like a wave. Initially, subcultures outside the mainstream begin to use a particular device. These people are typically identified as outside the mainstream, and have an ability to stay a step ahead of the crowd, the researchers said.

Once a device gains its ‘coolness’ among the subculture, it tends to become adopted by the mainstream. However, any change to the product's subculture appeal, attractiveness or originality will affect the product's overall coolness. For example, if a product becomes more widely adopted by the mainstream, it may become less cool as a result, the researchers said.

"It appears to be a process," Sundar explained.

"Once the product loses its subculture appeal, for example, it becomes less cool, and therein lies the challenge."

The conundrum is that most tech companies want their products to become ‘cool’ to increase sales. But after sales increase, the products then become less cool and sales suffer, Sundar said.

To succeed, companies must change with the times to remain being seen as cool, he added.

"It underscores the need to develop an innovation culture in a company.”

"For a company to make products that remain cool, they must continually innovate."

On a positive note, products that have fallen out of favor can have their coolness restored if the subculture re-adopts the technology, the study found.

For example, record players, which were replaced in coolness by digital files, are beginning to increase in popularity with the subculture, despite their limited usefulness, the researchers said.

Sundar and his team surveyed 315 college students about their opinions on 14 different products based on the elements of coolness taken from current literature. Prior to the study, the researchers believed that coolness was largely related to a device's design and originality.

"Historically, there's a tendency to think that cool is some new technology that is thought of as attractive and novel," said Sundar.

"The idea is you create something innovative and there is hype – just as when Apple is releasing a new iPhone or iPad – and the consumers that are standing in line to buy the product say they are buying it because it's cool."

A follow-up study with 835 participants from the US and South Korea narrowed the list to four elements of coolness that arose from the first study – subculture appeal, attractiveness, usefulness and originality.

In a third study of 317 participants, the researchers found that usefulness was integrated with the other factors and did not stand on its own as a distinguishing trait of coolness.

"The utility of a product, or its usefulness, was not as much of a part of coolness as we initially thought," said Sundar.

For example, products such as USB drives and GPS units were not considered cool even though they were rated high on utility. By contrast, game consoles like Wii and X-box Kinect were rated high on coolness, but low on utility.

However, many products ranking high on coolness, such as Macbook Air, Prezi Software, Instagram and Pandora, were also seen as quite useful, although utility was not a determining factor.

"The bottom line is that a tech product will be considered cool if it is novel, attractive and capable of building a subculture around it," Sundar concluded.

The findings are published in the current issue of the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies.