Monday, November 5, 2012

Silicon Valley Hates Children

The other night, my wife got on the iMac in our bedroom and clicked “play” on a video clip.  Shortly thereafter, the windows rattled from the sound.  “I guess our daughter’s been on our computer,” she said as she lowered the volume.

And this example, among others, suggests that Silicon Valley’s renowned work-centric culture results in a profound misunderstanding of a key target market--the parents who buy all this crap.  In short, Silicon Valley hates children and that actually makes for bad products.

While companies like Google and Amazon famously offer perks such as complete lack of dress code or free dry cleaning for the khakis-and-blue-oxford crowd, observers sometimes miss the reasons for these perks.  Namely, these companies expect their workers to stretch their workdays beyond 9-to-5.  Way, way beyond.

As a result, Silicon Valley companies effectively get, I’d say, 50% to 150% more productivity out of each employee than a hypothetical full-time equivalent (FTE in the TLA space).  From the MBA business case perspective, everybody wins.  The company gets more value from its workforce and the workforce enjoys an effectively greater income since they get a lot of valuable stuff at no cost to them.  In fact, employees at these companies also tend to fare well just based on salary, benefits and other compensation such as 401Ks or profit sharing.  Again, all good.

But I think one group of consumers loses out: parents.

These never-stop-working companies favor two types of people, the young or otherwise unencumbered who have no commitments as important as work or those who have commitments such as family but choose to push them aside in pursuit of a career.  In either case, you have a bunch of people designing products for a broad market with little to no understanding of the market’s needs.

At this point, my techie readers will point out that I could enable the users & groups option to create a separate login for my kids.  Or that I could install some third-party app that limits my kids’ control of the computer.  My point is: I shouldn’t have to.

When kluges became a priority for the designers, they fixed them.  For instance, switching from one wireless network to another used to be a lot harder than it is now.  It used to take a lot of patience to put an item up on eBay, too.  However, designers recognized the problems and they fixed them.

If the designers at Apple or Android or Motorola or Samsung had to come home every night and lower the volume or put icons back in the dock or find the missing bookmarks or hold the DVD remote right up to the machine or any other common annoyance, our gadgets would work differently.

I realize that I’m just crabbing.  Only kid-centric companies like LeapFrog design with kids in mind.  Fewer than that take whole-family use into account.  So even if I did decide to make family-friendly electronics a priority, I’d have a hard time finding a brand that suits us.

However, in the longer term, do these companies serve themselves?  As more and more categories achieve mass markets, sales gains will come from increasingly smaller niche audiences.  When that change happens, will the designers reviewing use cases at 11 PM understand why parents get annoyed when kids fat-finger status updates into their cell phones?  Here’s hoping.

Meanwhile, I’ve got to clean the fingerprints off the screen of the iMac.


  1. I can appreciate that IT work culture is not very friendly toward parents but many companies are increasingly offering work from home arrangements that give parents more time with their kids. Companies benefit from being able to retain experienced staff rather than losing them.

    As for your troubles with devices, at least with computers you have the ability to set up user accounts. Mobile devices, granted, are a bit more tricky but these have always been marketed as personal. That's not a failure of design.

  2. Wholeheartedly agree with the work culture thing. But that affects everyone. Or at least everyone who wants a work-life balance.
    I’m not sure I understand your technical complaint about kids messing up the iMac. What would be a better solution than a separate (restricted) account?

  3. Thanks for your comments, gentlemen. I agree that user accounts would do the trick, but my daughter won't pick up her bloomin' socks. Not sure I could get her to use the user profiles.

    How might it work? Well, for one thing, systems might learn to recognize kid-like patterns and adjust themselves accordingly. Kid-like patterns might include usage of certain sites. Or, systems might have a setting that resets volume levels when they're cranked all the way up. Honestly, I don't know. But I'm sure someone could figure it out.

    Are these issues you've faced?