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.]

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