The Base Of The Consumer Tech Stack: Tools

James L. McQuivey
James L. McQuivey
Vice President, Principal Analyst
May 17, 2018

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Consumer technology, and all the disruption it continues to cause, can’t happen without tools. True enough. But when I invoke the word “tools,” I am not referring to the tools themselves; I’m referring to our human habit of creating and using tools, even defining ourselves by those tools — the actual tools are a byproduct of that habit or urge. And if you want to understand the future of consumer technology, you have to start there.

This is part two of my four-part series of blog posts exploring the four forces of the consumer technology stack. As I wrote in April during our Consumer Marketing 2018 Forum in NYC, while companies have spent the last 20 years building their tech stacks to run their businesses, consumers, too, have been building their own consumer tech stack. That stack is a set of personally selected technologies that extend our ability to do all the things we’ve evolved to do. Two things about that stack stand out: A) Consumers are confident in their stacks, unlike businesses that constantly fret about the instability and potential collapse of their tech stacks and B) the consumer’s tech stack feels so stable precisely because it is not an unnatural artifice — it consists in devices and services that extend the natural desires and urges that evolution deposited in us at birth.

We were born for tech. Or, to be more general, we were born for tools. While lots of clever animals use tools, some of them in highly inventive ways, we are the only species that uses hundreds, even thousands of tools. The chair I sit on is a tool to help me get work done, just like the Surface Book I’m typing on, as is the YETI insulated tumbler next to me. In fact, just casting my eyes around my office, I can count dozens of tools without even opening my actual tool closet in the next room.

We are good at accumulating tools partly because we have a uniquely evolved skill relative to other species: We define what we consider “part of us” fluidly. Subjectively, this means that objects outside of us come to feel like they are part of our inner core. This is an echo of that first magic moment two billion years ago when two cells collided and one ended up engulfing and incorporating functions and processes of the other, giving birth to eukaryotic life, leading eventually to multicellular organisms and, ultimately, to us. Today, such literal absorption of an external resource is not necessary for us: We can incorporate external things while they remain external. We do this with our brains — the master tool-seekers. Our brains seek for things outside of us that they can integrate into a mental map of our possible next steps. We actively seek these tools, but more importantly, we embed them into our mental models of our possibilities. They become part of us because they become part of our plans and predictions for ourselves.

We live this every day. Have you ever felt like your car was part of you when you were hugging the corners of the German Autobahn at 190 kph? (If that sounds oddly specific, it is. And my answer to the question is “yes.”) Maybe you’ve personalized your phone case to help express who you really are. Or maybe your Dremel multitool makes you feel like a Michelangelo when you shape your woodworking project with it. Objects, animals, and tools, upon repeated interaction or use, get entwined in how we see our current and hoped-for worlds, such that our minds no longer bother distinguishing between who we are and what tools we use.

That makes us uniquely able to see the world as a playground, not only for our minds and bodies but for our tools.

No wonder, then, that as digital technologies have come along, we have never been content to use them for a single purpose or even a shortlist of purposes given to us by the creators or marketers of the tool. Instead, we cast our eyes around the world to see what else we can do with our newly integrated tools. As a young Ph.D. student in the mid-90s, I surveyed hundreds of homes that had a brand-new technology called CD-ROM. In that and subsequent research, I confirmed that humans have incredibly flexible and even voracious mental frames, which allow them to assign varying, even competing frames to a single technology. The tool called a CD-ROM drive could be a source of education, entertainment, game-play, and productivity — people were comfortable shifting back and forth as needed (though certain uses did come to dominate, a fact that I have observed ever since). It was using this base of theory that I went on to correctly predict things like the commercialization of the World Wide Web, the growth of online retail, the rise of mobile web experiences and, most recently. the rise of multipurpose voice interfaces.

We all live in the world predicted by that research, but more to the point, we live in the world handed to us by evolution: Our brains respond to changing environments fluidly, able to adapt to and integrate new tools as they are encountered. But what do these brains do with those tools? Accomplish the same things that they have always wanted to do: Coordinate tasks with and engage in conversation with other people. Based on this combination of tools, coordination, conversation, and emotion — what I call the four forces of consumer technology adoption and use — humans have built tribes, societies, and cultures capable of the wide diversity of modes we see around us today.

But without tools — without our ability or urge to turn objects into tools and then combine them into even better tools for getting stuff done — none of this higher order of social organization would be possible. That’s why I say that tools sit at the base of the consumer technology stack.

That stack is getting pretty awesome, as I recently wrote with my colleague Gina Fleming. For comparison, when I first joined Forrester as an academic refugee in 1998, our Consumer Technographics® data showed that only 48% of US homes had a PC, and just a third of them were connected to the internet — nearly all of those via a dial-up connection. We’ve surveyed millions of people in more than 20 countries since then, and the view that this data gives us of expanding tool use is unparalleled. Today, we don’t even bother writing about the “digital divide” or the lack of technology access among the least advantaged socioeconomic classes in developed countries. If you want to use the internet, you can — usually at high speed and very often wirelessly. The stack keeps growing: A full 32% of US online adults have a wearable of some sort, and coming into 2018, 14% of homes already had a smart speaker, a number that will nearly double this year. I just asked my home network how many devices are connected to it right now. The answer: 41.

Who makes those tools, who provides the software that makes them useful, who can sustain a business model using those tools and that software — these are all questions that fall out of this research and that we at Forrester help our clients answer. But the main goal of exploring your customer’s technology stack is to become more obsessed with supporting your customer’s goals. They’re using these tools to get things done; you have to use the same tools to help them. It’s not simple, but it is straightforward. Use your customers’ tech stack to be a partner in accomplishing the tasks they want to coordinate and managing the conversations they want to have. Coordination and conversation just happen to be two topics that I’ll turn to in the next blog posts in this series. See you then.

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James McQuivey, Ph.D. is VP and principal analyst at Forrester. He first started at Forrester 20 years ago this month, swearing that he would someday return to academia to stay. That someday has yet to come. In the meantime his book Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation helps you understand how companies use digital tools to build closer relationships with their customers, usually more quickly and cheaply than ever before.

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