Is your Apple your best friend? This may be why

I switched back about a year ago from a Mac to a PC, and I instantly became a pariah in some circles. Why would I choose to move from classy to clunky when even I loved just about everything about my Mac? It had a lot to do with client preferences and compatibility/security issues, but that’s another story.

The real question is, what breeds such intense loyalty among Mac users? Marketing is a lot of it, of course, but there’s also the experience of a Mac. You can visualize Mac owners worldwide turning to their computers to say, “You get me” or even “You complete me.” Over the years, Apple seems to have learned more than Microsoft about how to make computers lovable. It could be that Apple has paid more attention to researchers like Clifford Ness.

Ness, a professor at Stanford University, has spent a lot of time studying how computers and people interact. His findings and those of fellow researchers help companies figure out everything from the right tone of voice for your GPS companion to how a computer can give effective praise and criticism.

To me, the most interesting aspect of these researchers’ work is what it teaches about how humans relate to one another. For example:

  • In one experiment, Ness divided a group of study participants into two groups. He gave one group a blue wristband, put a blue border around computers they worked with, and told the participants that they and their computers were a team. The other participants were given blue wristbands and put in front green-bordered computers; each was told that he or she was a blue person working with a green monitor. Participants with blue-bordered computers invariably rated their computers smarter, more helpful and more hard-working because they had the bond of being on the same team.
  • Ness also found a way to rehabilitate the image of Clippy, the hated “helper” from Microsoft who was retired several years ago. His solution, however, wouldn’t hold much appeal for Microsoft. You’ll remember that Clippy would emerge from nowhere with captions saying things like, “I see you’re writing a letter. Would you like some help?” He made a pest of himself. Ness’s version of Clippy was taught to ask, “Was that helpful?” If the computer used responded no, Clippy would say, “That gets me really angry! Let’s tell Microsoft how bad their system is.” Then a pop-up email form would materialize, addressed to Microsoft with the subject line, “Your help system needs work!” Suddenly, Clippy and the computer user bonded by virtue of having a common enemy.
  • Ness also has demonstrated the importance of labels in influencing perception, even of machines. He took two ordinary TVs and said that one showed only news programming while the other showed only entertainment programming. Participants judged the news programming to be of higher quality on the “news” TV and the entertainment programming to be funnier and more relaxing on the “entertainment” TV than anything they might receive on just an ordinary television.

All of which goes to show that in real life, if we foster a good spirit, create common causes (not necessarily enemies), and speak positively about each other’s strengths and skills, we can build effective, productive teams.

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