Yep. That’s what Donald Norman (of Design of Everyday Things fame) wrote in his latest essay on his blog. You get the gist of his view in this introductory paragraph:
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. I reached this conclusion through examination of a range of product innovations, most especially looking at those major conceptual breakthroughs that have had huge impact upon society as well as the more common, mundane small, continual improvements. Call one conceptual breakthrough, the other incremental. Although we would prefer to believe that conceptual breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs, especially fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the design research community, the fact is that it simply doesn’t happen.
This essay has set off a furor of blog responses from the design industry, many of which I also share. Some interesting ones include Design Thinking Consultant: Steve Portigal and Creative Director at Frog Design: Adam Richardson.
I don’t think Donald’s essay should come as a surprise. The Palm Pilot, iPod or even SMSing (or texting) was not a result of rounds and rounds of consumer research and analysis trying to figure out the next big thing/solution/money maker/brand etc.
Honestly it seems incredible that we finally need to have some kind of academic endorsement, especially from someone as famous as Donald Norman, for this simple fact. Designers have always known that the people they design for are great at explaining what they dislike, but are terrible at describing what they like. If fact it is a key skill of designers and design thinkers to be able to describe why they like something and why a solution works.
It all sounds logical: study people. Discover hidden, unmet needs. Fulfill those needs, and leap ahead of the competition, producing yet another wondrous advance. This is the mantra of the design research community. The research community does a wonderful service. It investigates the way people live. It makes voyeurs of all of us, and the results of their studies provide important titillations to our understanding of human behavior. And it’s fun to do: you get to go to exotic locations, to watch people do intimate acts, and then to come back and tell the world what you have seen, carefully disguising the identity of the “informants.” Oh yes, I know it can also be dull and dreary, exhausting and depressing, and sometimes even dangerous: but even these aspects can serve to embellish the final story.
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.
While I fully agree with Donald, that design research has a huge application in incremental innovation that results in products that optimize rather than breakthrough, I believe he misses that 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.
A team of designers, marketers, business leaders AND researchers. Design Research should never be tasked to provide solutions, no, they apply best in building on a baseline direction or assumption. This direction could be anything; a marketing solution, critical insight, iconic form etc, but in most cases this baseline is technology.
Take for example Wi-Fi. This technology as been farting around for, I dare say, 10 years or more? The benefit of Wi-Fi was not only clear but also downright awesome. We could now do things and not be limited by wires. The problem is that no one sat down and figured out how this technology can be transformed into something that is easy for the consumer to use. In fact technology complicated and hindered the progress as no one could agree on a common platform. This is where Design Research or even Market Research could have come in to help in crafting a very integrated solution.
Assuming and expecting Design Research to be the Pandora’s Box, silos the competence and is frankly so very 90’s. While Design Research does have a creed to uncover untapped user needs, the competence can be so much more with wide ranging applications in many levels of the development process. So yes, Mr. Norman, while Design Research did not come up with a lot of the innovation technologies we have today like the internet or cellphones, without the input of Design Research, these technologies will likely just be brain farts in the minds of scientists or technologists that will benefit no one.
So yes, Technology first, but if you put needs last or if technology does not collaborate or “handshake” with consumer needs, what is the point of being first?