Posted by: Manuel Delgado | May 2, 2008

And it’s not the Road Runner

Have you noticed all those beeping smoke detectors in the Hispanic community?

You know what I’m talking about: when the white disk that’s attached to your ceiling runs out of battery and complains “BEEP!”

Over and over again – “BEEP!”

Now – I’m obsessive with those things. In the laundry room of our house I keep a stash of those little square 9-volt batteries. First, because I feel that every second the alarm is not working, our lives are in extreme danger.

Dead by carbonization. I swear it’s a true, if irrational, concern.

But more importantly, the noise drives me crazy. Doesn’t it drive everybody crazy?

Well, apparently not some people.

One of the interesting things about doing ethnographic research, and visiting many random homes, is that you start noticing certain patterns that teach you more about the people you’re visiting that what they’re able to verbalize.

When we’re in the middle of an interview, and we’re interrupted by the “BEEP,” the person interviewed always apologizes, almost appearing guilty that they did let that happen.

“It’s the fire alarm… it’s out of battery…”

When I ask them why they haven’t replaced the battery, they generally look confused… and then give a variety of responses: their husbands haven’t done it, they haven’t had time to get the batteries, they don’t have a ladder tall enough…

(They also probably think “why is this dude asking me that?”)

But I believe that the real reason is deeper than that. It’s a “process” thing.

Residential smoke detectors are not common in Latin America. When Hispanics migrate to the US, the smoke detector is yet another new thing we all need to deal with.

And it’s not straightforward. Sometimes when cooking, the smoke will make the alarm go off. Sometimes even the steam from the shower will trigger it.

So, we develop techniques: fan with the towel, or with the pizza box. And then, one day, we hear this “BEEP!”

“What is that noise?”

Until we figure out what it is… and what it needs to happen for the noise to stop.

The solution is a convoluted process, and we don’t like convoluted processes. We even have a coined phrase for that: “todo un proceso”: a whole process.

The ladder, trying to get the cover out, making sure we don’t rip it off the ceiling. Finding out that it needs one of the weird batteries, going to the store, getting the battery. The ladder again…

In essence, complicated. Todo un proceso.

So, we let it beep. And beep and beep. Until it eventually stops beeping.

Like the blinking clock on the VCR: it’s something we learn to live with. The process to fix it is harder than enduring the beep.

This applies to “electrical” things and new technologies, of course, but also to simpler things like services and every day products.

For instance, how do you change the cooking process to add, say, frozen chopped onions instead of the fresh ones?

When marketing to Hispanics, we always have to balance the problem or need we’re trying to fulfill with the overall “cost” of implementing our solution. Evaluating the switching cost must include considerations about “process” changes.

We need to avoid adding confusion to an already confusing world.


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