Technology first, needs last: What was Donald Norman thinking?

Steve Jobs while introducing the iPad in San F...

Inventor or innovator?

Donald Norman just posted another piece in his annals on pragmatic design.  Act first, do the research later implores designers not to waste time on prescribed research before the designing starts.  This is the latest missive in the assault on ‘proper design methods’ he kicked off in late 2009 with Technology first, needs last which raised a blogospheric frisson when published. Norman’s central premise in that piece was that innovation breakthroughs result from technology developments and are independent of user need. In simple terms, the technology juggernaut rolls on and innovation occurs at the nexus of technological capability and pre-existing user need at a particular time and place. Norman consistently broadsides at some sacred cows including ethnographic design research (discovering previously un-articulated user needs) and user needs as a primary innovation driver. Just as Nicholas Carr declared that ‘IT didn’t matter’ in 2003, Norman declared that user needs don’t matter in 2009. This is roughly equivalent to telling a software development conference that requirements don’t matter.


Norman draws on a quote from David Nye’s 2006 book Technology matters: questions to live with :

‘Necessity is often not the mother of invention. In many cases, it surely has been just the opposite. When humans possess a tool, they excel at finding new uses for it. The tool often exists before the problem to be solved.’

…and then concludes that ‘design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs’.

Design breakthroughs occur not because of some brilliantly insightful observation of human action (especially ’fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the design research community’). Instead, design breakthroughs are invariably driven by the development of new technologies and the incremental improvements made to established products as a result. Most successful technology-driven innovations are small, relatively simple, and fit comfortably into the established rhythm and competencies of the existing product delivery cycle, Norman argues. He cites a list of products that design research had no hand in (airplanes, automobiles, telephones, radio, television, computers, personal computers, the internet, SMS messaging and cell phones) to support his argument.

Norman argues that technology development advances at its own (rapid) pace, constantly re-tooling designers, who find new and often incremental applications, some of which enjoy such massive and prominent adoption that they get labelled ‘breakthrough’. Ethnographic observations of users in vivo discovers little because of the difficulty users have in articulating unmet needs and the increasingly level playing field of pervasive technology. When everyone has an iPad, the whole world expects nothing less than the same user experience.

The blogosphere reacted swiftly. Within days, Bruce Nussbaum referred to Norman’s piece on his blog as ‘the weirdest atavistic analysis I’ve seen in a decade’. Innovation is the ‘socialization of invention’, Nussbaum retorted:

‘It is the designer who is the interlocutor between technology and society. In fact, it is often the designer who is the vector of technology to society’.

Nussbaum declared Norman’s view of design as ‘very old’ and based on the tired preconception of designers are beautifiers of the R&D department’s outputs. This is the very thing design thinking claims to overturn. Nussbaum distinguishes between invention and innovation. Scientists and technologists invent, whereas innovators find the socio-economic value and turn the invention into an innovation.  Every invention has to be socialised else it sits in the lab, Nussbaum wrote.

Other bloggers jumped onto other points. Self-confessed design thinking consultant Steve Portigal blogged a number of points. Firstly, Norman’s exemplars (airplane, telephone, cell phone etc) don’t work because they predate design research — who, after all, was doing design research while Alexander Graham Bell was busy inventing the telephone?. Secondly, the design researcher is not the agent to commercialise but is well positioned to illuminate one of possibly many next steps in the commercialisation pathway. Thirdly, this innovation game is still a ‘mostly mysterious process’ and doesn’t yield to simple analogies, abstract methods or techniques. Nor is it repeatable. And finally, innovation often takes years, far longer than the span of a design researcher’s intervention.

Creative director at Frog Design Adam Richardson also blogged about the difference between invention and innovation, arguing (with Nussbaum) that new and improved technologies are invented all the time but it takes a working innovation process to refine them for the mass-market. And high-grossing mass-market products is, after all, what all of this is really all about.  Blogger ‘Marc’ over at Design Sojourn clarified the role of the design researcher — ‘Design Research is informative and predictive, but does not synthesize solutions… the role of synthesizing solutions is where a multidisciplinary team needs to come in’.  So design research describes and illuminates the dark corners of user experience but (multidisciplinary) design teams synthesise. Designs have to come from somewhere.

So if design researchers illuminate problems while the designers synthesise on the back of ever-improving technology, then who needs needs? User needs, like many characteristics of successful products, are not generally well articulated until after the product is a raging success. As Marc points out, users are great at telling you what they don’t like but generally hopeless at telling you what they like about a product or system. Norman’s point is that needs get fulfilled as a by-product of inevitable technology development – they do not drive technology development.

Much of the hubris in this debate can be attributed to people contesting the meaning of terms. Design research is something different from innovation which is not the same as commercialisation or productisation, or…  Poorly defined terminology blights many of these kinds of threads. Where Norman seems to have offended is in belittling user needs. He overstates his point that discovery and articulation of user needs is not the primary driver of new and innovative stuff. In so doing, he derides the designer’s role in bridge-building between technology and its context of use.

The blogosphere rolls on, and Norman’s latest post reveals his motivation to rid the design world of unfounded academic prejudices — a worthy mission for such a prominent design methodologist and observer.


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