Aethon and Geisinger Health System was featured in this article in the Financial Times newspaper on the topic of innovation.   Original article here.


June 18,2014

Innovation: less shock and more awe

By Alicia Clegg

How to avoid disturbing consumers with groundbreaking products


At Geisinger Medical Cen­ter in rural Pennsylvania, a robot named Abbie rolls out of the hospital pharmacy into the corridor. “Turning around,” the robot intones politely, “calling elevator.” Reaching a medical wing, the robot putters to a stop. A nurse press­es its finger scanner, taps in a code and Abbie pops out a drawer with drugs for a patient. Mission accomplished, the robot trundles off – “departing now”.

Robotic assistants, driverless cars, connected homes, digital public services, laboratory-grown meat, augment­ed reality and electric-powered vehicles are just a few of the futuristic technologies elbowing their way out of the laboratory into run-of-the-mill reality. But ingenuity alone is not enough for sci-fi-style experiments to take root in the real world. Newness can shock, as the double-takes provoked by Google Glass show. And al­though people say they like new things, often what they want is mere­ly for existing things to work better.

Innovations must be bought repeatedly if they are to succeed commercially. As Simon Roberts, an anthropologist and director of Stripe Partners, an innovation agency in London, puts it: “Businesses often look on innovations as ‘new things’. But to understand how new things become part of the everyday, it’s more helpful to think of them as skills and habits consumers ac­quire.”

Innovations that fit current circumstances may stand a better chance of bedding in than those that tear up the rule book. As a concept, the 1980s Sinclair C5 electric vehicle was ahead of its time. But the low-slung open-top vehicle’s exposure to the elements and surrounding traffic made it a com­mercial flop. To flout social norms is also hazardous. To counter a backlash against its digitally-enabled headsets, Google Glass has published tips on how not to be a “glasshole”, a derogatory term coined for Glass users who invade others’ privacy or lurk cyborg-like behind their gadgets.

Developing a man-machine etiquet­te could be crucial to winning ac­cept­ance of robots that perform tasks alongside humans. In 2005, John Jones, who oversees pharmacy operations at Geisinger Health System, the health service organisation, liked the idea of using robots known as TUGs and developed by Aethon to act as couriers, because the move would en­able technicians to concentrate on pharmacy work.

But he had concerns, from robots potentially barrelling into patients to the risk that nurses might consider medications delivered by robot less urgent than those brought by flesh-and-blood beings. A protocol that the robot gives way when it detects someone approaching allayed the safety concerns. Likewise, naming the robots made them seem worthier of respect. “It’s not that the robots are seen as people . . . but the fact it’s Abbie or Maddie or Roxie being sent up, not just a bit of equipment, means people take more notice.”

Innovations introduced as optional features face extra barriers, as consumers may ignore them. This may complicate life for makers of driverless cars: because of legal uncertainties and hugely variable dri­v­ing environments, “self-driving” is likely to be offered as an optional setting for decades to come, says Natasha Merat, associate professor in transport studies at Leeds University in the UK.

Road watch: Volvo’s driverless car will offer updates during a trial to help put passengers at ease

At Volvo, a project is under way to put 100 self-drive cars on designated roads in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2017 to test a theory that autonomous cars would reduce road accidents. Even if the theory holds, persuading drivers to switch to “driverless” mode and trust life and limb to a machine may take more than statistics, so the pilot will also study how safe they feel.

Providing updates to the driver on what the car is undertaking so there are “no surprises” – for example, when the car decides to change lanes – may be one way to reassure people, says Trent Victor, a Volvo crash avoidance specialist. Another res­earch strand at Volvo will centre on fine-tuning the cars’ autonomous driving to create the feel of being driven by a skilful chauffeur.

Karthikeyan Natarajan, global head of integrated engineering solutions at the Tech Mahindra, an IT arm of the Mahindra Group, suggests an­other possibility for helping people get comfortable with automotive innovations: gamification. It is using this approach in a new driver analytics system for conventional cars. The feature, which analyses how safely the driver handles the vehicle, will be accompanied by a game-based app that groups of drivers can download to find out which of them is the safest.

Look here: Pod Point’s charge points display blue strips that signal their availability and pique the curiosity of passers-by

When an innovation has an image problem or simply needs explaining better, well-chosen analogies may help. In the MIT Sloan Management Review, academics Christopher Bingham and Steven Kahl showed that borrowing familiar terms such as “shopping cart” and “checkout” from supermarkets helped Amazon demystify ecommerce. Giving innovations names that are easy to turn into verbs can also help to spread habits by focusing people’s attention on “the [do]ing – Skyping, Googling, Tweeting – rather than on [the product],” says Mr Roberts.

While there are always pioneers far out in front, “most people like to think they’re part of a widespread movement”, says Erik Fairbairn, chief executive of Pod Point, a UK electric vehicle charging-point provider. To foster the impression of a fast-growing technology, he recommends designing products to self-advertise. When idle, the company’s charge points display blue strips that both signal their availability and pique the curiosity of passers-by.

Similarly, Tesla Motors, the electric carmaker, sees placing its stores in “high-visibility” locations such as shop­ping centres as helping to normalise electric cars. “Even if Tesla isn’t for you, we want you to feel it’s part of the future,” says Georg Ell, Tesla’s country director for the UK and Ireland.

Help for strugglers: Managers at Fanuc say the company’s client training programme has paid off

The fear of being tripped up by technology is a powerful turn-off for consumers, according to research by Visa. “One of the greatest inhibitors to buying is when people feel they’re at risk of being embarrassed,” says Jonathan Vaux, a director at Visa Europe. Making products as intuitive as possible helps, but what is intuitive to one consumer is anything but to another.

Chris Sumner, managing director of Fanuc UK, an industrial robot maker, cites his company’s client training programme. Initially, trainees worked in pairs, with the result that “the whizz kids grabbed the controls and the others sat back and nodded”. Now, participants work singly and strug­glers receive uncharged extra coaching. The payback is that Fanuc has a coterie of customers who show off their robots to other companies and host its roadshows.

Mr Jones, for his part, sees his robots as ambassadors for Geisinger. “I won’t say that people come here because of them but I think they see them as a sign the hospital is progressive.”


How to turn an innovation into a consumer habit

  • Respect social norms and work around any existing infrastructure. Even disruptive innovations need to fit into the world as it is – at least initially.● Choose your words Analogies can help people grasp how innovations work and by referencing familiar things make the unfamiliar less daunting – for instance using “checkout” for online shopping.● Show, not tell Bombarding people with data rarely helps. Concentrate instead on creating opportunities for people to experiment with innovations first hand.

    ● Engage the senses Building prompts and cues into new technologies – the swoosh signifying a text message has been sent, the artificial shutter click on digital cameras – is reassuring for novices.

    ● Get verbal Names that sound good as verbs − as in Skyping or Googling − encourage consumers to think of innovations as things others are embracing, which they should perhaps do too.