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In the age of ‘forever beta,’ device owners will demand more control


Companies are increasingly looking to design smart products and services that can be updated when required. Doing so allows businesses to continually adapt their digital experiences to meet new customer demands as they emerge. These enterprises are embracing a world of “forever beta,” where no service remains the same for very long.

The challenge is that consumers naturally have a sense of ownership over the devices they buy, and some of the changes imposed on them by businesses are not always welcome. To give one example: in 2019, owners of the $899 Jibo home robot were stunned to discover its control services were shutting down — permanently. At a stroke, their expensive smart device was rendered dumb.

As reported in Accenture’s 2020 Technology Vision report, smart devices offer a living connection to consumers, but the inherent opportunities in this relationship will not be realized if people feel like they can’t control these products. In fact, there’s a danger that consumers will face a “beta burden” as they’re left to play catch up with the coders, never knowing whether the next update contains great new features or an unwelcome change in functionality.

Adapting smart devices to fight COVID-19

COVID-19 adds a new dimension to this challenge. The pandemic has resulted in several smart devices being updated or reconfigured to address public health needs. And people prioritizing the health and safety of their communities have been welcoming changes that, pre-pandemic, would have been rejected as too invasive.

All over the world, smart devices are being used to identify symptoms, monitor patients and gather large volumes of data to help scientists and governments address the public health crisis. Smart thermometer company Kinsa, for example, has used its cache of customer temperature data to create a US Health Weather Map which breaks the data down by county. Meanwhile, Oura, a smart ring-maker, is partnering with UCSF to study whether its ring’s temperature-sensing capabilities can detect early signs of COVID-19.

With the public health challenge in mind, people are allowing significant changes to many of the products and services mostly without comment. The challenges of the global pandemic have given many organizations a reprieve, granting them leeway and creative liberty to use devices to their full extent.

Keeping customers on board

However, this reprieve is only temporary, and it’s crucial that organizations do not forget to think beyond the unique situation caused by the pandemic. Indeed, it’s likely that when the beta burden returns, it will do so in force, particularly as it relates to privacy. While most people seem happy to trade some of their privacy to combat the disease, many have concerns that their data could be misused in the future.

Some leading organizations have moved fast to ease these concerns. Google and Apple, for example, have updated their Android and iOS systems to let certain government agency apps track the physical proximity of phones, alerting users who may have been exposed to the virus. Importantly, they are doing this with strict privacy safeguards in place. The system is entirely opt-in, will not collect any location data, and will not collect any data at all from people who have not been diagnosed.

Google and Apple’s approach offers some lessons for how all organisations can deal with the beta burden – both in the wake of COVID-19 and more broadly in the future. By proactively putting in place mitigations to alleviate potential user concerns and communicating clearly about changes as they occur, businesses can take their customers with them even as they innovate. As always, the key to success is keeping the customer in mind.

Michael Biltz is a managing director with Accenture Labs responsible for leading Accenture’s annual technology vision process. 

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