When we call something a gimmick, we’re describing a feature which seems unimportant to us. But we can be so very wrong

The iPhone (and the ‘capacitive touch screen interface’ in general) was a gimmick that wasn’t a gimmick.

We all knew someone who ‘got’ the iPhone late. Wasn’t going to buy one. Touch screen seemed like a gimmick.

Turned out to be the promotion failed to get a few things across to the laggards:

  1. the ‘gesture’ interface was more intuitive than anything else you had ever used
  2. the sensation of using it was genuinely mind-blowingly impressive, even for most die-hard interface-sceptics
  3. die-hard interface-sceptics would have imagined it was a gimmick until they actually tried it
  4. if you were sceptical, you would have needed someone else whose judgement you trusted to convince you to even try it out
  5. if you still thought it was a gimmick after you tried it, then you didn’t have a problem that it solved, and you were not the sort who would have bought it on impulse

Funny, because I remember when almost all computer scientists got the very first GUI wrong for the GUI’s first 10 years of existence. They thought the GUI was a gimmick and hated it. Even though the GUI was something which was dreamt up by a bunch of computer scientists.

Something to do with the fact that programmers love the Command Line Interface.

Maybe we need to pay more attention to gimmicks

What gimmicks tend to seem like: ‘solutions looking for problems’. All you need to be, to be wrong about a gimmick, is to not have had (or at least, not to imagine you’ve had) the problem that the solution actually solves.

Or, if all you’ve seen is some promotional presentation of the gimmick rather than the gimmick itself, then the presentation, in order for it to unintentionally convince you that the feature is a gimmick, has to somehow manage to underplay or disregard the problem that the solution is trying to solve and merely present it as ‘an attractive feature’.

The underlying assumption made by the presenter in ‘problem not emphasised’ presentations of a new feature, is that you, the prospective customer, either already understand the problem that the feature addresses, or that you won’t actually care what problem it addresses or indeed whether there is a problem at all, and that you would find it sufficiently attractive to want it anyway.

We don’t think of things that unambiguously solve problems we don’t have as being gimmicks. We think that gimmicks are not solutions to problems at all.

Gimmicks are essentially something we think of as being aesthetics posing as functional improvements.

Features and products which are aimed at problems we don’t happen to have are not dismissed by us as being gimmicks, but instead we treat them as as being ‘not for us’.

A truck with a built-in winch, for instance, would not be seen as a truck with a gimmick, but just a truck for someone who needs a winch. An otherwise ordinary car with a small concealed winch, however, might seem to most people to be a car with a pointless gimmick.

By contrast, things that look like ‘really cool jet plane fins’ on the back of a world speed record-breaking car are not gimmicks, they deal with real aerodynamic performance problems.

Tail fins on the fashionable cars of the late 1950s had little if any relevance to aerodynamic performance: they were gimmicks, but they nonetheless genuinely influenced the attractiveness and sales of the cars at the time, symbolizing the excitement of the jet and space age.

So another characteristic of gimmicks is fashion, once again more of a reflection of aesthetics than of usefulness.

But let’s get back to what gimmicks tell us about innovation.

Today’s gimmick may be tomorrow’s essential feature

The iPhone could run apps. But who was worried as to whether their phone could run apps or not, before the App Store apps took off?

This a was a bit like considering buying a very early (i.e., late 19th century) telephone.

You would have needed to have a vision of a future where many people had phones and a positive belief about how beneficial that situation might be to you and those you would want to talk to remotely, as well as having some faith that your vision would be shared by others and some degree of confidence that this would cause it to become enough of a reality for you to want to be an early telephone technology adopter.

But notice how many ‘contingencies’ there are in that last sentence.

Unlike the first electric light bulb, whose benefits (unprecedented brightness, lack of smoky flames, controllability etc.) meant that although it would still have looked like a gimmick to a comparative few (mostly those who would not be able to afford to be near scarce early electricity supplies) the phone was a much harder sell than the electric light in the early days.

So in many senses, the phone was more of a gimmick than the light bulb, but today we have great difficulty imagining that anyone could possibly imagine that either could be a gimmick.

Which is exactly what happens after anything becomes widely adopted, and why we forget and find new things to call gimmicks.

The gimmickyness of something is dependent upon things as subtle as the extent to which the vision associated with it is difficult to communicate and the extent to which that difficulty of communication is (not) consciously addressed and (not) effectively overcome.

The iPhone interface communication problem, as far as I am concerned, illustrates both of these issues.

A response to this (in the context of the iPhone) might be that ‘well, it took off like wildfire, what communication problem are you talking about?’, as if the problem of attributions of gimmickry have never applied to anything that ‘takes off like wildfire’.

For some reason, we don’t seem to have collectively learned the lesson.

Time has passed, the touch screen interface has now been almost as widely adopted as the GUI.

Yet somehow, I suspect that the next big innovation will also initially be seen as a gimmick by many (probably myself included among them) and this won’t merely be a result of our lack of perceptiveness (yes, you can probably guess who I am about to blame, and it isn’t us, the hapless consumers).

Innovation is (as marketing people, despite being at least part of the cause of the problem, will tell you ad nauseam) often as much about communication as it is about invention.

Innovators are so clearly able to see the benefits of ‘their solutions’ that they neglect any requirement to dwell on the problems that they’re addressing, seeing it as ‘stating the obvious’ and instead devote as much of their time and yours as they can to going into endless detail about their solution.

When you find someone in a review dismissing something as being a gimmick, perhaps you might consider pausing for a moment and try just a bit harder to imagine the problem that someone would have to have in order to want it.

If no obvious answer comes to mind, it might be a good idea to try to get your head (or Google) around the relevant aesthetic and fashion contexts.

Even if these ‘no real or important problem seeming to be solved’ features don’t make you want to buy the product (more likely, they may make you all the more determined to dismiss it) an attempt to articulate what they might be (and having some appreciation of the mindset of those who might value them) will give you a better insight into why others might find them important and this might help you anticipate functionality trends and in some cases even identify relevant future pricing issues.

Once again, think car body shape trends, they always seem to be a great example of a seemingly inextricably perplexing mix of functionality and aesthetics, but the knee-jerk response (or am I alone in thinking this?) is to imagine that surely there is at least some ‘science’ going into the changes – so where do the gimmicks end and the practical benefits begin?

Lastly, this is definitely a male perspective. As a woman, you may find this natural priority that I’m giving to non-aesthetic features extremely predictable, and rather amusingly pathetic.

If being recommended to take aesthetic aspects into account when assessing technical products sounds like the kind of sad reflection of profound and condescending insensitivity that you’ve come to expect from the gender that feels that an exclusive focus upon technical functionality is a mark of superior practicality and intelligence, then you would probably be doing me and the readers a serious favour by putting comments at the bottom of this article which offer an alternative perspective on the relationship between the introduction of practical and aesthetic product features.