The Task-Based Approach to Tech Purchase Decisions

Confused woman looking tech

By Joe Kissell

The smartest way to think about buying brand-new toys or sticking with outdated tech is to understand your needs first and then look for appropriate tools to meet those needs–not to choose your tools first and then figure out what you can do with them.

Hey, you know that new product that Apple is definitely releasing in a couple of months, or that rumored product that might come out in a few years? Well, are you going to buy them? I know I am going to buy that one, because it’s going to be awesome, but I’m going to skip that other one because it’ll be totally lame. I can’t believe you haven’t made up your mind. Don’t you have strong opinions about gadgets you can’t even buy yet? (I’ve just summarized about half of my Twitter feed.)

These sorts of discussions make me crazy. Apart from the obvious problem that they involve objects that don’t exist, they’re nearly always examples of the tail wagging the dog. I want to buy some new thing because I think or hope it’s going to turn out to be cool. I’m not sure I need it, but I expect to figure out what to do with it later. Being on what I imagine to be the cutting edge comes first; utility is secondary.

At the other extreme are people who refuse to upgrade their software, hardware, or both because they found a Thing That Works, and if they were to upgrade, that thing would stop working. There is no other thing that could possibly do the job, no other conceivable way of working. It’s this or nothing, and a pox on Apple for causing this problem in the first place by Breaking The Thing.

With all due respect, I think both types of people are misguided, for the same reason: they’re fixated on tools rather than tasks. If you find yourself in one of these groups, I’d like to suggest that you’ll be happier if you take the radical step of starting with what you want to accomplish and then figuring out which tool will be most helpful–an answer that will almost certainly change over time.

All the Shiny New Things

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being an early adopter–after all, someone has to be first. If you have disposable income, extra time, and a tolerance for tech that may not be fully baked, go for it. Test the waters and tell the rest of us about your experiences.

But maybe you don’t consider yourself as an early adopter as such. You just feel a strong desire to be among the first to have a certain new Apple product, because, I mean, it’s Apple after all–and everyone is talking about the new product. Of course it’s going to be huge and amazing, because that’s how Apple rolls. Who wouldn’t want in on that magic as soon as possible? And besides, if you don’t place your order in the first few hours that the new thing is on sale, you might have to wait weeks to get it!

Take a deep breath and ask yourself some diagnostic questions:

  • What problem do I have right now that this new product will definitely solve?
  • What task do I perform right now that this new product will definitely make simpler or faster?
  • What goal do I want to achieve that’s unreachable without this product, but definitely reachable with it?
  • What new capability in this product is definitely superior to the capabilities of the product I’m currently using?
  • How much money will I definitely save (or earn) over the course of the next year by using the new product instead of what I’m using now? (And is that significantly higher than the cost of the new product?)

If you come up with clear, tangible answers to one or more of these questions, you have an excellent reason to make the purchase. (But remember, reality usually falls far short of hype–hence the recurring word “definitely.”) Even if you don’t think of yourself as an early adopter, jumping on the latest gadgets is absolutely fine if you’re fairly certain they’ll improve your life in some specific way. Will they make your work easier, give you capabilities you’ve been longing for, or solve a problem you’ve been struggling with? Fantastic. Rock on.

But lots of people don’t look at new tech that way, because they’ve been trained not to.

Tech companies don’t want you to think about tasks first. They want you to think about gadgets first, because that’s what they’re selling. Whether it’s an app, a cloud service, or a physical device, every tech company wants you to buy their thing first and figure out what to do with it later. Tech publications and social media tend to amplify this attitude.

The phenomenon isn’t restricted to electronics, of course. For example, I’m a sucker for kitchen gadgets that promise to simplify this task or the other. Only when I get the thing home do I realize that I haven’t wanted even once in the last year to peel an apple or microwave bacon or whatever, and that I still won’t want to do that thing in the next year even though it would now be easier. So the gadget sits unused–but it’s not a big deal with we’re talking about a $10 piece of plastic. With objects that cost hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars, it’s a different story.

If you buy a product without being reasonably certain that it will improve your life in a well-defined way, you’re gambling. I have no moral judgement about that, but as a practical matter, I hate to see people throw away good money.

If It Ain’t Broke…..

On the other hand, I know of lots of “Snow Leopard Forever!” people. For many of these 10.6.8 holdouts, moving to a later version of OS X is a nonstarter because they depend on old apps, written for PowerPC processors, that require Rosetta and therefore won’t run on newer versions of OS X. For others, compatibility with specific apps is less a concern than overall reliability–their impression is that Snow Leopard was solid and dependable, whereas everything since then is a crashtastic mess. Still others say newer versions of OS X have somehow been “dumbed down” to the point that they’re no longer usable.

But I can do you one better. A few weeks ago I corresponded with a guy whose primary computer is a PowerBook Duo 280c running System 7.1. (For those of you who haven’t made a career of watching Apple products, the Duo 280c was released in January 1996, while System 7.1 dates back to October 1992.) In fact, he bought twenty Duo 280c’s on eBay for parts so that he’ll be able to keep using that model for many years to come. Although this fellow also has a newer Mac running OS X, he keeps the Duos around for one key app that he can’t live without, an outliner called In Control.

I never used In Control, but let’s suppose, for the sake of discussion, that it was the best outliner ever, and that even today it is completely without peer–that it had features that none of today’s outliners can touch, and was far easier to use. (That probably isn’t true, but remember, we’re pretending.) If your work relies crucially on outlining, then of course such an excellent tool would be a boost to your work, and hard to give up. Fair enough. There’s a cost (in productivity) to giving up your old tool. But what’s the cost to keep it?

In the admittedly extreme case of the Duo guy, you invest in a ton of obsolete computers, which now fill up a closet. You switch between computers constantly. You jump through rather extraordinary hoops to move data between your old Mac and your new one. In the less-drastic case of Snow Leopard holdouts, you give up the considerable variety of useful features available in newer versions of OS X, to say nothing of their increased security. You give up the opportunity to run newer apps that might enrich your life and improve your productivity even more, but that require newer operating systems. You tie yourself to outdated hardware that will be increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain and repair as the years go on, and cut yourself off from faster and more flexible Mac models.

I faced a crisis like this myself years ago. I wrote my first couple of books in a fantastic word processor called Nisus Writer, but because the application spent several years lagging far behind in support for modern versions of Mac OS X, I was forced to either keep using it on old hardware or bite the bullet and run (gulp) Microsoft Word instead. I chose the latter, even though I couldn’t (and still can’t) stand Word. As a professional writer, I resented having to use such a backward and cumbersome tool. I grumbled and cursed, but I still managed to write dozens of books using Word. It wasn’t the best tool for the job, but using a merely so-so tool didn’t ultimately endanger my livelihood. (Later, after a brief fling with Pages, I was able to return to using Nisus Writer, which had by then caught up with both OS X and my evolving needs.)

Maybe your outliner is still stuck in 1993. Maybe you created hundreds of documents in AppleWorks. Maybe you laid out books and magazines in FrameMaker for Mac. Or managed your schedule and address book using Now Up-to-Date and Contact. I could cite dozens, perhaps hundreds, of beloved Mac apps that no longer run on modern Macs with the latest version of OS X. And, like you, I know the pain of having to give up a great tool for one that’s merely adequate (and, in any case, different). I get it. Exporting and importing data, adapting to new workflows and keyboard shortcuts, and all the rest, is a pain.

But–and I ask this with as much sympathy and kindness as I can–are you positive that there’s no other way to get the job done? Are you truly so dependent on a single, specific tool? Are you positive that a new system will be so much more unstable than your current one? If you were stuck on a desert island with only a brand-new Mac and all the latest “dumbed down” software, would you really be unable to do any work?

I know a brilliant chef who worked in some incredibly cramped and under-equipped kitchens before opening his own restaurant. He seemed indifferent to the lack of ideal resources. “Give me some aluminum foil and a lighter,” he once told me, “and I can cook a good meal.” Inadequate tools wouldn’t keep him from creating delicious dishes. Food for thought, eh?

The Cost-Benefit Analysis

You don’t need an elaborate spreadsheet to make decisions about how or when to adopt new technology–just a few moments of sober reflection.

Think first about the tasks you want to accomplish and the problems or frustrations you currently have. But be realistic and honest in your deliberations. “Recording my heart rate and jogging pace” is a reasonable need. “Controlling Siri from my wrist” is cheating, because you’re defining your need in a way that only one device can accomplish. Similarly, “Creating complex tables” is a genuine need, while “Creating complex tables exactly the way FrameMaker did it” is not. Your goal should be to abstract your tasks, goals, and problems from the specific ways you’ve thought about addressing them in the past.

Now look at the capabilities of the available products.

If you’re lusting after the new thing, will it help you with the needs you’ve identified? If you’re unsure, wait until you can learn more. (Hint: That will be after the thing is available for purchase.) In the meantime, you won’t be any worse off than you are now. Talk to people who have bought the new thing and whose needs are similar to yours, or see if you can try it out yourself.

If you’re tempted to stick with the (outdated) old thing, you already know the extent to which it meets your needs. But what are the disadvantages of continuing to use it? What are the benefits of moving to a newer platform? Is there, perhaps, a newer product that might come close to doing what the old one does? Might the benefits of acclimating yourself to new tools that are faster, more powerful, and under active development outweigh the cost of changing your habits, converting file formats, and rethinking your workflow? Even if the correct answer is to stick with the old thing today, the equation could change later on–be sure to revisit your decision periodically.

In either case, instead of making decisions about what you can or can’t do based on the tool you chose in advance, you’re starting with what you want or need to do and then looking for the right product to meet your need. That’s the smart way to ensure the technology you use is a good fit.

10 Comments

  • Dan Hardt says:

    Excellent article! But I suffer from an additional problem: When will my Model 10,1 iMac, now 5 years old, decide to give up and need a new video card like the last iMac did? This one works well for what I do, and will properly use Yosemite when I finally get around to installing it. I’m about to have a new hard drive installed, just in case…..

    But shouldn’t I HAVE to get a new iMac after 5 years?

    • dailymacview says:

      Joe Kissell was kind enough to write the article for The Daily Mac View and I’m quite appreciative. As editor, I’ll take a stab at your question though.

      It sounds to me like you computer is working just fine for your needs. I’ve heard nothing to suggest otherwise. In that case, the answer lies in the question. When it either dies physically or no longer meets your needs would be likely when you’d say do or die.

      I tbink it’s great you have gotten such a lifespan from the device.

      I can pass this a long to Joe if you’d like but I think his answer wouldn’t be much different. Let the your needs dictate requirements.

      • Dan Hardt says:

        Thanks for your thoughts. You’re right–Joe would have said the same thing.
        Given my indecisiveness and my “need” to not give up a beautiful thing, I was hoping for a magic wand. Sad to say, but true, I have to decide all by myself. Grump.

    • Joe Kissell says:

      @Dan Apple has clearly been making their computers too reliable. I’m sure if enough people complained, they’d lower their quality standards :-). But seriously, I used to upgrade my Macs every 2-3 years, because that was their useful lifespan, and I’m typing this on a mid-2010 iMac which is still, suspiciously, a perfectly usable machine (even though I had to replace a dead hard drive). I want a newer model for things like Thunderbolt 2, a Retina display, and a bigger SSD, but it’s hard to justify the expense when this one is totally getting the job done.

    • Joe Kissell says:

      Apple has clearly been making their computers too reliable. I’m sure if enough people complained, they’d lower their quality standards :-). But seriously, I used to upgrade my Macs every 2-3 years, because that was their useful lifespan, and I’m typing this on a mid-2010 iMac which is still, suspiciously, a perfectly usable machine (even though I had to replace a dead hard drive). I want a newer model for things like Thunderbolt 2, a Retina display, and a bigger SSD, but it’s hard to justify the expense when this one is totally getting the job done.

  • Mike Bowie says:

    Few people it seems want to talk about the dangers of tech (we all know about the benefits and there are many, it’s true). But the dangers do need to be included in the discussion. For instance I (among many) worry about the continued use of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Here is a short list of sites which mention these:

    http://www.safespaceprotection.com/electrostress-from-wireless-routers.aspx

    http://www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/10-shocking-facts-health-dangers-wifi/

    http://inflanation.com/cell-phone-radiation/bluetooth-radiation-may-be-more-dangerous-than-cell-phone-radiation-2/

    http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2014/10/20/experts-why-wearable-tech-could-pose-health-risks/

    The fox news item (above) concludes:

    But RF radiation remains the biggest concern. For the first time, wireless devices are being worn on the human body, which means there is a potential for extended exposure. And cumulative exposure adds up if consumers are already using a cellphone, tablet and laptop.
    “It’s the total dose and it’s the dose over time,” Carpenter said. “The more things you put directly on your body, the greater the exposure.”  

    Could we have a rational discussion (not simply a debunking session) about these concerns, please.

    • Joe Kissell says:

      That sort of thing is way beyond the scope of what I was trying to do in this article. (My book about cooking Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t talk about the dangers of knives or hot stoves, either.)

      The problem with talking about RF radiation is that for every study that suggests it’s maybe dangerous in some way, there’s another one that suggests the opposite. There’s no consensus, no clear, definitive data. (I can say the same things about studies regarding the health benefits, or not, of coffee, eggs, wine, etc.)

      I will say that I trust my own experiences more than I trust anecdotal reports by other people, and I give no credence at all to reports intended only to provoke fear or to sell products that are themselves of dubious utility (such as the first of your links). None of this is to say that there might not be a danger, but I am not in a position to perform double-blind studies and collect and analyze mountains of data myself. Meanwhile, I have observed no ill effects from my own use of wireless technology these many years, so I have, essentially, nothing to contribute to the conversation.

      • Mike Bowie says:

        Dear Mr Kissell, do you think it clever to belitte those you disagree with?

        ‘That sort of thing is way beyond the scope of what I was trying to do in this article. (My book about cooking Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t talk about the dangers of knives or hot stoves, either.) …There’s no consensus, no clear, definitive data. (I can say the same things about studies regarding the health benefits, or not, of coffee, eggs, wine, etc.)’

        It was to precisely avoid this kind of over-the-top response that I wrote my email, phrasing it carefully (I thought) in non inflammatary language.

        You write that you pride yourself on being a geek. What could be more geekish than a knowledgable view of the tools with which you work, the more so that it is on the ‘dark side’, so to speak? Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it? Your outburst almost suggests that you have something to hide!

        May I also respectfully suggest that reports about the negative aspects of RF radiation are far from ‘anecdotal’, as you state; that in fact there is a growing body of scientific literature that supports the opposite view. There are none so blind as those who won’t see.

        You remember the case of Madame Curie who walked about with unprotected pieces of uranium in her pockets? A whole industry grew up around radium that continued for years, that still has its reverberations—not all of it beneficial. Do you, since I asked you the question, also carry around symbolically a piece of uranium in your pocket?

        I will say in conclusion that this sort of thing is not way beyond the scope of your article, but pertinent to it.

        • Joe Kissell says:

          I in no way intended to belittle anyone, and I can’t fathom how you saw my response as “over-the-top” or an “outburst.” In fact, I thought it was quite objective and measured. As I said, the bottom line is that I have nothing to contribute to the conversation.

          If you want to worry about RF radiation, you have every right to do so—but it sounds like you’re demanding that I worry about it too, and also spread fear about it in an article on what I consider a wholly unrelated topic (whether you agree with that or not). I’m sorry, but I decline.

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