The Psychology of Usefulness: The Acceptance of Technology – Part Three

In Part Two of this series, I looked at Davis and Bagozzi’s Technology Acceptance Model, first proposed in 1989.


As I said, while the model was elegant and parsimonious, it seems to simplify the realities of technology acceptance decisions too much. In 2000, Venkatesh and Davis tried to deal with this in TAM 2 – the second version of the Technology Acceptance Model.


In this version, they added several determinants of Perceived Usefulness and demoted Perceived Ease of Use to being just one of the factors that impacted Perceived Usefulness.  Impacting this mental calculation were two mediating factors: Experience and Voluntariness. This rebalancing of factors provides some interesting insights into the mental process we go through when making a decision whether we’ll accept a new technology or not.

Let’s begin with the determinants of Perceived Usefulness in the order they appear in Venkatesh and Davis’s model:

Subjective Norm: TAM 2 resurrects one of the key components of the original Theory of Reasoned Action model – the opinions of others in your social environment.

Image: Venkatesh and Davis also included another social factor in their list of determinants – how would the acceptance of this technology impact your status in your social network? Notice that our calculation of the image enhancement potential has the Subjective Norm as an input. It’s a Bayesian prediction – we start with our perceived social image status (the prior) and adjust it based on new information, in this case the acceptance of a new technology.

Job Relevance: How applicable is the technology to the job you have to do?

Output Quality: How will this technology impact your ability to perform your job well?

Result Demonstrability: How easy is it to show the benefits of accepting the technology?

It’s interesting to note how these factors split: the first two (subjective norm and image) being related to social networks, the next two (Job Relevance and Output Quality) being part of a mental calculation of benefit and the last one, Demonstrability, bridging the two categories: How easy will it be to show others that I made the right decision?

According to the TAM 2 model, we use these factors, which combine practical task performance considerations and social status aspirations, into a rough calculation of the perceived usefulness of a technology. After this is done, we start balancing that with how easy we perceive the new technology to be to use. Venkatesh and Davis commented on this and felt that Perceived Ease of Use has a variable influence in two areas, the forming of an attitude towards the technology and a behavioral intention to use the technology. The first is pretty straight forward. Our attitude is our mental frame regarding the technology. Again, to use a Bayesian term, it’s our prior. If the attitude is positive, it’s very probably that we’ll form a behavioral intention to use the technology. But there are a few mediating factors at this point, so let’s take a closer look at the creation of Behavioral Intention..

In forming our intention, Perceived Ease of Use is just one of the determinants we use in our “Usefulness” calculation, according to the model. And it depends on a few things. It depends on efficacy – how comfortable we judge ourselves to be with the technology in question. It also depends on what resources we feel we will have access to to help us up the learning curve. But, in the forming of our attitude (and thereby our intention), Venkatesh and Davis felt that Perceived Usefulness will typically be more important than Perceived Ease of Use. If we feel a technology will bring a big enough reward, we will be willing to put up with a significant degree of pain. At least, we will in what we intend to do. It’s like making a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight. At the time we form the intention, the pain involved is sometime in the future, so we go forward with the best of intentions.

As we move forward from Attitude to Intention, this transition if further mediated in the model by our subjective norm – the cognitive context we place the decision in. Into this subjective norm falls our experience (our own evaluation of our efficacy), the attitudes of others towards the technology and also the “Voluntariness” of the acceptance. Obviously, our intention to use will be stronger if it’s a non-negotiable corporate mandate, as opposed to a low priority choice we have the latitude to make.

What is missing from the TAM 2 model is the link between Perceived Ease of Use and actual Usage. Just like a New Year’s Resolution, intentions don’t always become actions. Venkatesh and Davis said Perceived Ease of Use is a moving, iteratively updated calculation. As we gain hands-on experience, we update our original estimate of Ease of Use, either positively or negatively. If it’s positive, it’s more likely that Intention will become Usage. If negatively, the technology may fail to become accepted. In fact, I would say this feedback loop is an ongoing process that may repeat several times in the space between Intention and Usage. The model, with a single arrow going in one direction from Intention to Usage, belies the complexity of what is happening here.

Venkatesh and Davis wanted to create a more realistic model, expanding the front end of the model to account for determinants going into the creation of Intention. They also wanted to provide a model of the decision process that better represented how we balance Perceived Usefulness and Perceived Ease of Use. I think they made some significant gains here. But the model is still a linear one – going in one direction only. What they missed is the iterative nature of acceptance decisions, especially in the gap between Intention and Behavior.

In Part Four, we’ll look at TAM 3 and see how Venkatesh further modified his model to bring it closer to the real world.

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