Without subculture appeal, tech loses its ‘cool’

Any change to the product's subculture appeal, attractiveness, or originality will affect the product's overall coolness, according to the researchers. If a product becomes more widely adopted by the mainstream, for example, it becomes less cool. (Credit: Ran Yaniv Hartstein/Flickr, font by Tyler Finck/FontSquirrel)

In the tech world, coolness takes more than just good looks. Technology users must consider a product attractive, original, and edgy before they label those products as cool, according to researchers.

That coolness can turn tepid if the product appears to be losing its edginess, they add.

“Everyone says they know what ‘cool’ is, but we wanted to get at the core of what ‘cool’ actually is, because there’s a different connotation to what cool actually means in the tech world,” says S. Shyam Sundar, professor of communications at Penn State and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory.

(Credit: Desmond Talkington/Flickr)
(Credit: Desmond Talkington/Flickr)

The researchers found that a cool technology trend may move like a wave. First, people in groups—subcultures—outside the mainstream begin to use a device. The people in the subculture are typically identified as those who stand out from most of the people in the mainstream and have an ability to stay a step ahead of the crowd, according to the researchers.


Once a device gains coolness in the subculture, the product becomes adopted by the mainstream.

However, any change to the product’s subculture appeal, attractiveness, or originality will affect the product’s overall coolness, according to the researchers, who report their findings in the current issue of the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. If a product becomes more widely adopted by the mainstream, for example, it becomes less cool.

The big challenge

“It appears to be a process,” Sundar says. “Once the product loses its subculture appeal, for example, it becomes less cool, and therein lies the challenge.”

The challenge is that most companies want their products to become cool and increase sales, Sundar says. However, after sales increase, the products become less cool and sales suffer. To succeed, companies must change with the times to stay cool.

“It underscores the need to develop an innovation culture in a company,” Sundar says. “For a company to make products that remain cool, they must continually innovate.”

However, products that have fallen out of favor can have coolness restored if the subculture adopts the technology again. For example, record players, which were replaced in coolness by digital files, are beginning to increase in popularity with the subculture, despite their limited usefulness. As a result, participants in a survey considered the record players as cool.

The researchers asked 315 college students to give their opinions on 14 different products based on the elements of coolness taken from current literature. Previously, researchers believed that coolness was largely related to a device’s design and originality.

“Historically, there’s a tendency to think that cool is some new technology that is thought of as attractive and novel,” says Sundar. “The idea is you create something innovative and there is hype—just as when Apple is releasing a new iPhone or iPad—and the consumers that are standing in line to buy the product say they are buying it because it’s cool.”

It’s not about utility

A follow-up study with 835 participants from the US and South Korea narrowed the list to four elements of coolness—subculture appeal, attractiveness, usefulness, and originality—that arose from the first study.

In a third study of 317 participants, the researchers found that usefulness was integrated with the other factors and did not stand on its own as a distinguishing trait of coolness.

“The utility of a product, or its usefulness, was not as much of a part of coolness as we initially thought,” says Sundar.

Such products as USB drives and GPS units, for example, were not considered cool even though they were rated high on utility. On the other hand, game consoles like Wii and Xbox Kinect were rated high on coolness, but low on utility. However, many products ranking high on coolness—Macbook Air, Prezi software, Instagram, and Pandora—were also seen as quite useful, but utility was not a determining factor.

“The bottom line is that a tech product will be considered cool if it is novel, attractive, and capable of building a subculture around it,” says Sundar.

Sundar worked with Daniel J. Tamul, assistant professor of communications at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and Mu Wu, a graduate student at Penn State.

Source: Penn State