What is a gimmick?

Thursday, January 19, 2017
by Cameron Shelley

Posts in this blog sometimes relate to a some design and pose the question, "Is this a gimmick?"  A recent example concerned a speaker-battery combination pack for electric bikes.

Of course, the more general question is, "What is a gimmick?"  I was reminded of this while reading Meg Miller's FastCompany post about whether or not voice-control for houses is a gimmick.  As you may know, you can buy a variety of gadgets that control household systems, like your fridge or thermostat, and have them controlled through a single intermediary, like Siri or Alexa. 

This sort of voice control is quite popular at consumer electronics exhibitions.  But, of course, such sources of the near future are notorious for hype.  So, this is one sense of gimmick: Simply hopping on a marketing bandwagon, without concern for the ultimate appropriateness of the technology.

Miller also notes that people may not want voice control over their fridges, etc.  While such features play well with early adopters, perhaps they do not address a real need.  This is another sense of gimmick: Solving a problem that people do not have. 

Of course, it can be hard to say what a gimmick is in this sense, since what people consider their needs changes with time and circumstances.

Another issue might be that voice control simply over-promises what it can deliver.  People who buy this equipment might expect the kind of service provided by the HAL 9000 (without the homicidal tendencies, naturally) but get something less smart and capable.  In this sense, a gimmick is a design that is simply dishonest, that is, deceptively appearing to be something that it is not.

Finally, Miller discusses how conversational, computerized houses might eventually work by monitoring their inhabitants in minute detail.  Your house might monitor your posture, facial expression, heat signature, etc. in order to anticipate your every want, without even having to speak with you!  Perhaps this points to another sense of gimmick: A Trojan Horse.  That is, having a chatty toaster may be a further step on the road to ubiquitous and persistent surveillance, with all the challenges that brings.

Of course, a Trojan Horse is a kind of deception but in the sense of its unintended consequences rather than covering up of a poor design effort.

What other senses of gimmick might be appropriately applied to designs?