Yesterday, I mentioned that I spent a week with my in-laws in Wisconsin. They live in a small town called Kiel. It’s truly a small midwest-American town in every sense. It’s the kind of town with a water tower with the word KIEL painted in large white letters across it. The volunteer fire station blows a whistle every day at noon. Friday night high school football is a big event. The town’s three biggest employers are quite literally two small cheese-processing plants and a machinery supplier for those plants. One morning while I was out running, I could have sworn I passed the same old guy in a Green Bay Packers jacket 5 or 6 times, but I couldn’t be sure. That same morning, I passed an auction at the local ammo and archery shop where at least 150 camouflaged people were anxiously bidding on pieces of hunting art. On a walk down the half-mile stretch of Fremont Street, the main street in town, I counted 9 bars and 4 churches. Kiel is a pretty little town though. A beautiful little park sits alongside the Sheboygan River as it slowly ambles it way through the town center. Kids play on tire swings hanging from tall shady maple trees. Norman Rockwell would have loved Kiel.
Although the world around it is moving ahead at breakneck speeds, Kiel (and other towns just like it) is a living anachronism. My father in-law still uses a dial up modem connected at 54 kbps to find things on “those interwebs”. There is a 48-inch LCD flat panel television in his living room with rabbit ears attached to it. Yes, no cable, no satellite. I’ve been wondering who all of those digital television transition commercials were talking to and now I know. In my in-law’s home you hear statements like “This wind energy is just a temporary thing” (I’m not sure if they mean we’ll run out of wind or if wind energy is just a fad). To me, Kiel seems like a town straight out of Bill Bryson’s “The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America“.
So, why am I telling you so much about Kiel and my in-laws? It’s not because I’m a big city snob. In fact, I kind of like the peacefulness and slower pace of life in small towns. And I like my in-laws. I’m telling you about Kiel and my in-laws because sometimes when we’re developing software or products we forget that places like Kiel and people like my in-laws still exist. They don’t read the latest blog posts every morning on their iPhones. They read the local newspaper while eating breakfast in a small diner while they drink black coffee (not Starbuck’s). They don’t check to see how many new friends they have on FaceBook. They say good morning to the same friends they’ve had for the last 20 years at that diner. Chris Brogan recently wrote a post about social media and people in the “real world” that really puts this dilemma into perspective. The point is, if I walked into one of those bars on Fremont Street or the diner in downtown Kiel and said “I write a really popular blog”, most people would probably think, “That’s nice”, and that would be the end of that conversation.
My guess is, most of the people in Kiel don’t have a blog, don’t use Twitter, and don’t have a LinkedIn profile. Most people in Kiel (and most other places for that matter) aren’t techies like “us”. So why do we keep developing applications and products for people like “us”? I think that if we want to make a bigger, more remarkable impact, we need to help bridge the gap to the folks in the bars and diners on Fremont Street. And we need to understand that they aren’t moving at the same speed as “we” are. They’re not the early adopters on the technology adoption curve. They’re the conservative herd. They don’t want bells and whistles. They want an easy-button. So, when you start to design your next product or write your next application, think of the good folks in Kiel, and build something they’d use.