Technology Vs. Design--What is the Source of Innovation?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on December 22, 2009

Don Norman, a rare intellect and a major godfather of Design, has launched a provocative broadside against Design that has enormous implications for building an innovative society. Norman tells designers to get over themselves. It is science and technology that drive truly disruptive innovation, not Design’s focus on the needs and wants of people. Ethnographic research, Norman says, can generate small, incremental innovations but the blockbuster game-changing stuff, comes from the lab, not the village or the mall. Norman states: “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.” In short, tech trumps culture. New technology comes first. Inventing new products comes second. Finding new needs for those products comes third.

This is from the author of The Design of Everyday Things, Emotional Design and dozens of pieces on user experience and emotion. So the impact of his words within the design and innovation community is huge. It’s also from a great man with whom I’ve shared a fancy dinner with in Davos.

So it is within an intellectual spirit when I say that Don Norman draws erroneous conclusions from the weirdest atavistic analysis I’ve seen in a decade. To me, the key to innovation, big and small, is the socialization of invention. 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 (and I am deeply indebted to Paula Antonelli, senior curator at MOMA in New York, for teaching me this through her incredible exhibit, Design and the Elastic Mind and many shared conferences).

Norman has a model of innovation that is top-down, one-way and very old. It goes this way. Engineers invent. Marketeers construct products around the new technology. Designers put on a pretty face. And then the stuff is thrown at the consumer marketplace, with the hope that it finds a need or a want. In the past, sometimes it did. Often it didn’t. You could argue that this, in some sense, was socialization of invention into innovation and I would agree. But it is a wasteful, inefficient hierarchical process that is out of date today. Paul Saffo says that in the past, inventions often took 20 years or a generation to get accepted in society and have an impact on economic growth. Nuclear, genomics, robotics are all about two decades old now and we’re still waiting for the big innovation payoffs. Maybe we’ll get it.

But we don’t have to wait and repeat the past. Thanks to design thinking and new tools and methods in ethnographic research, we now have a new model of innovation that is flat, open-source and dynamic. It pulls people into an engagement with technologists early and perhaps more productively, rather than have them wait for technologies that may evolve into innovations they can actually use. Ethnographic research is especially important in an era of co-creation and social media, where consumers demand a say in creating the products and services they use, whether it is music, health care or education. In fact, technology today is more about building open platforms that are tools that consumers then use to make, often in collaboration with friends, their own stuff. It’s all about the social. The iPhone and applications are the best examples of this. No wonder economists are talking about the “iPhonization” of the US economy.

It is often said that invention is not innovation and I believe it. Invention has to have

socio-economic value to become innovation. It has to be socialized or else it sits in the lab. Xerox Parc was famous for the huge number of digital inventions that never became innovations until people outside Xerox connected them to what people wanted in a PC. Dean Kamon's Segway is a great invention still waiting for socialization to become an innovation that adds value to people's lives. The entire Japanese robot technology industry is an example of invention that is not innovation because outside the labs, there is no use for them (unlike the lowly iRobot Roomba which does something useful--it cleans our floors).

Now sometimes inventors act as designers and connect their inventions to society by understanding the needs of that culture. Edison was clearly both an inventor and designer, which made him an innovator.

The US has just had its own Lost Decade of prosperity precisely because it failed to understand the distinction between invention and innovation and the critical role design research can play in socializing technology and generating economic growth. I've just returned from a trip to Asia where the conversation is about moving away from math, science and technology toward design and social science in order to promote innovation only to find the conversation in the US moving in the opposite direction.

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Reader Comments

David

December 23, 2009 04:18 AM

I am a technology analyst, and have been for 20 years. There is a lot of truth in Norman's admission.

That said, the rest of your article lacks any backing for any of its counter-arguments. Xerox PARC was not a failure in design, but a corporate 'disconnect' over bringing to market.

joycewashere

December 23, 2009 04:31 AM

Dear Bruce,

I appreciate you selling the opposite side of the story. Yet, I don't understand why we are still opposing ideas when it comes to understanding design.

It's not technology vs design. It's technology AND design. You can add marketing in the mix too. Oh and some management and some human ressources and and and!

Roger Martin seems closer when he speaks of insuring reliability and validity. Both are required, not opposed.

Design is about AND not about "versus", "or" and "either".

Thanks for reading.

Joycewashere

Mark Whiting

December 23, 2009 10:09 AM

I think there is a middle ground. I think the point that designers rarely actually produce many of the innovations we have seems valid to me however the idea that the future of design is curating the design experience or designing platforms for integrating people and ideas also seems significant. I think the problem is that for now design is only partially there perhaps.

CCW

December 23, 2009 01:48 PM

At first I too bristled at the Norman piece; however – like you I failed in my attempts to disprove his thesis. Despite your statement that he's wrong and his thinking antiquated, you're very much in agreement with him, I think. By naming Apple as your model for innovation, you underscore his point- for Apple is the quintessential product “improver”.

Anne Stenros

December 23, 2009 02:48 PM

A fantastic post! Thank you for that. There are so many old fashion misunderstandings around design and even design thinking that make (my) everyday work in design frustrating. I also agree what is going on in China. I visited as a guest speaker in the first Beijing Design Week some time ago and found it very inspiring and advanced how they talked about innovation, creative economy and design as an engine for the economic growth in China. My wild guess is that after 5 years from now, the spearhead of design will be there, in China.

Beck

December 23, 2009 03:02 PM

Great article. I guess a lot of this debate resides in perceptions of 'innovation'. What is was once considered 'disruptive' 5 years ago, elicits differing perceptions today. Society/people/designers/technologists all have differing accounts of how information/design/technology is socialized and subsequently digested. The simple fact is, we are more familiar with that which is different. Society is more open to change and more open to radical advances, in-fact, I am sure many would argue that society is becoming increasingly impatient - waiting/wanting/asking for the 'next shift'... So, as much as Norman may perceive this to be a Technology V Design debate, it isn't - it is, fundamentally, much simpler than that. Society has shifted and perceptions of growth have changed. If anything, design/design thinking will be the methods and processes that will help shape our 'designed' futures. I agree with you and believe that designers are the facilitators of innovation and will play ever increasing important role 'socializing technology'.

Andrei Timoshenko

December 23, 2009 03:23 PM

I do not think that it is fair to say either that design drives innovation or that technology drives innovation. Instead, it is an interplay of the two, together with business analysis.

Without design, you are most correct in pointing out that brilliant new technology will often sit around doing not very much. Without technology, brilliant designs will eventually run into a ceiling where no more major innovation is possible.

Instead, innovation emerges from a conversation of design and technology - something that you well alluded to in your example of Edison. Sometimes, designers will discover a new need or way of doing things that cannot be met with present technology, and will challenge technologists to come up with something that works. Other times, technologists (the best of whom are often curious for the sake of being curious) will create something with major new capabilities, and will challenge designers to integrate these capabilities into something socially relevant. In the best possible scenario, ongoing conversations between technologists and designers will continually provide perspectives and ideas to both.

Finally, and perhaps more prosaically, without business even the best combinations of technologists and designers will have no larger impact on society than a few prototypes owned by themselves and their buddies. Large scale production, large scale distribution, and large scale awareness do not appear just because a product is compelling. A good idea needs to work in reality, and it needs to fit, sustainably, into practical constraints.

The top innovative companies tend to display a good mix of the three, though in different orders of dominance. Google, I would say is technology-business-design. Apple is design-business-technology. Toyota is business-technology-design. And so on...

James Todhunter

December 23, 2009 03:30 PM

Hi Bruce,

I can understand your sentiment about Norman’s indictment of Design and its role in innovation. But you are missing the key point.

There has been a lot of emphasis on Design as being the end all and be all of innovation. But the reality is that design is just a part of the ensemble that delivers innovation success. Design leads us to understanding how to marry capability to need in a way that creates value. But, the language of capability is defined and expanded through invention in technology and science.

Thus, it is that the intersection of design and technology is the wellspring of innovation.

Cheers,

Jim Todhunter
http://InnovatingToWin.com

Karen Fu

December 23, 2009 06:22 PM

I think Don wants to wake all the design researcher up. But he purposely did it in a steamy way. You can't deny his points from his perspective. Tech before design. The technology has to be there before any appearance/human factors design could be executed. In view from this perspective, he is correct. What infuriates almost all the designers is that he sorts of belittle the human aspects of product design. Personally, when I started my design ed. my immediate thought was I did the wrong way. I should have done engineering/science/tech prior to design. I did the patching whilst studying and it was not easy. Don probably could have pointed out a crucial point in what design professions should be doing. But the crazy thing is designers have a mind too. So a clash is inevitable.....hope I've made sense before bedtime. Can't resist posting...

Don Norman

December 23, 2009 06:58 PM

Sorry folks, but I think you miss the point. I too bristled at Norman's conclusion -- and I happen to be Norman. I have long argued that we should seek out the fundamental needs and afterwards build the relevant technologies and products. But as a scientist, I rely upon data, and the data have convinced me that this is simply not the way things happen. I resisted this conclusion for a long time, but the more i examined the evidence, the more I decided that I had no alternative but to embrace this controversial position.

The reason is simple. People's needs come after the technologies exist. The need for cooking came after the taming of fire (animals don't cook their meals). The need for communication devices (telegraph, telephone, radio, cellphone, internet, postal mail, email) came after the technologies made them possible. People 1000 years ago did not have a need for email, or not even for the telephone: it took the existence of technologies to make these activities possible, which then slowly determined the need. (Remember, when the telephone was first introduced, few people could conceive of why they would want it. Hotels resisted it. Etc.)

I have challenged people to give e a counter-example. By this I mean an example of a new category of commercially viable technology that was a result of design research. All the examples presented to me have failed to meet these requirements. Either they were simply enhancements to existing categories or they were fanciful research projects within university or commercial research labs that never had (or never will have) much relevance to the world of real people, real activities, and real products.

The Segway fits my definition of a new category, but note that it supports my argument: The segway was not developed after Design research demonstrated the need. Nah. It was invented because it could be invented. Now that it is a product, people are struggling to find where it might be needed. Sports? Gifted city tours? Police? The search for the appropriate needs is ongoing and takes place AFTER the technology developed the product.

Was design thinking involved? Sure. Of course, design thinking is done by all creative people: artists, engineers, scientists, composers, .. and creative designers. But design thinking means outside the box thinking, breaking down barriers. My argument is not about design thinking, it is about design research: not the same thing.

ENough?

Don Norman www.jnd.org

scottRcrawford

December 23, 2009 07:07 PM

Excellent comments. Norman is nothing if not pragmatic. There's a "drinking your own bathwater" issue here, it seems to me, that comes with reverse engineering design thinking to the world as if could be.

Here's to the crazy ones.

Mark Bernstein (PARC)

December 23, 2009 08:25 PM

Why does this have to be an either-or conversation? In today's context, successful innovation is a collaborative effort among several perspectives, including understanding the need and how it can be met. Ethnographic insight helps provide that, especially for companies who want to figure out where and how to invest their efforts -- all of which depend on end-user adoption or retention.

The linear and hierarchical model of ascribing merit for how good things emerge from technology creation doesn't really apply any longer. Combining the expertise of technologists and ethnographers -- not as two separate steps in a "design" process, but as constant interactions toward creating that technology and how it will be used -- is an effective approach.

Peter Evans-Greenwood

December 24, 2009 12:38 AM

Aren't we confusing means with ends here? Design (as a doctrine) is orthogonal to innovation. We can use design (and it's currently trendy sibling, design thinking) to innovate, but design (or design thinking) is not required to innovate. As Henry Ford pointed out, if he'd asked people what they'd wanted, then he would have made a faster horse-and-cart.

Don N. makes an excellent point: innovation is a journey. The start of this journey is the creation of a new technology/capability. I've always found John Kay's idea of obliquity[1] as the best way to describe this journey. It's hard to innovate by setting out to innovate: this is the road that leads to both the Segway (interesting, but largely useless) and unrealisable design ideas (also interesting but largely useless). Innovation seems to be the result of synthesis[2], creating a new solution (or repurposing an old one) as we work to solve a problem in front of us.

None of this takes us away from the fact that design is a powerful tool. Apple is using design with devastating effect in the market. Key is what you use design for. Apple (both Mr.s Ive and Jobs) is on the record as "just wanting to make products that we'd love to own". Apple uses design to support obliquity.

If I had to pick the driver behind innovation, then it would obliquity.

r.

PEG

[1] http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-obliquity.htm
[2] http://peter.evans-greenwood.com/2009/12/21/innovation-and-the-art-of-random/

Michele Visciola

December 24, 2009 07:15 PM

Great discussion overall!
But still quite mixing several levels of analysis in a way that does not make all the matter clear enough. Don says that "needs comes after that the technology exists".
Right? What about "people behaviors" in this analysis? The user research and ethnographic analysis does not concentrate only on needs; as a matter of fact they are quite peripheral. A good research project focus rather on people behaviors and the values that express them. Needs do not qualify enough opportunities for technological innovation. People needs are universal and are quite similar in all populations and remaining quite the same in a person life. Basically, they do not change. Instead, behaviors and values are always changing. We change our behaviors and modify the way we satisfy our needs, would they be basic or advanced ones, as a function of what our cultures dictates. This is the reason why, I believe, user research is needed. We need to understand how the people behaviors are changing and possibly evolving. As I showed in a paper on the last issue of Interactions (Nov-Dec 2009), people behaviors and cultures can evolve according to well defined patterns. They can mutate (rarely indeed), can migrate, can evolve by natural selection or, finally, they can take a drift.
We, as researchers and as designers, need to understand how the behaviors are changing, and where are the opportunities for change. If this is true, we can either just help to find the new directions where the technology can foster innovation and become socially useful and accepted (I totally agree with Bruce here) or indicating where the technology is failing in addressing people behaviors and their values.
In my view there is a mutual exchange between the social sciences and the technological sciences. And both can be quite influential in determining what will become a radical innovation as well as in helping to improve the technology to accomodate people behaviors and cultures.
Finally, I believe that Don is not arguing that user research is not necessary. He is only saying that it cannot help radical innovation. As Don is asking to find good counter examples, I believe that most of radical innovations can be described as a result of observations and of a deep immersion in a given culture. Take any of the communication technology that he mentions and you will see that the new device (either revolutionary or evolutionary) is not a simple application of a technology to satisfy the communication need; it is rather the right combination of several technologies to satisfy evolving behaviors and cultures.
These devices can innovate radically cultures (and foster behavioral change) only when they are able to better integrate needs and genuine perceptions of what is needed.
So, user research and ethnographic research might reveal to be useful also for longitudinal purposes to better understand what are the "natural experiments" in real life that open new directions for radical innovations.
However, to conclude my view, I have a question: why do we concentrate that much on radical innovation to demonstrate the validity of design thinking?

Ed H. Chi (of PARC)

December 27, 2009 03:58 AM

Norman's conclusion comes from the view that technology tends to precede design thinking. That is, a new technique or technology is invented first, before design thinking takes over and refines it. Refinement requires the understanding of user needs, which is the focus of the design research. So the mobile phone and mobile communication is invented first, and took Apple to refine it into the iPhone experience. The invention of the mobile communication is the disruption, and the iPhone impact, while great, is a good refinement of the original invention.

But, the real world is messy, you'd say---sometimes the need precedes the invention, and other times it follows. I'd say "Yet other times, they co-evolve." The invention of laser printing is a good example of the need and the technology co-evolving. The need to mass produce paper documents had been around for a long time. But later as people started using computers, the need to translate graphics on the screen into marks on paper evolved at the same time. I suppose one could argue that Xerography was the invention, and laser printing was merely a refinement. We can go round and round on that debate and not get anywhere.

Ultimately, the measuring stick that we ought to use is the amount of impact each (tech vs. design) brings to the innovation process. The question is "How much impact does either design or technology eventually deliver?" I think Norman is mostly right. It is much easier to think of major disruptions coming from the technology side. Not many people (at least not the general public) thought about wanting a personal computer back in the 70s when it was being invented at PARC. To wit, that's why it we call it a "disruption"! It disrupts current ways of doing things. There is an element of surprise in the "disruption", suggesting that the need might not have been there yet.

Xandre Lima

December 27, 2009 04:10 PM

I have a master degree in engineering, but my undergraduate course was in design.

I went to an international congress in 2007 and most engineers were showing new technologies and algorithms. One of my teacheres, who is a civil engineer, started to ask them what have they made with the previous technologies, what are they used for?

The main point that my teacher brought was, they were trying to develop new technologies without even knowing what to do with the previous one. That's why my master course was called APPLIED technologies.

The word applied is very important in this context. If you develop several different technologies without knowing the needs of people, global markets and future innovation, you'll waste money, time and will give support to your rivals in business.

Alessandro Rancati

December 28, 2009 01:14 AM

Mr. Norman assumes that persons and market are the same thing. He not only gets to express a wrong concept; he also thinks that things will never change. He indeed represents a poor example of innovative thinker.

Michael

December 29, 2009 01:38 PM

To the point below regarding AND. Innovation (thinking) is insights + design + technology (when needed). Services and processes might be substituted for technology depending on the insights or solution design.

Design thinking of course would represent Insights within the Design process and that's fine. Finally, by no means do I intend to represent Innovation as a linear process depicted by the "formula".

Ki Charm John Kim

December 29, 2009 10:18 PM

If we consider human needs as the basepoint for this conversation, then really it all boils down to that.

Humans need to communicate, to eat and move around. Those needs have always existed. The manner in which they have has progressed with technological innovation.

Whether or not a technology was invented first or whether it was conceived as a function in facilitating a particular need is besides is not so important. Telephones facilitated communication. But, the need for communication always existed prior to the invention of the telephone.

Yet, probably the most impacting technology, the automobile and it's reign on our geography and infrastructure as a nation or the airplane...these were created and conceived because of social needs, not as a result of lab experiments that found their way into common use.

Mark Schraad

December 31, 2009 03:46 AM

That business' by and large are run by MBA's and MBA's for the most part work top down as Don presents... would naturally dominate the statistics of this sort of study. That does not mean it is the best way to work now, or going forward. Just look at the percentage of products introduced against those that truly succeed in the marketplace. Not even a golden glove shortstop would stay in the bigs with that batting average.

Prof M P Ranjan

December 31, 2009 03:52 AM

Both Norman and Nussbaum seem to overlook the fact that design, design research and design thinking are not clearly specified fields of action. Bulk of design and design research is of the following kind where designers get to "put a pretty face" to a technology or an invention, and this is the bread and butter segment of the design industry. However, there is another kind of design, design research and design thinking that sits at the other end of the spectrum of possible actions that really bells the cat, and gives us a chicken and egg situation. Dreams of the future visualised not in a science fiction mode but in a human centred mode of what is desirable and one that is driven by intentions and a sense of the possible, rather opportunistic and one that gives conviction to make the further moves needed to make the investments in technology and this kind provides direction and sustanance for breakthrough inventions. I believe.

Prof M P Ranjan
designforindia(dot)com

Andrew Schecherman Ph.D.

December 31, 2009 04:56 AM

Ah. Yin-yang!

R. Reade Harpham

December 31, 2009 03:48 PM

Designers, get over (our)selves…

As a fellow designer, and design manager for a company that manages seven national labs, I live Mr. Norman’s point every day, and he is dead on. My team works with breakthrough technologies that come out of the labs and I can assure you that design thinking, (or whatever business term of the moment) had no place in the creation of these disruptive technologies, nor should it have. As much as design has recently carved a market niche in how it can drive business, it is a different story when it comes to fundamental R&D. In true R&D, there is no ethnographic research to be conducted, no co-creation be had, no scenarios to build, no focus groups from which to elicit feedback…just hardcore science and the motivation/drive to move fundamental science in new directions – true innovation.

Designs place is in the translation of these discoveries into RELEVANT solutions. I stress relevant because so much if designs energy goes into unnecessary solutions. Roomba is a great example…sure, it cleans our rooms for us, but so what? Is this really innovation, or just good marketing? I wish more designers would focus their energies on understanding the core benefit of the technologies and then use “design thinking” to translate that benefit into a solution that truly embodies the value…forget profit, forget intellectual property, forget market share…just focus on the benefit to society and watch what happens.


R. Reade Harpham

Simon Reisman

January 2, 2010 12:06 PM

I think it's very simple:
Technology creates new opportunities, design make it useful.

After reading Norman's post I don't think he argued for anything else.
For example, Google Search is above all a technological breakthrough. A great effort of design thinking (user centric thinking) made it useful from the first day (although Google's founders are not designers).
iPhone is a design breakthrough. The technology was there. But only a great care and effort made it such a wonderful product.

Maybe the problem is with the word innovation...

Jeff Bach

January 4, 2010 06:30 PM

I might have missed it in the scrum of words being poured out, but....

To me, "opportunity recognition" is huge in this space.

I see invention as coming from a sharp observer who notices a problem that needs a solution. I see innovation as something incremental, taking something already in existence and making it better.

Navid Sadikali

January 4, 2010 07:26 PM

Don Norman's argument in his latest essay "Technology first, human needs last" goes something like this:

Because
Because the technology behind the 5 major things that made the industrial and information revolution possible came from tinkering/mathematics/engineering without deep consideration of human needs...
(example technologies: automobile - the internal combustion engine; airplane - aerodynamics of flight, 3axis control; telephone - conversion of speech to electromagnetic signals; the computer - binary arithmetic, vacuum tubes, transistors)

Therefore
I prove to my audience that design and design research isn't the first step in innovation.
I prove to my audience that technology is a major leap and everything else is incremental, value-added tweaks.

This argument wrong, and a statement of cultural and political status quo in technology development. This argument must be proven wrong, and as I show below the implications go well beyond innovation better targeted for human use, but affects the progress of the human race across the board in many fields. Let's unfold this...

A few successes and many failures does not suggest a model of success

If we limit ourselves to the 5 major things in the world that yielded major technology breakthroughs, we are pitting 5 things of historic value versus millions+ of things of no value at all. There are millions of theories, research, and technological advances which YIELD NO SIGNIFICANT returns. That is why they say that human knowledge doubles every 5 years whereas major breakthroughs certainly do not. It would be easy to counter Norman's argument by saying that on the whole the vast majority of technology-led projects produce no major benefit to humankind (at least on the product level) and so it is a hit or miss strategy (low success rate). So why do we have so much faith in the wasteful engineering-driven approach?

The Ugly Truth - The Bias of Engineers

Anyone who has spent more than a few years in a technology industry knows the ugly truth. There is a massive bias when innovating towards those ideas that offer interesting technical advancement. Engineers prefer to work on "hard" engineering problems. Why the bias? The culture/personality/training of the engineer is techno-focused and DRIVEN to a WORLD of problems within this focus. Problems that that may, for example, require a system level solution or insights beyond his trained domain are NOT SO INTERESTING OR EVEN GO UNOBSERVED. This insular focus is why hard drive companies keep trying to build a bigger hard drive, or a faster hard drive, and all the while more pressing real customer needs - like managing information and warehousing data - go ignored. Their customer intimacy is mostly wasted, they do little design research. Many startups have a strong sense of human needs they are trying to tackle, the founders live or die on the basis of being profitably useful to people in short order. So it is not like "design thinking" never existed in the business cycle. But after the startup phase, engineering culture dominates and peering into the needs of the customer and designing for them is almost heresy. I've seen this over and over. Hard drive companies stay hard drive companies all the way to their grave (even with beautiful industrial design). Why do design research if your strategy won't be affected by it!? As an example, I'm sure design research would show that few people understand what a hard drive is, let alone what backing up is, let alone how to navigate the "scary" windows file system. But everyone wants their data safe! Engineers of course, do not suffer from this dilemma between conceptual understanding and desire - they fully understand hard drives and can keep their data safe and sound if they wish - so they are not personally motivated by such "human" problems. Their PREFERENCE is to work on technical and scientific problems like higher capacity disk drives based on space-age materials. Yet, a designer amidst the aforementioned problems may see a "radical" opportunity. He might imagine a device that keeps a person's data perputually safe rather than a traditional hard drive. The only reason for such a perpetual vault to exist and its entire form would be to meet human needs, desires, and even their fears.

Most Grand Ideas Are Ignored or Go Unseen By Engineers

The findings of design research are usually human needs, and often the appropriate response is not technology but complex design (which may then require a technological advance). Innovation must crystallize mercurial human desires in a tangible form. But we've shown that among engineers there is a bias towards techno-centric innovation. It turns out that this bias against design research is symptomatic of a much larger, more profound problem. You see, design research whether formal or informal (akin to the designer's intuition) reveals human needs, but human needs aren't just elaborated in observational (aka design) research. They are elaborated continuously in many fields of study. To be explicit, the parts of the world which include deep analysis of people, environment, aesthetics, ie fields such as medicine, psychology, finance, culture, and language (to name a few) are mostly ignored by engineers. This results in the fact that no significant technology innovation occurs there. MOST OF THE HUMAN WORLD IS IGNORED by engineers; it's not just observational research that isn't driving technology it goes far beyond that. How many physicians, psychologists, economists, or linguists have a clue about software engineering and can "think" technology? The result of this gap? While we see a myriad of similar products vying for attention - like cell phones with lots of "breakthrough technologies" (like mega-pixel video recording) - we have almost nobody working on many of earth's most pressing and interesting problems. Having worked in various tech companies I believer that major shifts in focus will only come from polymath designers (and accompanying scientists) willing to deep dive into the technology world. Don Norman, call me when a computer can transcribe anyone's voice, or read a story with human inflection, or analyze traffic flows and figure out how to improve them, or analyze the DNA of someone and predict disease and MILLIONS of other things....YOU IGNORED. MOST "radical problems", or "grand ideas" in Norman's words, are never seen by the eyes of an engineer. We have a GAP of WORLDS. It is impossible to believe that "they (the engineers) will get the grand ideas running" as Don Norman suggests.

The Reason for Status Quo - Technology Companies are Driven by Technologists

Don Norman's idea - technology first, human needs second - is nothing more than a statement of the status quo. Anyone who works in technology knows that most technology development is led by Chief Technology Officers and not Chief Designers. The minds in this space are wired around technology first and what it can do for people last. I'm reminded of Samsung ex-CEO Yun saying that he realized that without a Chief Design Officer, the company would never be able to have enough muscle to produce a flat-loading printer which users preferred, to the top-loading printer preferred by engineers because it was 10% cheaper to build and familiar. Flat-loading versus top-loading was a struggle!?! That makes the mind boggle. How do you think the engineering group would have reacted if CEO Yun had told them they aren't building printers at all, but solving the paper records-digital records divide? No op.

I've been the one to propose "radical" things like that and I can say the majority of companies cannot entertain such shape-shifting ideas because it takes individuals like the CTO beyond their expertise. It requires different leadership, with different skills. "Radical problems" that are people centric don't get focus because they require both deep domain insights and design talent to "envision" potential solutions. Designers by their consitution are strategically positioned to lead through these difficult waters to profitable new worlds, but let's be honest here. How many designers are in a position to actualize their vision? How many control the means of production - the engineers - and are likely to get their way or able initiate small skunk work investigations into new open-ended technologies? Very, very few. And if they pitch their ideas and fail, heads would roll. Whereas, costly "architectural refactoring", or skunkworks projects led by the CTO are commonplace. However, these engineer-led projects are usually not pushing the envelope into solving new human problems but are technical investigations into substituting one technology for a newer one (like changing programming languages or platforms, a favorite of engineers) or making the architecture vaguely "better." Rarely do heads roll over engineering projects led by engineers, side-projects are seen as the cost of "keeping up" and there is little management insight or accountability into these efforts. Sometimes companies fail because they became so focused on their technology (versus their users), at which point everyone moves on and the industry rewards them for the experience they gained at their last outfit. A lot of the effort in the tech industry is wasted effort.

What about corporate design teams you ask? If they exist, they are there mostly to soften technology's rough edges for human use and provide "lipstick" to boot. Let's not mistake these tweaks on existing technology, with a potential world in which human needs are placed front and center in envisioning what new technology must be created.

A New World Focused on Human Needs First Is Possible

Where Don Norman is in a blur - and I'm not sure how he got himself in it - is in taking the 5 large successes of 100 years and saying "see that's the way it's done! it's the technology that comes first! And the engineer guides it!" Talk about drinking the koolaid! What would the world look like if a new set of "grand ideas" was made the focus of technology, and the synthesis skills of designers were brought to bear on problems of a different sort? What if the problems were soft ones, or system-level ones, or nuanced ones but even more lucrative ones? How do we get great designers (who tend to be polymaths who can hone in on people's needs and consider technological constraints) to work with scientists and economists and psychologists and musicians to push technology driven by unmet human needs? I admit that refocusing engineers and redirecting their efforts with design and design research will not be easy, it is an immense cultural and political challenge. But if I am right, when the money is tight more projects will be led by designers because investors will be more selective in what they sponsor. Projects with a well researched premise, and a proven set of unmet human needs coupled with some innovative design vision will drive what technology needs to get built. Designers will get more of the "grand ideas running" in the future.

What a cruel joke it is that we go to Best Buy and see a gazillion similar cell phones and scream "What a wonderful world! They did it!", but I can't go to a bookstore and find something that will teach me a language (and provide analysis and feedback on my speaking) or a music store and find something that will teach me how to play guitar with all the subtleties that might entail. As you move away from hard technology to almost everything else you realize what a small swath of the world we are innovating in because of a GAP of WORLDS. Don Norman you've fallen into that gap. You are an important figure so crawl out and see the light!

Navid Sadikali
User Experience Designer

Iñaki Arbelaiz

January 19, 2010 02:12 PM

Hi there, Norman.
I do have to disagree with the statements you said. Thing is this discussion is more about which came first, chicken or egg.

Usually, how a technology is applied comes to unveil a necessity that existed before.

All the communication ways and technologies were developed and invented because there was a need to remotely communicate, as empires grew. Else, everyone will get there as the Marathon man, or straight oral communication.

The radio is nor an invention nor a technology, but a development of the control exerted over a certain phenomenom.

As a counterpoint, you could have that as well: technology does nothing but uncover and put a certain use to certain phenomena.

But still I think that this is about a two way process: many technologies will not have been developed unless a disruptive think and need will allow them to get the green flag, and on the other hand, many disruptive uses will not be there hadn´t the technology for them been avaliable.

uxdesign.com

January 28, 2010 05:37 AM

"Technology Vs. Design"...? Why the false dichotomy? The answer is and has always been tech+design, in creative, complementary relationship. Not easy! Just necessary for innovation. Next question?

Amit Bapat

February 17, 2010 06:12 AM

Well, the premise of this article seems grounded and I will support Bruce on the fact that Design could be a source of innovation and disagree with Don for Designers to get over ourselves. I had a couple of thoughts floating in my mind and would like to share with you all. Here is why.
It is true that advancement of technology is an indication of our progression (humans) as an intellectual species. Having said that, technology in itself is not an indication of innovation. Now, it also depends on how we define innovation in the first place. We innovate for humans and any invention or discovery to make our lives easy, happier and productive is defined as an innovation. Also, we could go ahead one step further and define it as the ability to affect society rapidly for a positive change is true innovation. An innovation is not innovation until it has benefitted us as a society. So, technology in context will be only considered as an Innovation. The greatest power of design is to put technology in context. Let’s look at an example.
Take the classical example of the iphone. The iphone popularized the muti-touch technology and diffused it quickly among masses than any of its predecessors. Now, multi touch technology has been there before the iphone came out. It was nothing new. Infact, it began when IBM started building the first touch screens in the late '60's. What Apple designers did was to put this technology in context with mobile users to create a whole new experience of using cellphones. This experience is unique and driven only by the process of human centered design and the iphone was conceived on what the user wants and not the traditional model of marketing suggesting what the market needs. This is what has made the iphone so unique and revolutionary and changed the way we look, use and define cellphones. And this is an innovation for us as we progress in our evolution as an intellectual society. We now have empowered substantial lives through this innovation. Did any of the previous devices using the same technology achieve such a high diffusion and acceptance rate?
Further research will suggest that the some of the best products ever made which have affected and disrupted our lifestyles (for the betterment) have been where design has simplified technology or used less of technology in a product. Let’s again look at the iphone. Nokia and HTC phones using 4G technologies have been in the market for years but could not break the barriers of redefining cellphones and their relationship with us. Neither were they classified as innovative as an iphone. The iphone uses obsolete technology when it comes to internal hardware and it is true when we say ’Less is more’.
Furthermore, the fact is that the definition of an innovation must be put in context with its target market. Quoting Everett Rogers from the book, Diffusion of Innovations, ‘An innovation often is not a product but the system in which it is placed in.’ The system in our case of the iphone was not the design (form/aesthetics) of the cellphone nor the technology that it used, but the creation of the Apps and iTunes industry and the experience of using multi touch which led to a successful ground breaking; revolutionary product. Again, these creations were based on principles of Design Thinking- a human centered approach on what the people want and not what the market needs! So, it will be fair to say that Design empowers Innovation.

Amit Bapat

March 1, 2010 05:06 AM

Well, the premise of this article seems grounded and I will support Bruce on the fact that Design could be a source of innovation and disagree with Don for Designers to get over ourselves. I had a couple of thoughts floating in my mind and would like to share with you all. Here is why.
It is true that advancement of technology is an indication of our progression (humans) as an intellectual species. Having said that, technology in itself is not an indication of innovation. Now, it also depends on how we define innovation in the first place. We innovate for humans and any invention or discovery to make our lives easy, happier and productive is defined as an innovation. Also, we could go ahead one step further and define it as the ability to affect society rapidly for a positive change is true innovation. An innovation is not innovation until it has benefitted us as a society. So, technology in context will be only considered as an Innovation. The greatest power of design is to put technology in context. Let’s look at an example.
Take the classical example of the iphone. The iphone popularized the muti-touch technology and diffused it quickly among masses than any of its predecessors. Now, multi touch technology has been there before the iphone came out. It was nothing new. Infact, it began when IBM started building the first touch screens in the late ’60’s. What Apple designers did was to put this technology in context with mobile users to create a whole new experience of using cellphones. This experience is unique and driven only by the process of human centered design and the iphone was conceived on what the user wants and not the traditional model of marketing suggesting what the market needs. This is what has made the iphone so unique and revolutionary and changed the way we look, use and define cellphones. And this is an innovation for us as we progress in our evolution as an intellectual society. We now have empowered substantial lives through this innovation. Did any of the previous devices using the same technology achieve such a high diffusion and acceptance rate?
Further research will suggest that the some of the best products ever made which have affected and disrupted our lifestyles (for the betterment) have been where design has simplified technology or used less of technology in a product. Let’s again look at the iphone. Nokia and HTC phones using 4G technologies have been in the market for years but could not break the barriers of redefining cellphones and their relationship with us. Neither were they classified as innovative as an iphone. The iphone uses obsolete technology when it comes to internal hardware and it is true when we say ’Less is more’.
Furthermore, the fact is that the definition of an innovation must be put in context with its target market. Quoting Everett Rogers from the book, Diffusion of Innovations, ‘An innovation often is not a product but the system in which it is placed in.’ The system in our case of the iphone was not the design (form/aesthetics) of the cellphone nor the technology that it used, but the creation of the Apps and iTunes industry and the experience of using multi touch which led to a successful ground breaking; revolutionary product. Again, these creations were based on principles of Design Thinking- a human centered approach on what the people want and not what the market needs! So, it will be fair to say that Design empowers Innovation.

Design brings down the cost of an innovation and makes it affordable to all- that is Empowering Innovation.

M Shepherd

March 16, 2010 01:27 AM

I would argue a better design of the Segway would push it into the innovation category for sure. A great invention - poor design? Let's face it - people look like dorks on those things!

Jingjing Chen

March 17, 2010 01:30 PM

Interesting debates about technology Vs design! However I cannot stand with neither Norman nor Bruse, but agree with Andrei that either design or technology is a significant source of innovation. It is crucial to conduct an interplay or conversation of these two, together with business strategies to facilitate innovation. However, thank you for emphasize the importance of the socialization of invention and I agree with you that invention has to have socio-economic value to become innovation.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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