The three rules that stop a tech device from losing its cool

“Hi! Is that the 1980s? I’ve got your phone. You can have it back.” Computex e Forum

In the world of hi-tech devices, it is imperative to keep your finger on the pulse. Some of the most successful companies of our times, such as Apple and Google, are those that understand the power of cool and know how to exploit it. But our research has found not only that digital devices such as smart phones can lose their association with coolness over time but also that we may have been measuring cool all wrong.

Like past trends that were once cool – think leg warmers, jean jackets, and the Walkman – the iPhone, Nest and Fitbit run the risk of losing their desirability if they don’t move with the times.

Our study found that the most coveted devices derive their coolness from three core values: they are attractive, original and have subcultural appeal.

The relationship between these three core values and overall coolness is stable. What varies is the attitudes of people towards these core values. Devotees and potential customers have a changing view of what is original and what has cultural appeal.

Until now, it was generally thought that coolness is an amalgamation of utility, innovation and aesthetics. Establishing that perceptions of coolness are associated with three different core values allows tech firms to more efficiently and precisely tailor their product design and marketing efforts.

We asked 315 college students to rate the coolness of 14 different products in the first part of our research. This threw up some interesting results about the role of usefulness in the coolness of a product. Record players, for example, were rated as cool by many of the participants, even though they aren’t as useful as they once were and are no longer original. A subculture has taken an interest in them and they are winning back favour, even if they can’t replace an iPod in terms of utility.

A follow-up study with 835 participants from the US and South Korea narrowed the list to four elements of coolness – subculture appeal, attractiveness, usefulness and originality. In a third study of 317 participants, usefulness no longer featured as a stand alone element and was simply considered part of the other three.

This is useful information for tech firms, whose very survival depends on being able to keep up with the competition. It can help take some of the guesswork out of manufacturing and marketing the products that are being pitched as the next big thing.

Coolness can be critical for helping a product stand apart from similar devices. Apple’s profits, for example, are largely driven by iPhone sales, a device that has enjoyed relatively stable and high level of cool for several years. It is seen by many as the most beautifully designed smartphone on the market, but, ultimately, most smartphones function in very similar ways.

The Nest thermostat is another good case in point. Any decent thermostat can maintain your home’s temperature, but Nest’s design is novel and out of the ordinary. Turning on the air conditioning becomes a decidedly different experience with Nest than with a standard thermostat. It’s little wonder that Google, a company practically obsessed with cool, has swooped in to purchase the company.

Perceptions of coolness tend to raise user expectations, which helps explain why people are willing to line up for days or weeks in anticipation of a new iPhone or iPad release and how something as apparently mundane as a thermostat can become the most desired item of the day.

When mass appeal kills your cool

Coolness, however, can be a double-edged sword for devices. Tech companies that do a good job of generating hype around their products are, at the same time, building up hope that the product will perform faster or more smoothly than the uncool competition.

They therefore run the risk of setting the bar too high, not meeting those expectations and then creating a user backlash. The most successful devices tend to have a better track record of meeting those high hopes.

Tech companies are faced with the challenge of designing a product users will perceive as cool and that will also meet users’ raised expectations.

If a tech firm can continue to innovate and mold a digital device in a way that appeals to current thinking, the device is more likely to weather social change and maintain its coolness.

All is not lost if they fail to meet these requirements at the development stage. The company can simply adjust pre-release marketing to highlight the aspects of a new gadget that would meet those same appeals. Naturally, if a device doesn’t engender its own hype, you create hype on its behalf.

But even if they get it right at the start, cultural appeal can be especially difficult to maintain. Devices that are cooler help users fit in with their crowd and stand apart from other groups. When a device gains mainstream popularity, it may lose its subcultural appeal.

The same thing happens when some bands make it big and “sell out”. Their original fan base may be put off when a new, wider, audience catches on to the trend. Once a brand can no longer be used as a badge of pride that sets a group apart, they’ll drop it in a flash.

Cool, cooler, coolest. For now. Dcoetzee, CC BY-SA

Cool devices also appeal to a user’s sense of style or attractiveness. Like the other components of coolness, perceptions of attractiveness tend to change over time. If you take every model of the iPhone and line them up chronologically, you can see both how Apple has modified the appearance of the phone over time to keep up the device’s aesthetics contemporary. It has grown smaller and more rounded to change with the times.

These core values of coolness are socially relative. Depending on subculture and preference, users may have starkly different perceptions of a device’s coolness.

Tech firms that either continue to innovate and evolve their product design are more likely to see their products’ association with coolness continue. But they’ve got to move fast, the cool consumer is a fickle friend.