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Technology Vs. Design--Part Two

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on December 23, 2009

Don Norman’s provocative statement that technology drives human needs and hence, innovation, is, in turn, driving a fantastic intellectual conversation about the interplay of invention and culture. In his comment on my blog and in his own cool and provocative essay, Don challenges anyone to come up with a piece of design research that led to a game-changing technology. I’d like to take up that challenge, Don.

Here goes: I’m old enough to remember starvation. When I was a kid, I remember the annual or semi-annual starvation that wracked Asia (I bet you also remember your mother telling you to eat all the food on your plate because there were starving children in China, right?)

When I joined the Peace Corps and went to the Philippines in the late sixties, starvation still loomed. The Philippines itself was constantly troubled by having to import rice to feed its growing population. I went to Pampanga and other provinces in central Luzon and saw this for myself. So did many researchers from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations who were studying how rice and wheat farmers in Asia were growing their crops. They took this research, this ethnographic/scientific research, back to their labs in Los Banos and developed hybrid rice varieties that doubled and tripled the yields. They ended starvation in the world (except for that which wars and conflict are responsible for).

For me, the social need here was for more food. There were technologies around (humans have been into animal husbandry and culling seeds for higher productivity for as long as they seem to be around) that were suggestive but the hybrids were newly developed and revolutionary breakthroughs that changed the game. Farmers were brought to Los Banos to engage with the researchers in conversations about water and fertilizer, water buffalos and Japanese paddy tractors. Technology was socialized, there were many iterations, testing, failing, and process. Innovation resulted.

This was long before I got involved in design. But it formed my thinking about the role of culture in innovation and the dialogue between technology and society.

Watcha think?

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Reader Comments

Daniel Christadoss

December 24, 2009 01:14 AM

One of the weaknesses with the world or America in particular today is that we tend to go to extremes. With Six Sigma we went to a very analytical model. With Design Thinking we are tending to go to the other extreme. We try each concept for a few years, try to convert every one at a fast pace, there are major successes and major failures. We tend to focus on major failures and then jump ship to the next fad. Why cant we have a more flexible approach and try to learn from best practices which succeed and build on them.
My main worry is that not every one will really understand what Design Thinking is all about and will probably start giving away some form of certifications on this. Say a multicolor belt or something. The we will be disappointed with the outcome.
Now we have this China syndrome and neglect what we can do with the brilliant team we have at home.
Let us get away from the high road or the low road but try and work on the middle road and build on what we do well. If we know what it is.
There were days when we coddled the MBA's, then the programmers, now it is the designers. Most designers don't even know what Design Thinking means.
Looks like it is almost a ploy by Tim Brown to get Designers jobs.
We need all the professions in the world to work together and bring out their creativity. Let us get away from this blue eyed boy game.


December 24, 2009 01:21 AM

If you're a technologist like Norman, it is impossible for you to see the value design research and designers bring to the table.

Technologists are trained to see the faults and look for failures as they invent the new. They enjoy seeking out why something they have created will not work due to their own pragmatic training and world view. Technologists are in a constant battle with nature and the other pieces of technology they have invented which limit their ability to appreciate when things do work thus, creating an elegant experience or solving a social problem. This is their professional responsibility.

Designers on the other hand are responsible for harmonizing and applying technology as a useful tool for themselves as well as others. They are skilled at understanding what makes a pleasurable experience that is worth repeating again and again, and in some cases even improving upon. Technologists are unable to perform in this capacity.

There are countless instances where design research has lead to a successful product, but a mind like Norman's will never allow this to be as it goes against his nature that is to find fault in just about everything.

Don will be spending time KAIST in Daegu, South Korea soon as academic window dressing. I guarantee he will find all the fault he could ever hope to discover while there.

The world needs technologists like Don Norman, just as the world needs design researchers to adapt the technologies coming down the pike for those that are unaware of how they will improve their lives.

Peter Evans-Greenwood

December 24, 2009 01:23 AM

But was it innovative[1]? I'm not so sure.

My understanding of the green revolution is that it was the result of scientists heading into the third world where they applied establish tools and techniques to develop higher yielding and more resistant breeds. Folk like Norm Borlaug[2] made an incredible difference.

The result was impressive. It addressed a well defined need. But was it innovative? Was it novel? Or was it simply the result of good science well applied to a problem that had previously been ignored?


Leslie Grandy

December 24, 2009 03:55 AM

What I think is fascinating about the conversation that Don Norman's post started is:

1) It challenges technologists to not just invent, but appreciate how getting it into consumers hands and getting them to use the invention is more than half the battle. Design can help make products appealing so that can happen, even if the idea did not originate out of design research.

2) It makes a case for business to have a balanced view of both design and technology in their strategy. Consumers can't always tell you directly what to build for them, but who doesn't think the DVR fixed the blinking 12:00 on their VCR?

3) It leaves out the area of invention by process, which often requires both designers and technologists to come together with CFOs and supply chain managers to create new value for consumers.

If you don't agree with him, you at least have to appreciate how he can place a grenade on the table and really blow up a topic into a totally new discussion. That's talent!

Pete Mortensen

December 24, 2009 04:19 AM

I don't know, all of these arguments seem to me like academic exercises. If you view the world through a technological lens, all innovation is technological. If you view it through a social one, all innovation is social. If you think it's about connecting the two, you see design as the key.

But I think that few would actually dispute that the creation of air travel and the hub-and-spoke system of routing innovations nearly as large as the invention of the airplane. There are lots of kinds of innovations, and the biggest new inventions need lots of supporting innovations within their value networks to make any impact whatsoever, which is why the fax machine took more than a century to succeed in the market.

The last word, so far as I'm concerned, comes from Andy Hargadon: It's not the product, it's the network. And that network is the sum of the product's audience, distribution system, investors, pre-existing technologies, marketing, and lots more. And you've got to pay attention to all of those considerations if you want to come up with something that matters.


December 24, 2009 02:58 PM

Don is right in that new technology often creates new "needs" and not the other way around -- new needs find new technologies.

The question in my mind is, should this be the way we operate? Just because tech led innovation is a common occurrence doesn't mean that it's good.


December 24, 2009 03:48 PM

Bruce, great blog and sequel blog. I am reminded of the quote by Dr. Geoffrey Nicholson at 3M - "Research is the transformation of money into knowledge. Innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money." This quote captures the sequential and interdependent nature of science and innovation in creating market value. At the end of the day, in our current free market world, a customer has to perceive value and be willing to buy the new thing. Design plays a role in this but, please, not the only role. In my opinion, the attempt by some in the design community to inflate its role under the rubric of 'design thinking' probably deserved an emotional reaction by Mr. Norman.


December 25, 2009 05:14 PM

Bourgogne, I think you must be talking about another Don Norman. The Don Norman the rest of are speaking about is a psychologist, not a technologist. Perhaps his message is a matter of perspective, but I find his writings very positive, never cynical or glum. Did you read Emotional Design? It stressed that beauty is an important part of design. The Design of Future Things is an appeal to prioritize humanity over technology. Indeed, he is the original user advocate.


December 27, 2009 02:48 AM

Everyone is letting Norman off the hook by assuming that his "game changing technologies" were game changing the moment they were invented. Who, outside the defense industry, would have heard of the internet if lots of people recognized the real human needs it addressed and designed it appropriately? And just what is the "invention" called the internet, anyway?

The type of design research Norman lampoons, the pseudo-ethnographic observational studies, are a pretty new development, so it's not surprising if there aren't a long list of "game changers" that can be directly attributed to the research. The job of understanding customers' needs and designing technology to meet it, has been around a good deal longer. Any technology that has changed the game has needed tweaking in order to meet human needs.


December 27, 2009 05:17 PM

This is nothing new. It's the failing of usability methods which are, as Norman seems to say, backward looking.

He has repurposed usability tools for something those tools don't fit. And now he's reaping the inevitable consequences.

One example being overlooked is the concept car.

Ever wonder why 1)Concept cars are usually superficial style treaments. 2)You see a really great concept version, but the production version is mediocre and ho-hum?

What you need to look at is the imagination gap. Designs that lead technology don't get done. Technologies that lead the design which makes them viable often do get developed.

Very often designs that lead to technologies are called something different: Science Fiction.

But Norman is finally realizing the limits of usability and the technologist mind set.

If a designer says it can't be done, we still get a product. It may fail. The product may struggle for decades.

If the technolgist says it can't be done, there is no product. That does not mean the technologist can't produce the product.

It may be they do not know how to solve the design problems inherent in delivering on the promise of a concept design. This is more a failure to collaborate than any violation of the laws of physics.

Finally, there is no forward looking methodology dreamt of in the Norman design philosophy. More of it is simply artistic spit-balling, not design research.

Rest assured, those methods exist. It's how corporations close the imagination gap and design leads technology rather than decorates it.


December 29, 2009 04:37 AM


RitaSue Siegel

December 31, 2009 04:58 PM

I just got back from Haiti. Is there anyplace on earth with more strikes against it? Corrupt governments (its own and those of other nations) have stripped it of its wealth, deforestation has caused desert-like conditions in the mountains where the good soil has been driven into the ocean by storms, and villages below disappear under the mud; where there is 90% unemployment and only a small % of the population goes to school beyond 6th grade, where the police do not and cannot protect the people, and so on. I felt helpless. I met some wonderful, intelligent people there who don't want to leave their homes and are asking for guidance and help to get Haitian people involved in helping themselves and their country. No one has a clue about where to begin because every institution especially government doesn't work. I know design thinking and of course technology can help. Is there a better situation on the planet to apply it to? There is only a limited amount of time left for this little place of about 9 million people. I certainly don't know where to begin. It doesn't involve collecting money to give to the poor--we know that doesn't work. It is in the interest of humanity to use what we have learned to help people create better lives for themselves not to fight over is it technology, engineering, design thinking, invention, or whatever.

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