by Esther Schindler

Why Are We Still Using Business Cards?

Jun 30, 20085 mins
Data Center

They’re fragile, easy to lose, and hard to convert into a useful digital format. So why are we still using business cards as the primary way to exchange personal data?

Somewhere on my desk is a small piece of cardboard. Emblazoned upon it, in all its glory, is a vendor’s full name, title, company name (spelled correctly), logo, e-mail ID and (should I be so backward as to use such things) her phone number. I just spent 15 minutes searching for that business card. I did not find it—though I did find a travel receipt I should have included in my last expense report, a book I’d intended to read and a coffee cup best described as “mold experiment in progress.”

It irritates, me, though, that we’re still using business cards in the first place. Surely, this is an opportunity for technology to improve the quality of our lives? Business cards are no longer suitable to the task for which they were intended: a shortcut way to exchange useful personal information.

  • They get lost. This is a non-trivial problem when it’s easier to search my computer than my office). It is not uncommon, here at the Schindler bitranch, to discover business cards that went through the washing machine on spin, were used “temporarily” as a bookmark in a mystery novel I abandoned and other fates too dastardly to mention.
  • They don’t provide enough information—or they supply too much. I’ve seen business cards with no company name, no phone number, no web address. I’ve also seen them crammed full of info, from instant messaging IDs to photos.
  • You can’t share information based on context or role. The information I share depends on my persona of the moment, and the nature of the relationship I want to have with the person I’m exchanging cards with. I may share my instant messaging IDs or twitter ID with someone I’m interviewing for an article. But I won’t automatically do so with a public relations or sales person.
  • They’re analog. Getting the data into your address book requires a lot of typing (which you don’t do either), a business card scanner (I had one, years ago; it was okay but still a nuisance), or an act of will that is, I admit, far beyond my pitiful abilities.

The end result is that data I want to have is strewn across my desk, stuffed into the darkest recesses of the black hole I call “my purse,” and otherwise is unavailable to my impatient whim.

That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate a good business card when I see one—at least on aesthetic grounds. Done well, business card are beautiful, tiny billboards. Done poorly; well, I still hold a grudge about the Art Director who thought it’d be elegant to make the back of the magazine’s business cards black. (Nobody could scribble on the back. Which is an important feature.)

Business card have a long and glorious history. They began as “calling cards,” which had strict rules of etiquette, such as folding the upper right corner to indicate that one delivered the card personally (a servant would never hand his master’s card folded). I’m pleased to share even this tidbit of manners with you, because it demonstrates that the money my parents spent on my college education was not wasted. I wrote a term paper on “The Effect of the Industrial Revolution on Etiquette Books, 1830-1870,” and this is my first opportunity to use even the smallest amount of the knowledge I gained. (I got an A+. If you want to know about the appropriate behavior for young ladies living in the Lowell boardinghouses while working in factories, I’m your gal.)

As an industry, we’ve already tried to solve the Business Card Problem. First were vCards, which were a good idea: a tiny data file with all your contact data you could (auto-)attach to an e-mail message. E-mail clients famously couldn’t figure them out, and most v-card systems used the same default filename, but this solution at least has lasted. Hardly anyone uses them in the way they were intended (except on the Mac, sometimes, where the usability and app integration is pretty darned good), but at least it’s still around. Which is more than one can say for most of the other bright ideas that have tried to solve the problem. Such as:

  • In 1996, IBM famously demonstrated a future technology in which we’d exchange “business card data” by a “personal network” connected through your shoes. I haven’t heard anything about it since then. Perhaps the fashionistas from Sex in the City could have made a difference in technology adoption should they have desired to do so; alas, that opportunity is probably gone.
  • For a brief period, early Palm Pilot adopters practiced beaming their info to one another. This didn’t make it because only geeks had Palm Pilots back then.
  • Perhaps five years ago, my former colleague Bill Machrone wrote a wonderful column (lost in the mists of the Internet, I’m afraid, though I’m pretty sure it was for PC Magazine) suggesting that business cards adopt a standardized bar-code which could be scanned as quickly as a library card. I don’t know why that idea didn’t take off, but I wish it had.
  • Two years ago, the camera in a Motorola phone, available in China and Hong Kong, doubled as a business card scanner. But it’s not exactly standard equipment in the smartphones you and I are using today.
  • Notice one thing: we aren’t using any of those technologies. Most of them, I think present too high wall for the non-techie user (such as the salespeople who work trade show booths) to adopt.

    But this is still a problem that is itching to be solved. Certainly, I am waiting for a better solution that can be easily accepted (even by people as techno-phobic as my sister).