What Motivates Consumers When Buying Computing Devices?

It’s one thing to look objectively at the functionality, security, and flexibility of various ‘computing’ platforms — I’m being very careful not to use ‘PC’ here — and draw conclusions from those in terms of what a consumer will opt for, but you can end up with poor results: “The iPad is just a big phone, and it’s more expensive than a budget PC — of course people will opt for the latter!” Consumers — at least mainstream consumers — are rarely this rational or objective. Sure, they care about price and connectivity — in many cases, the quality of their 3G or home broadband connection is more important than the device — but they probably care more about design, peer advice, and their personal usage scenarios than the quality of the components or closed versus open ecosystems.

We can broadly categorize consumer considerations as follows:

  1. Price. Traditional PCs have always been an expensive investment for most consumers; the short-lived netbook market demonstrated that people can do many of their daily tasks on much much cheaper devices. In a period of global recession, when many consumers are ‘making do’ with existing devices, price is even more important. While the iPad has managed to retain Apple’s price premium, other tablets seem to have a sweet spot of around $200 — far below the manufacturer breakeven point in most cases.
  2. When the price isn’t the price. Mobile bundle deals often muddy the waters; getting a Samsung Galaxy II for ‘free’ on a £32-a-month contract for 2 years hides the fact that the device alone costs around £420 in the UK. “Sure,” the consumer reasons; “I’m paying £768 in the end . . . but I’d pay that for my minutes, messaging, and web access anyway.” Netbooks were a major beneficiary of this kind of bundling a couple of years ago, especially in the UK, which is why they did particularly well there for a time.
  3. Design, appearance, and store placement. A large part of Apple’s success is down to how good the devices look and feel when you play with them, either in a store or with a friend’s device; however, few other brands have the luxury of Apple’s margins to push the boat out on design and materials. In-store, the position of devices can make all the difference: 15 similar-looking laptops running Windows is not inspiring; it’s daunting! The same applies to 5 barely different Android tablets or 25 42-inch TVs. This is why manufacturers are increasingly trying to get their products in front of consumers in new ways: pop-up stores, limited editions, tied to a successful brand like Beats, and direct sales (or at least direct pre-sales). All aim to make a product stand out from the crowd, but some brands have discovered that the most powerful tool is . . .
  4. Peer pressure and recommendations. Social media gurus (warning: NSFW!) have long known about the power of peer recommendation, and consumer technology is an area where a friend or relative’s experience or expertise can heavily influence the decision to buy. Naturally, this works both ways; lousy experiences with a brand or product are, if anything, communicated far more readily.
  5. Legacy or compatibility factors. This is certainly a key factor in the business world, but consumers also worry about application compatibility and legacy issues. “Can I plug my printer/camera/iPod into device X?” “Will the kids be able to produce homework in the school’s specified format?” “Where does my master address/contact list live?”

When a consumer can connect any ‘computing’ device — be it a smartphone, a tablet, or a PC —to the same services, what she wants to do (or even thinks she wants to do) becomes perhaps the most important factor. In my next post, I’ll look at consumer usage scenarios for computing devices.