We’re All Early Adopters Now

With billions of people staying home, the innovation adoption curve looks more like a spike

Photo: Georgijevic/Getty Images

Doctor appointments are being rescheduled as video calls. The notoriously slow legal profession is adopting virtual technology. And it’s possible to obtain a marriage license in New York via a Zoom call. With more than half of the population under some form of lockdown, sectors have had to rapidly adopt new technology in order to continue serving their customers, fast-forwarding us into the future overnight.

This is not the normal pace of change. Generally, new technology is adopted in phases over the span of years, led by early adopters who try new apps and services as outlined by Everett Rogers’ bell curve. But this process is now being compressed from both sides: Businesses are adapting to the new reality on a daily basis, and consumers are far more willing to try new things — like online grocery shopping — because the alternatives are impossible or frustrating right now.

Take telehealth: In 2016, about 14% of physicians surveyed by the American Medical Association said they used telemedicine tools for virtual visits. By 2019, the use of these tools was twice as prevalent, with 28% of physicians saying the same. Now, the U.S. has lifted laws restricting the use of telehealth for Medicare patients, and telehealth has been cited as a major component of flattening the curve. Telehealth visits have exploded as they’ve gone from being seen as an experiment to an immediate necessity.

These leaps into the future will be treated differently than the tentative steps companies usually take with new technology. Introducing new changes like telehealth or online grocery ordering in normal times is usually relegated to “experiments” that come with fewer risks than pivoting the entire business. Covid-19, however, has changed the equation entirely: In many industries, the old way of doing business now causes bottlenecks or is simply impossible. Adopting new technology has become less risky than business as usual.

Even in industries that already considered themselves “online,” stay-at-home orders have pushed businesses to quickly innovate.

If you’ve tried to order groceries online, for instance, you’ve likely found it difficult to find a delivery slot. For most grocery chains, online shopping was only a small part of their sales before Covid-19 arrived. Fulfilling each order generally requires staff to walk around the same store as customers to pick up items off shelves — stores that are typically designed to increase the time customers spend inside.

While picking to-go offers from in-store shelves may have worked fine before, it’s become a bottleneck as interest in shopping online has surged. The largest chains have long flirted with the idea of creating “dark supermarkets” that are organized like delivery warehouses and optimized for speed. Until recently, there was no rush to bring these online, but with Covid-19 unlikely to abate any time soon, some chains are now scrambling to get them up and running before their competitors. Meanwhile, businesses that were slow to come online are rushing to get e-commerce stores and curbside pickup set up so people can safely buy things without visiting a store.

At the same time, technology that until recently seemed interesting to only a fringe audience suddenly seems to have new potential. Both augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), which have existed for years without any killer apps that make them stick with consumers beyond slick demos, have now been thrust into the limelight as conduits to enable both human connection and e-commerce.

VR offers powerful ways to connect with people within a virtual physical space — allowing shared experiences like watching a movie with friends in a cinema without leaving the comfort and safety of your couch. Before now, such ideas remained in relative obscurity, but today, they may offer a meaningful way to connect while we’re camped out in our own homes (though whether they’ll actually catch on remains to be seen).

AR, which had previously seen its most success in games like Pokémon Go, could make it easier to shop without leaving the home, particularly for industries that have struggled to make the shift. Stores can use AR to show their items in the context of your physical space, like allowing you to see the realistic size of an Instant Pot on your kitchen bench.

Millions of devices already support AR thanks to Google’s ARCore and Apple’s ARKit, which are built into Android and iOS. IKEA, for example, already provides an app that places virtual furniture in your space so you can see it before you actually buy it. And Warby Parker offers shoppers an app that allows them to virtually try glasses on, using the iPhone’s powerful front-facing camera to map them accurately onto your face. Many businesses have yet to explore these technologies. Now they might.

As with many other forward-thinking technologies being employed to help us get by in lockdown, the pieces have been in place for years, but Covid-19 has unexpectedly required that they be brought together quickly and in new ways.

As pointed out in The Atlantic, not all of the changes accelerated by the coronavirus may be for the better. But in just a few short weeks, we’ve seen huge shifts in our collective relationship with technology — an opportunity for businesses that adapt to the new reality and whatever the world looks like on the other side of this.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify.

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