Will People Use This? Ask Your Mum
When do new technologies become mainstream? From my position the answer is a simple one - when my mum uses them.
She never did really work out how to set the video, but since she mainly watches repeats of Bargain Hunt on UK Style (and it's always, but always on) that doesn't matter so much. She can send a text, although quite often leaves her 'phone at home, and happily surfs the web. As she hasn't quite got the idea of windows based computing every program is launched full screen. This is fine when you're emailing or reading a site, but not so much when I've tried to teach her instant messaging.
The first question people like my mum ask when told about a new gadget or service is "what does it do?", but they really mean "what will it do to help me?". The main barrier to mainstream acceptance isn't always ease of use, it's the obvious benefit.
VOIP was an easy one (free calls to her brother in Holland), and despite that being a little tricky it's now ingrained in her routine. I've been thinking a lot recently about how to sell ideas where the benefits are a little more abstract, in the short term at least.
RSS (people have given up and decided that it stands for Really Simple Syndication, it probably doesn't) is something that has allowed me to consume vast amounts of information incredibly quickly. It changed my reading habits, and as such my attitudes to all sorts of ideas - but that's a not the immediate gain for most, who may well think that reading more just means reading more rubbish.
Another example is tagging. Since January I've been working on a project called The Big Picture the aim of which is to encourage people to get involved in photography. Seeing their pictures in themed galleries we thought would be a big driver for getting people to look at the website and since we're talking thousands and thousands of photos (25,000 at the moment, rising we hope to a record-breaking 100,000) the only way to do this was by asking people to tag them as they were uploaded.
Tagging is hugely flexible and very powerful when organising such huge numbers of things (and anyone interested should check out the brilliant 'Everything is Miscellaneous' by David Weinberger which explores the history of organisation, honestly it's good, even funny in places), but it's not the easiest concept to get across.
Tags aren't quite labels, they're not quite description, they need to have a generality in order to be useful. Once people 'get' them they quickly become converts, but there is a leap of understanding when deciding how to tag - you have to use a little bit of dislocation "what does this mean to other people?", rather than just marking things so you can find them. The joy of tagging is that the tags for others and for you can co-exist (they can of course be both), but until you start to find other people's tags useful the motivation for altruistically sharing and organising is hard to find.
The answer to most things is to say "try it, you might just like it" and hope they do, but people are going to give up quickly unless they get something out of it. Encouragement and ideas are the only way I've found to help, but if you can think up that easy win first you're well on the way.
However, I'm going on holiday for a month if my mum gets Sky+.