Tool Or Toy: The Alien Surveys, Part I

Last Friday, I asked folks what they would do if aliens showed up and offered super-duper computers for $25,000.

The real reason for the question was to ask in an imaginative (and more than a few treated that notion like cancer) way “Why do you compute?”

Perhaps surprisingly, the results were roughly 50-50, but this one particular survey showed the strength of the focus group approach as opposed to mere number-crunching.

It’s one thing to give people a limited number of choices, and have them pick. For one thing, “their” choice may not be among the choices; how many times have you found that yourself? Nor does it give you an idea of how strongly the person believes in the issue.

It’s quite another to have a large proportion of people completely on their own tell you essentially the same thing again and again.

Among those who said “No,” money was not really a big factor; most figured they could scrounge it up one way or the other eventually. Nor was alienness per se when it was a matter of cold cash. Xenophobia was mostly restricted to the instantly obsoleted IT people and the flower children.

No, the principal reason why what people said they wouldn’t want one was because they couldn’t play with it. In short, they view their computers as tinker toys rather than tools.

The “tinker” part is very important. The tinkering is how the owners invest themselves into their machines, and derive self-worth and self-satisfaction from it.

Hobbyists and Homemakers

A long time ago, I read a book called The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard. It was written before most of you or I were born. It deals with what we would now call the dawn of modern advertising.

One example Mr. Packard discussed was ready-cake mixes. When they first came to market, they sold badly, and the manufacturers couldn’t figure out why. The product itself was good enough.

The initial cake mix products had all the ingredients already included, essentially, just add water and bake.

What they found was that housewives (this was back in the fifties) wouldn’t buy the product because it involved too little work on their part. That left them feeling guilty and thinking they were somehow being negligent as wives and mothers.

So what the manufacturers did was to “empower” the housewives by taking out the dried milk and eggs and having the user put them in instead. Their advertising also deemphasized convenience and made the housewife the star of this show.

It worked.

Now you may not like being compared to ditsy Fifties housewives very much, but the desire to add yourself to any activity and get a sense of achievement from it, whether “it” is a cake or a computer, is a universal one applicable to all people at all times.

And, if you think about it honestly, is an “overclocking utility” provided by the video card manufacturers fundamentally any different than letting the housewife add milk and eggs?

Yes, there is one big difference. The cake manufacturers saved money by removing the dried milk and eggs, and it cost the housewives milk and egg money. Overclockers do get more performance for their money and at least theoretically costs the video company revenues and maybe a little extra warranty service.

But since the average customer would spend about the same amount of money regardless, and since GPUs are basically made on the same principles as CPUs, get extra sales without significant extra cost and let the tinkerers play with their toys.

You might say the same for those who give you umpteen zillion BIOS settings. The improvement is normally marginal, but the sense of accomplishment is not.

So at least some manufacturers are at least acting like they’re well aware of this. While the hardcore may scoff, such little “mother’s helpers” do get sales among the Donna Reeds of the overclocking community.

So if you’re a manufacturer interested in sales among tinkerers, you’d better make it tinkerable. If you’re a consumer, you should perhaps beware of those who design for 90% performance, then let you “discover” the other 10%.

Why Would I Screw Around With My Screwdriver?

The other side of the divide are those who view their computers as tools. They may overclock and do all the other tricks, but they don’t love tinkering for the sake of tinkering, they’re just looking for results, a better tool.

They generally were quite willing to run down to the bank (actually, one said he would run to the blood/sperm blank and start making deposits).

Finding themselves with an untinkerable computer didn’t perturb these folks at all. Quite a few, in fact, essentially said, “Why the hell would anyone even think about overclocking such a machine?”

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Obviously, there’s a chasm between the two groups. Maybe not so obviously, the two groups are likely to act quite differently to certain events.

Let’s pretend I was sales manager for the aliens, and sales weren’t too good. If I wanted to sell more units, and all I had was a poll of numbers saying that most wouldn’t buy it, with the biggest reason being price, I might drop the price.

For the general public and the computer-as-tool people, that probably would be a good idea. But let’s assume for some reason I wanted to get the tinkerers to buy-in. Dropping the price would do me no good because that’s not the bottom line reason why the tinkerers aren’t buying.

In all likelihood, I wouldn’t even know that was the reason because I probably wouldn’t have included “lack of tinkerability” as an item in my poll.

In that case, I could have spent tons of money running the most statistically valid poll in the world, and say that 52.1387% of people think “B” in nice little neat columns with great graphs, and it’s completely worthless for my purposes. It’s just expensive toilet paper.

I would have been better off going to a forum for a half-hour.

We’ll talk more about polls in the near future.


What does this item tell me? It confirms some implications I’ve had from earlier surveys. Those indicated that about 40% of the responding audience are hardcore, I-haven’t-used-the-soldering-iron-in-five-minutes-and-I’m-getting-itchy types of folks. This told us what, it didn’t tell us why.

This survey documents the why. It’s the tinkering that important to most in this group, not speed per se. It also makes pretty clear that plenty of others couldn’t care less.

Does the exact proportion matter? If we conducted a perfect poll with a representative audience, that 40% figure would drop, drop probably quite a bit. But it still would be significant, and this group punches above its weight anyway because they are more interested and active and involved than the others. It matters more to them.

Nor is this Bush vs. Gore. We don’t have to choose between the two groups. All we have to do is keep in mind that there are two rather different groups out there, and give each of them something.

That was the major finding from the first survey. Tomorrow, the rest. Thursday, well, aliens for women question at least got some entertaining answers, and Friday, some of the more memorable quotes from your responses (which will all be anonymous; some of the best ones could get people into deep trouble). 🙂


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