CES 2017: All Tech Should Be Like a Good Toothbrush Getty Images

CES 2017: All Tech Should Be Like a Good Toothbrush

I am delighted by the new toothbrush I got for Christmas. My 14-year-old Oral-B model had kicked the bucket in November and I'd been using a manual toothbrush like some kind of cave person until I upended my holiday stocking and a Quip fell out.

And as I was brushing one morning with my new favorite toothbrush, I was thinking about my upcoming CES 2017 schedule, the four different "smart toothbrush" pitches I've already received -- one promised to connect my toothbrush to the Internet of Things -- and why the Quip is actually a successful little piece of technology. And as my toothbrush buzzed gently to remind me to switch quadrants, I realized these reasons comprise a Toothbrush Test -- one that can be easily applied to everything I will see at CES.

So what's the Toothbrush Test for Technology? In order for an app or piece of hardware to really break big and become an unquestioned part of a tech user's regular arsenal, it's got to do the following:

The tech has to do something that's easily identifiable. Let's get back to my new favorite toothbrush. It brushes teeth.

The tech has to be easy to try and easy to understand. It doesn't matter if whatever under the hood is exquisitely engineered, it doesn't matter if the software is a code poem. What matters is that a user has ample opportunity to see the tech in action, to try it themselves, then to feel a sense of mastery without a whole lot of monkeying around.

The tech has to offer some improvement on something you're already doing. Look, starting new habits is hard, but tweaking existing behaviors is easy, and the effects can be cumulative, i.e. one slightly altered behavior leads to another slightly altered behavior, then another, then another.

Let's look at how my Quip does this: It buzzes every 30 seconds to remind me to move my toothbrush to a different "quadrant" of my mouth. This way, I'm guaranteed to brush both the fronts and backs of my upper and lower teeth within the two-minute use window. With my old Oral-B, it just ran for two minutes and I'd idly move it around while reading on my phone. The external cue the Quip gives me really changed my behavior.

The second improvement this toothbrush offers: It makes changing the head quick and easy, because every three months, I get a new toothbrush head in the mail plus a reminder to recharge or change my toothbrush batteries. The user model here is nudging me to modify a behavior (changing the toothbrush head) I was already doing. More crucially, it's nudging me into modifying my behavior in a way that guarantees them a subscription-based income.

The tech has to fit into your life as you're already living it. There's a reason wearables that double as wristwatches were embraced by everyone from your mother-in-law to your cousin who runs JV cross country: Because the tech neatly slid into a behavior people already had, i.e. wearing something on their wrist. The same went for smart phones: People already had mobile phones, but these were originally thought of as "phones with a little extra," not the tiny mobile computers-cum-cameras-that-happen-to-make-phone-calls they really are. They did not have to radically change their lives to use the tech.

(That users' lives may have radically changed in response to how they used the tech is a whole different thing. Nobody bought a smartphone because they wanted to stop using an atlas and a pad of paper to plan a driving route and write down every step. But once people realized the smartphone they bought for communication could also offer directions and restaurant recommendations -- that's when they altered their behavior. People find ways to use tech to optimize the lives they already have.)

My toothbrush filled an existing niche -- only it did it better and it's changing how I buy and maintain personal-care products. That's an example of how tech can fulfill one function while opening the door to many other new user behaviors.

So as I walk the CES floor over the next four days, I'll be looking at a vast array of products and asking myself: Do they pass the Toothbrush Test for Tech? Do they do something I can easily identify and describe? Will I get a chance to use something like this in everyday life, or is this only rolled out at tech shows? Can I figure out how to use it without someone hovering and spouting caveats about what I can and can't do? What does this tech do better than already-existing items? And how does it fit into someone's life as they're living it now?

Not every tech can be a well-thought-out toothbrush. But I'm hoping to report back with a few things that pass the Toothbrush Test.

 
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