Is Design Research Useless for Innovation?

Don Norman has just posted a very provocative and thoughtful piece about the value of design research, or not.

“I’ve come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs.”

You should read the full article, but he goes on to essentially argue that innovation is driven by technology not needs. This leads him to this: “Myth: Use ethnographic observational studies to discover hidden, unmet needs” and continues:

“But the real question is how much all this helps products? Very little. In fact, let me try to be even more provocative: although the deep and rich study of people’s lives is useful for incremental innovation, history shows that this is not how the brilliant, earth-shattering, revolutionary innovations come about.

“Major innovation comes from technologists who have little understanding of all this research stuff: they invent because they are inventors. They create for the same reason that people climb mountains: to demonstrate that they can do so. Most of these inventions fail, but the ones that succeed change our lives.

He then lists several examples, such as the airplane, the automobile, SMS messaging, etc. that arose from technology, not research. Obviously this touches a nerve for me, because it’s a large part of what I do and teach. I think it’s an important conversation to have, especially in academia, which can often be terribly navel-gazing and/or over-zealous about the importance of a certain avenue of research because it’s what is required to get grant funding. But I think Norman is both right and wrong and also viewing needs and technology from an engineering perspective (which has always been my criticism of him, despite his human centred design views). Here’s the clincher:

“Edison launched his first phonograph company within months of his invention: he never questioned the need. He had invented the paperless office, he announced, and launched his product.”

The thing is, Edison did question the need, he just got it wrong. He thought the need for his invention was the paperless office. It turned out it was to record and sell music. To me, this example just goes to show how important it is to have an insight into people’s lives and examine not what they say they want or need, but what they actually need by watching what they do.

It’s also particularly pertinent in service design because it isn’t necessarily product or technology led. Of course Twitter is a service and one that is both potent and that people never knew they had a need for, but Twitter’s technology isn’t complex. Twitter didn’t arise from an innovative idea to build a chat space, Twitter arose from the idea of modifying an existing paradigm for a certain need.

In some ways I’m arguing my way back into Norman’s final point, which is that real usefulness comes from slow, incremental changes – ‘innovation’ that, in his words, is “least interesting innovations to the university and company research community”. He sums this up as, “technology first, invention second, needs last”. Whilst I agree that iterative processes often create innovation, and I also think that the way society uses a technology for things completely left-field to what it was originally designed for (e.g. SMS) is where some great innovation happens, I still don’t see this as technology coming first. Technology is just a medium through which culture expresses itself and with which people communicate, ultimately.

Technology without any application is either an innovation waiting to happen or something useless sitting in the corner like an old Betamax video recorder. If the need isn’t there, no level of technology helps anyone. I would add that this is a particularly American approach to the role and value of technology in a determinist fashion. It also reminds me of Andy Cameron and Richard Barbrook’s essay, The Californian Ideology.

Steve Portigal and Frog Design’s Adam Richardson have also written thoughtful responses to Norman’s piece, which is how I came across it. Todd Zaki Warfel has also written a rebuttal. [UPDATE: Good post from Nicolas on this over at Pasta & Vinegar. The comments are valuable too.]

Time-shifting payments with Sprize and Swiss Rail


Gap’s new pilot service, Sprize, deals with an age-old irritation. You buy something at full-price only to find it reduced in a sale a few days later.

It is irritating for customers, who tend to feel ripped-off or cheated by the store or staff. But it is also a problem for stores, because it means customers defer buying things until they are discounted in a sale and thus potentially lose a sale because the customer forgets to come back or shops elsewhere.

Sprize works by customers opening a Sprize account where they accrue “SprizeMoney” (currently one-to-one in terms of Canadian dollars). If you buy something in Gap and the price on the item drops within 45 days, the difference is credited to your Sprize account.

It’s an interesting piece of service design because it deals with a customer annoyance, but also benefits the store. Actually, it’s still quite weighted towards the store’s benefit because the SprizeMoney can only be spent in Gap stores. So it is more like receiving a credit note for the difference. Gap still get to keep your money (and you must spend it within a year).

This kind of shifting of the perception of value is something I find fascinating. People will regularly make an effort to gain small savings in one area (the few cents difference between the cost of washing powders, for example), whilst ignoring spending in another (the over-priced coffee they drank whilst out shopping).

Oddly, time-shifting payments can sometimes feel like free, even when it is shifted into a lump sum. In Switzerland you can buy a season ticket called a General Abonnement. It seems that almost everyone who lives in Switzerland has one. The 2nd class adult one is CHF 3,100 per year (about £1,850 or US$3,050). So it’s not cheap, but it’s a one-off outlay. When you talk to people about their train usage, one if the things they say is that love taking the train because because it’s free (that and the trains in Switzerland are punctual and pleasant). This sense of it being ‘free’ means people are much more spontaneous with their train travel because they no longer think about the cost or hassle of buying tickets. Even if you don’t think of it as free, the effect is like an all-you-can-eat buffet – people have spent the money, so they try and get the most out of it, which encourages the use of public transport.

Like Sprize, a great deal of the benefit is really for the Swiss rail network (the SBB, CFF or FFS, depending on the language you choose). They get to have a large sum of everyone’s cash up-front, which they can then invest and make even more money from.

The benefit goes both ways – there’s a financial one for SBB and a lesser financial one for the customer, but in return SBB get more value from their customers’ money and the customer feels like they travel for free. Free as in the ‘free’ minutes you get monthly on your mobile phone contract, which you also pay for. The reason why people hate their mobile phone companies, though, is because they don’t hold to their side of the bargain thanks to the terrible service they tend to offer.

Sometimes service design is about getting the service right, sometimes it’s about presenting the evidence of the existing, positive service in the right way.

Interviews with Nik Roope, Troika & Mark Hauenstein

Most of the interviews we shot for COFA Online have now gone online. A few others with Jona Piehl from Land Design Studio and Nik’s brother, Tom Roope from The Rumpus Room will be released next year and they all explore working in the grey area of merging and emerging disciplines.

Nik Roope gives some great insights into the thinking behind many of Poke’s successful projects:

Sebastien Noel and Eva Rucki from Troika on their cross-disciplinary projects:

Here, Mark Hauenstein talks about his journey from studying fine art to being head of Research and Development at AllofUs:

Thanks to Rachel for the great camera and editing work.