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 But it is a wasteful, inefficient hierarchical process that is out of date today.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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