Technology itself is just a black box and can exist as something uninteresting and unused for years. But it is the articulation of that technology, through the craft of design, based on human and situational insight that molds it into utilities, tools and objects that gets absorbed by people and society and turn into behaviors and needs.
The title of a highly insightful article by Donald Norman’s is: “Technology first, needs last”. In which Norman states that needs are not the drivers of technology. Instead technology comes first, and then we sometimes end up developing a need for it. The following quote is added at the beginning of the article:
- “When humans possess a tool, they excel at finding new uses for it. The tool often exists before the problem to be solved.” Nye, D. E. (2006)
It is in this setting important to recognize that technology itself does not invite people in to understand it, explore it or play with it. There is the need for a layer in between, a sieve, furnace or mold in order for the technology to adapt to a human or situational context, and this is design.
As an example have a look at the beginning of this presentation (about four minutes in) by Michael Tchao at that time the general manager of Nike Techlan/Nike+ at Nike from his appearance at Picnic in 2008. Where he suggests that they didn’t invent something new, they just redesigned existing technology so that it connected with people and they started caring about it and using it. From the presentation:
- “If you think about sports technology in the past, the challenge around this space was that the experience looked a bit like this … and I say they [the user interfaces] combined the emotional appeal of an EKG with Microsoft Excel. So if you put those two together, that rich emotional experience [irony], that’s pretty much what you got in sports technology”. – Michael Tchao
A more recent example is the Nokia Push project. Where Nokia says that the technology already exists, but they ask for help in regards to designing new uses for it – they want people to help them hack it.
(It’s the Nokia N900, a phone with brilliant computational power that in its current form (the phone) people don’t care about).
And this design invitation from Nokia created an incredible project, now in collaboration with Burton:
If anyone remembers the Nabaztag; the plastic rabbit connected to the other rabbits all around the world via the Internet, communicating via sound, light, ear movement etc. It was a completely useless product as described by its creator Rafi HalaDjian – but still its design made it a success.
Unfortunately the company went bankrupt. Now according to, I think it was Matt Jones, this was not because the rabbits where useless, people loved them. But it was because the online interface where people could administer the rabbits were useless. Violet (the company behind the Nabaztag) forgot to see that even online interfaces need to have the same intensity and design as the physical object in order to create a need.
Donald Norman even has his own example from his former research into alarm clocks, seeing that the more beautiful and aesthetically pleasing the clocks were, the more time people would spend with them in order to try to figure out how they worked.
And this is the initial argument; that Norman’s quote “technology first, needs last” must include a reference to the tool that transforms technology into a need, into something that gets adopted by society, which is design.
And this pattern of technology-design-need is what we’ve always done, from objects where the design has molded the technology, like designing the alphabet into letters and fonts so that we were able to write and exchange ideas. To where the design is the technology; like the wheel or the spear.
Image by: FotoBart