“If we can discover the meaning in the trilling of a frog, perhaps we may understand why it is for us not merely noise but a song of poetry and emotion.” — Adrian Forsyth
Lets face it, we are meaning-making machines! We structure, navigate, perceive and interact with our environment and relationships based on the constructs we use to make sense of our world. Green juicing is healthy. Opposites attract. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Cultural, religious and social structures influence meaning as well: is the color red indicating danger; is your head nod saying ‘yes’; what really is beautiful? And, in many countries ones gender determines her rights and freedom, which has given rise to gender inequalities . The good news is that these meanings are subject to change, they evolve: concept of a friend; liking something; what is a troll?
We question our world by creating alternative world-views, and in the process challenge people to revisit meanings that are too often taken for granted. The aim of technology is to change the world, for the better. The perception a person has towards a technology influences the value of that technology. Without understanding the meaning and interpretations of the technologies and products we are developing within the context of the society where they used, we can’t assess the impacts of the change we bring about. Given the complex nature of technology and culture, can we really say technology development and adoption is a rational process?
If we step back and look at meaning from the aspect of technology and products that embody them, we can see that meaning can influence:
- Technology and products’ functions and attributes;
- Technology and products’ adoption process and speed;
- Who buys, approves and ultimately controls technology;
- How it encourages reuse and recycle at its end-of-life;
- How we address controversy, conflict and change that technology brings about.
Meaning in technology is derived through its function and how it is perceived
Carl Mitcham identified four technology dimensions that we can use to evaluate its function: technology as object, technology as knowledge, technology as activity, and technology as volition . How the technology is perceived influences not only its function but its impact. Automobiles are a means of transportation, but they also signify meaning for the owner: respectable, wealthy, poor, … Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement has been renovating conservative enterprise IT policies. How about Google Glass and the fine line between citizen journalism vs individual’s right to privacy?
Cultural values give meaning to technology
For the US, snowmobiles are mainly a recreational vehicle, an occasional fun ride. However, for Eskimos it is a lifeline, and maintaining and servicing snowmobiles for continuous use represents a different set of problems, often leading to modifications in order to adapt them to the conditions . And perhaps, O-Young Lee is correct in his conclusion “… triumph of Japanese microelectronics is rooted in age-old cultural impulses. The impulse to miniaturize, evident in bonzai, haiku poetry, and other aspects of Japanese culture, appears in technical artifacts, too.” 
Firms and brands can deepen the perceived meaning of their products
Through branding, as well as customer and industry initiatives, firms deepen the perceived meaning of their products. Patagonia‘s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” pledge, and “Volvo Gave Away the Most Important Design They Ever Patented” further emphasize their commitment to quality and social responsibility.
From meaning to product positioning
Once a sultan dreamt that he had lost all his teeth. Upon waking up, he summoned a wise man to interpret his dream. The first interpreter said: “Great misfortune, my lord! Each lost tooth represents the loss of one of Your Majesty’s relatives.” Enraged, the Sultan ordered 50 lashes for this bearer of bad news! The second interpreter, after attentively hearing the Sultan out, said to him: “My lord, great happiness is in store for you. The dream means that you will outlive all your relatives!” The Sultan’s face lit up with a great smile, and he ordered the wise man to be given 50 gold coins. As the wise man was leaving the palace, one of the members of the court asked: “How could this be? Your interpretation of the dream was no different from that of the first interpreter…” The wise man replied, “Ah yes… What matters is not only what you say, but how you say it.”
Recognizing this intricate relationship between function, perception and meaning is important to product managers in order to effectively position the technological product. Up until the 17th century, the process of childbirth has been the domain of women alone, with midwives assisting in the process of giving birth. Their experience and knowledge about birthing passed from one generation to the next. In England, starting around 1720s, men increasingly started to enter midwifery in direct competition with women. Also interesting to note, in the 13th century, men formed surgeons’ guilds which gave them exclusive right to use surgical instruments. With the physician’s introduction of obstetric forceps in the 1730s, and women favoring the drug-induced ’twilight sleep’ to relieve the pain of childbirth, what was the ‘women’s business’ in the home, had moved under the control of a male profession at hospitals .
“In cultures where machinery is regarded as the domain of male workers, technologies designed with women users and women’s activities specifically in mind can become “attractive to male workers” because the solution involves machine use.”  — Pitam Chandra; Director of the Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering (CIAE), India.
Yoko Arisaka reflects on Susan Murcott’s holistic design approach for supplying clean water in developing countries in her paper “Women Carrying Water: At the Crossroads of Technology and Critical Theory.” [5, 6] Questioning the western model of efficiency and centralization, Murcott co-created a solution with women, aiming at self-sustainability of the product while empowering women for its maintenance. In essence, by focusing on designing the experience to fit into the cultural norms and traditions, Murcott worked to build the technology in a women-friendly way.
Our values and biases consciously and unconsciously shape the meaning we give to our creations. However, the meaning is a two-way street — the way it is interpreted by the receiver may not have been the intention of the messenger. Our ability to recognize this disconnection and validate intended ‘meaning’ during the product design, development and deployment cycle will enable us to deliver products that are more on target. Utilizing techniques such as systematic observation and experimentation, we can look to remove our preconceptions to get a less distorted view of reality.
Here is an interesting product management exercise…
I recall scratching my head when I read about Walmart customers and high return rates of Boxee TV and thinking what a strange combination of technology and customer segment. There are great local products that are just natural, however more organic in spirit than many of the other organic-labeled products. Through packaging, many products give the sense of organic, natural, good-for-you feeling, but unfortunately it is mostly an illusion…
So… With the perspective of your target customers, as well as competitors in mind, analyze the meanings they may have attached to your technology and products using the product and technology management frameworks that I captured below. What are your insights and ideas? Please make sure to comment with your insights and any other frameworks that should be included in this exercise.
- Porter’s Five Forces and STEEP
- Customer Life Cycle or Buyer Experience Cycle
- Product life cycle, technology maturity and adoption
 Discovery Channel: “10 examples of gender inequality around the world”
 Conversations on Technology as Change: “Definition of technology: Why it matters?!”
 Feminism Confronts Technology by Judy Wajcman
 SciDevNet: “Can technology rescue women farm workers from drudgery?”
 “Women Carrying Water: At the Crossroads of Technology and Critical Theory” by Yoko Arisaka
 CNN “Innovators” – Susan Murcott
 The Culture of Technology by Arnold Pacey
 “Technology in a Global World” by Andrew Feenberg