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.]

Writing is Design


“Verbalizing design is another act of design. I realised this while writing this book,” writes Kenya Hara in the preface to his book, Designing Design. But writing itself is an act of design, whatever the subject.

Over the years I have done quite a bit of writing and recently my PhD is the largest block of words I have ever tackled. I have learned more about design and the creative process through writing than I have through designing.

The Guardian has a piece today titled Writing for a living: a joy or a chore? in which nine authors give their views on writing. There is the usual mix of tortured writers and those that love it and go into a “special place” in their heads, but it’s a good insight into the process because they are all pretty honest. My own feelings about writing are probably closest to Ronan Bennett’s.

I enjoy writing. I like it because it is a slower process than designing on the computer. It takes longer to make something polished because you need to write, edit and re-write several times.

One of the problems with working in applications like Photoshop or Illustrator is that it is easy to produce something glossy, but empty, very quickly. The finished-looking nature of the roughs can be a real handicap to generating new ideas or developing further iterations of an initial one. For this the sketchbook is king.

Tomato’s John Warwacker once said to me that he used to like the days when computers were slow because you could think about what you were doing whilst the progress bar was chugging along. Nowadays, we multitask. A quick Twitter or e-mail whilst Adobe applications crash around and update themselves in the background.

Thinking time is important and the slow, sometimes tortuous, pace of writing is perfect for thinking whilst creating.

Word processors make it easy enough to endlessly tweak, but I prefer keeping things simple with Mellel or Writeroom. Following John Cleese’s advice, writing is one of the few times when I happily ignore everyone. Even Twitter. No, really.

Natalie Goldberg’s advice in Writing Down the Bones is “allow yourself to write junk”. If you don’t, you never get to the good stuff and it is the imperfection of the written first draft that has taught me the most about design. I am happy to write a rubbish opening few paragraphs because I know that I will eventually find what it is I want to say by the time I reach the end. Then I can go in and re-write it.

Teaching students has taught me the value of the rough draft too, for students often hold their first idea as sacrosanct. They want to immediately make it, polish it, without realising the first idea is just a stepping stone to the next one and knowing where to stop is the real trick.

I find that much harder with visual design (and I’m not really a graphic designer, but an interaction and experience designer, so I cheat with graphic design). The tools are too distracting, there are too many possibilities and glossy options. I think it is why I prefer working out the concepts and wireframes – the bare bones are almost completely about the experience not the gloss. I’m thinking of downgrading to the earliest version of Adobe apps that will run on my machine. Perhaps I’ll even install Sheepshaver and run Photoshop 1.0 (which I remember using) and PageMaker 1.0.

If you are a designer I can recommend writing as a way to hone your creative process. You can even write about other designers’ writing if you want.

I suspect other people who are sporty have similar stories. Yoga has taught me a lot about slow, steady practice too, as has playing music.

What has been your greatest creative influence outside of your design life?

[Random shout out: Someone called Leigh got in touch with me from my contact page about my PhD. There was a bug in the form that meant I didn’t get the e-mail address. Leigh, can you mail me again – the form is fixed now or you can just use andy at this domain.]