Don Norman says design research is great for improvement but useless for innovation
By Steve Portigal at 4:52 pm, Monday December 07 2009

Don Norman, in a sneak preview to an upcoming column in interactions, posts a dramatic and thoughtful critique of the supposed applications for design research

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.

I’m excited to see this because it connects to a number of things I’ve been talking about with clients and in some recent presentations. Anyway, the article makes some good points but I believe there’s much more to be said.

  • Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – Design/design thinking/design research are in their infancy in product development. The airplane, automobile, telephone, etc. are not examples of the failures of design research to innovate, because they represent time periods when design research was not actively being used. As Don points out, the failure rate for potentially innovative stuff is insanely high. So we have very few examples over a few few years to even look at to understand the influence of design research.
  • Innovation is not a solo act – There’s probably a good Andrew Hargadon link I could add here, but I think you get it. We point our client to opportunity areas. Many of those opportunities do not get fully explored, and almost none to the point of solving the ridiculously challenging technical and business challenges to make them viable. The Conversation was potentially a breakthrough film not only because of Coppola (a successful innovator) but because of Hackman and Murch. And many other talented people. When our design research leads to a divergent set of concepts, other factors come into play. The remote-activated-deodorant-ray (yes, this came out of an actual client project) goes through the design team, the business unit manager, eventually into the technology development part of the business, and the market feasibility. Most times that doesn’t happen. And maybe this just makes Don’s point for him, but then I’d suggest the problem is not with design research but in how it’s deployed, applied, and integrated. Because it absolutely could happen. The underlying conditions need to be there.
  • Can insight and technology be partners? – There are presumably a number of paths to innovation. If we uncover opportunities through design research, a technologist can say “Well, let me go try and make that” (or, “I’ve already figured out how to do that”). Or if a technologist approaches us with a set of capabilities, we can try to answer the question “What would people do with it?” Again, maybe I’m making Don’s point for him, but if so, I don’t see it as a negative.
  • Isn’t this still a mostly mysterious process? – Twitter is a successful product with a low barrier to usage but a high barrier to adoption. It’s success is somewhat counter-intuitive. The traditional market-research processes that failed the Aeron chair and the Post-It note are already consultant-classics. Maybe I’m admitting something terrible but I don’t think Tim Brown or Larry Keeley or Roger Martin can identify the next breakthrough product any more than Hollywood can figure out the best way to guarantee a blockbuster or the recording industry can sign the next number-one band (indeed, look at the amount of marketing hype and me-too that goes into the product development approaches of the last two).
  • Innovative (if that’s what they are) outcomes take years to launch – I’ve written about this before. Maybe what I’m calling innovations are really what Don calls improvements. But I don’t expect ever to contribute to the next Telephone/Airplane/Computer, but I don’t expect to be President of the US, or win an Academy Award, or have one of my songs hit number 1. That doesn’t mean the work isn’t worth doing and the results can’t be tremendously successful, impactful, and result in real change.

I think Don has written a thought-provoking piece and my intent is to reframe rather than refute. This is an important discussion that needs to continue and I am eager to see what others have to say. If you’ve written about this, please post a link here!

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65 Responses to “Don Norman says design research is great for improvement but useless for innovation”

    Steve, I wrote a rebuttal to Don’s essay. While I can appreciate a few of his points, I think his perspective of design research is a bit off and have significant disagreements to his position on design research’s lack of worth in contributing to innovation.

    Comment by Todd Zaki Warfel 12.07.09 @ 5:51 pm


      Todd, when I read your rebuttal I think “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” and that Don can’t claim the various inventions he mentions were not responding to a necessity (pooping inside, traveling distances efficiently, communicating over distance in real-time). Nor do I think he would suggest that. But “need acknowledgment/prototype/test/iterate” is not the process I understand Don to be critiquing.

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.08.09 @ 10:47 am


    Hi Steve,

    I think your points are good caveats to what Don wrote. I interpreted his article not as an argument against design research exactly. (But I’m not in this field so I’m not qualified to say… I’m coming at this more as an HCI person interested in technology development.) I wrote about this a bit at my blog (above link).

    Comment by Kevin Arthur 12.07.09 @ 5:24 pm


      Kevin – I love this line from your post: “that people keep in mind the many other factors that affect technology design and use”

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.08.09 @ 10:50 am


    Thank you, Steve, for this excellent reframing.

    Don presented the majority of this what seems to have been an early version of this article as a keynote at the recent IASDR (Int’l Assoc of Socities for Design Research) conference in Seoul. Telling 500 design researchers that they don’t do innovation is brave.

    Conference buzz was that on the whole people disagreed with him but that he had also (re)defined “design research” and “innovation” in such a way that he had tightly framed the argument making it nigh-impossible to rebut. So, once again thank you for reframing the article as the beginning of a discussion about the purposes of design research rather than it being (or sounding like) a call to get out of the way.

    Comment by Ben Kraal 12.07.09 @ 9:17 pm


      Thanks, Ben. That would have been an interesting..I guess…keynote to sit through. Seems like Don enjoys creating controversy but I think he’s being successful in creating discussion as well. It might be nicer if he posed things a little less dramatically but then would we be reaching our own conclusions in response, or would we just be nodding along with him, then?

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.08.09 @ 10:52 am


    Roberto Verganti in Design-driven Innovation outlines three innovation strategies: 1) technology-based; 2) analysis of user’s needs (user-centred design); 3) Design-driven (radical innovation of meaning).

    Both Norman and Verganti define user-centred design as an incremental innovation strategy. But what Norman misses is design-driven innovation or innovation of meaning. To achieve design-driven innovation, Verganti argues for the need of interpreters who conduct research into how people give meaning to things. While some in the UXD community would argue this is what they do, Verganti says the problem of UXD is its focus on users instead of people: “When a company gets close to a user, it sees him changing a light bulb and loses the cognitive and sociocultural context – the fact that he has children, a job, and, most of all, aspirations and dreams.” Refocusing on people and meanings means asking different types of questions, questions like “How can we make a person feel better when she comes home after work at seven at night?” This question led to Metamorfosi, a system that emits a “human” light, a light that made people feel better and socialize better.

    To radically innovate meanings, Verganti argues we need to step back and “investigate the evolution of society, economy, culture, art, science, and technology.”

    Comment by Joyce Hostyn 12.08.09 @ 3:57 am


      Joyce – I hadn’t heard of that book before, but the subtitle is pretty illustrative of the thesis (which you nicely articulate in more detail): Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.08.09 @ 10:55 am


        Verganti sets up user-centered design as a strawman in his book. His UCD is pretty simplistic (think user-dictated-design). Also, his core base of case studies are Italian design studios – not sure if Michael Graves teapot for Alessi is the kind of innovation we’re really keen on.

        Comment by Jess McMullin 12.08.09 @ 11:52 am


    [...] isn’t the best solution to jump in with. Technology First, Needs Last by Donal Norman, Don Norman says design research is great for improvement but useless for innovation by Steve Portigal, and Upgrading the children from The Economist print edition. The primary reason [...]

    Pingback by DesignNotes by Michael Surtees » Blog Archive » Technology and Design Research 12.08.09 @ 6:16 am


    Excerpted from an upcoming presentation. (Quote me directly).

    Psychology from even before Homer’s time paired Concept and Memory – Homo faber and Homo ludens. Socratic, “Designer, know thyself!” vs. Descartes’, “I design, therefore I am.” … Today, with 1.3 billion people living like they did 6,000 years ago and half the planet never having received or placed a phone call — are for me, perspective points on a very large canvas. Innovation [innuo-vates], to birth a future — and — to Design, to signify; designate; specify; assign – is something all 7 billion of us do. The G8 countries having access to materials and energy swing heavily to the ‘faber’ concept side at the expense of the importance of memory and meaning… to the extent that their Anthropology of culture(s) is always concept bound. … The Andaman tribes surviving the great tsunami (whereas all the tourist industry designs and innovations failed) – because of the insignificance of memory, the tsunami was reduced to a conceptual risk… more later.

    Comment by Vlad Kunko 12.08.09 @ 8:17 am


    Good reframing of this Steve. I welcome the dialog for sure. But while I think some of Norman’s points hint at truth, I believe he is very wrong on the whole. Design research at is core (observing, finding patterns, synthesizing new insight via connections, translating those into new things) is built into us as humans – we’ve been at it a long time. While ethnography is probably best at helping us understand current experience, participatory research methods (collaborative co-creation)help us see into the future of desired experiences (emotive, aspirational, functional). We have many examples of how this research has led to “innovative breakthroughs”. It appears that Norman is simply stirring the pot.

    Comment by Chris Rockwell 12.08.09 @ 10:13 am


      I think the refutation Don would like is for him to say “What about the airplane?” and Tim Brown (or you) to come back with “What about the Swiffer/X/Y/Z?”

      But the lore of designers/UCD/UX/design-researchers is not populated with so many obvious examples. So if you have many examples, why not share ‘em (or, since you probably have, tell us where to look) so advocates can point to successful examples.

      I’ll offer the Kimberly-Clark Huggies Pull-Ups as an example; my old employer used this case study endlessly (and it was a good one) – a study of how parents were diapering their children led to the discover that many parental choices were about embodying hopes for future success and as the child aged, diapers symbolized slow development and potential failure. As children aged, the only solution was a larger and larger diaper. But the idea of a transitional product – Pull-Ups – something that children could put off and on themselves – created a new category and made $XXXM dollars for ‘em.

      I think the limit of all the stories is that a different type of diaper product is never going to be as impactful in a debate (or a sales pitch) as “The Mobile Phone” or one of 20 obvious world-changing inventions.

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.08.09 @ 11:07 am


        Don’s article is really begging for better definition of terms.

        My immediate thought about Pull-Ups is that it’s an incremental improvement. What about the invention makes it a conceptual breakthrough?

        However, I can rationalize that what Don describes as conceptual breakthroughs are just incremental, too. After all, aren’t the automobile and aircraft just faster forms of travel? Cars improve on horses and aircraft improve on trains.

        The one common theme I pick out of Don’s examples is that the inventors may have been driven by selfish purposes. I suspect they were not *primarily* interested in helping the masses or changing society but were simply scratching an itch.

        Comment by Jay Zipursky 12.09.09 @ 8:44 am


          The Pull-Ups invention is minimal, there’s not a significant element of new technology. The conceptual breakthrough is the functional and meaning alignment around a product that is both clothing (decoration, closures, wearer-operable) and waste-capture. Previously, all you had was bigger and bigger diapers but as the child grew physically and in capability, the product didn’t change, except in physical size.

          Comment by Steve Portigal 12.09.09 @ 9:39 am


    V.Kunko cont’d

    The airplane and automobile indeed had the rudimentary design research into materials, mechanics, and manufacturing and the accompanying engineering and resourcing. Psychology and Marketing are post WWII “sciences” with evolving social, economic, and cultural consequences. Add to that an eco-environmental context and design research becomes imperative in the causal loops of Whole Systems Design centering the individual “user” composed as a primal, physical, physiological, psychological, persona with the attending criticality of Anthropometrics, Psychometrics, Ergonomics, Biodynamics of Human Factors as we shoot ourselves out into Space. Complexity evolved with designing. Designing evolved with Complexity. To disqualify a priori conditions as conditions to Innovation is perhaps a digital disconnect from an analog memory. H.faber, what next?

    Comment by Vlad Kunko 12.08.09 @ 11:19 am


    [...] also Steve Portigal’s feedback on the same [...]

    Pingback by Pasta&Vinegar » Blog Archive » About Don Norman's take "design research" 12.08.09 @ 12:50 pm


    Kramer auto Pingback[...] with a fairly provocative statement.Two interesting responses I've seen so far to this position is Steve Portigal's post on his blog and now Nicholas Nova's post on his blog.I'm anxious to read the Brian Arthur book which Norman [...]

    Pingback by Disseminate: Does technology drive history? 12.08.09 @ 2:02 pm


    only got a bit of time so can’t be erudite.. but am I the only one who thinks it is a bit weird that DN’s rhetoric equates
    needs with design with design research with ..ethnography(?)
    - or did I totally misread his argument? (prolly)

    Either way (eg I won’t let that stop me ;) looks a little like keyword reaction positioned as a provocation. As a provocative statement, this can help the conversation move (as Steve & others have pointed out here) into discussing what’s meant by this term or that term. How things are framed etc..

    but – and here I’m being a bit of a smartarse – the *really* sad thing is that we have to use the iphone yet again (*yawn*) as a get out of jail free card for designers.

    It’s innovative, the technology/service stack behind it is totally game-changing… but to say it wasn’t designed? or that design made all that possible.. not so sure there.

    Ethnographically informed design research, sure – I’ll pay that that may have been low on Apple’s methods list, but design..? not so convinced.

    ps: Sorry to pull the iphone card, I really do hate seeing it so much in these kinds of discussions, but here it kinda makes sense.

    Comment by Jeremy Yuille 12.09.09 @ 9:18 pm


      I feel like in the doing of the work, there’s a natural conflation of needs::solutions (i.e., research::design or research::invention) as they are – in the best case – reflections of each other. But that slipperyness in practice doesn’t map so well to slipperyness in theoretical discussions as no one can tell what the other one is talking about and it devolves into erudite (or not) examinations of the meaning of terms.

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.10.09 @ 11:34 am


    [...] Steve Portigal started the debate with a piece which intends to “to reframe rather than refute” Norman’s argument. Read article [...]

    Pingback by Putting people first » Latest Donald Norman essay started a big debate 12.09.09 @ 11:23 pm


    Quick and disjointed thoughts …

    Perhaps the opportunity is not to focus solely on the method but the way in which teams, skills and visions are articulated towards success.

    Successful products also come from different places and other key factors like timing, lack of competition, great design

    To me, the focus is shifting towards “context” as technology continues to embed itself in people’s lives – this is where design research has an insightful role to play.

    Comment by Daniel Szuc 12.10.09 @ 1:51 am


      Daniel – do you think technology is embedding in our lives in a new way or in a more dramatic way? Or might we think that because what we used to call technology doesn’t seem like technology any more? See “the parable of horseshit” – http://www.cejournal.net/?p=2274

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.10.09 @ 10:52 am


    Sorry, but if I’m reading this right (and admittedly I’m reading it second hand via this post) then he’s wrong. Even if he’s critiquing what goes on in industry and saying it’s not “research”, then he’s not casting his net very wide – it’s so easy to come up with innovation in industry.

    But if he’s critiquing design research as a whole, then take a trip to any university engaged in it and feast your eyes on the innovation you’ll find there…

    However, having said that, I gave a keynote at a conference last year where I basically said that compared with life sciences, no way can designers claim to be “innovative” or “creative”. My point was more subtle than that.
    There is a danger in boiling down complex, provocative statements in to soundbites.

    Comment by Jonathan 12.10.09 @ 3:58 am


      Thanks, Jonathan. I’d say blog commenting is prone to that same danger. Or at least replying to blog comments with other comments.

      Wish I’d seen your keynote. What event was it at?

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.10.09 @ 11:54 am


    “Or might we think that because what we used to call technology doesn’t seem like technology any more?”

    Yes it could be — It could all just be “stuff” we are engaging with. It could also be that the line between what what was the domain of technologists is now becoming more mainstream, which is a good thing :)

    It could also be that what drives technologists to look for the next best thing is to both help people and stand out from the crowd :)

    Whatever the case, design research can both document stuff thats out there in peoples lives and gaps for tech to play a role. One question – does technology always have to play a role?

    Comment by Daniel Szuc 12.10.09 @ 11:26 am


      I don’t think technology has to play a role. http://www.portigal.com/blog/chittahchattah-quickies-315/ refers to a program where a utility gave smileys/frownies to customers based on their usage. That’s a communication strategy to try and change the story. I think there’s lots of powerful examples like that, where it’s not about a “thing” but about a change in the story. What do you think?

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.10.09 @ 11:49 am


    Design “Research” has always been problematic for me. “Research” applies to finding what you are already looking for and has an inherent bias and finite limits — “It wasn’t on Google so it doesn’t exist.”

    My preference is “Design Inquiry” which plays as a muse/midwife for Innovation [innuo-vates, L. to birth a future]. DI is open ended and plays to a Whole Systems Design approach as it makes conscious the divergent, convergent, and synthesis aspects of critical thinking.

    As an example, Thomas Jefferson did not say to Lewis & Clark, “Go, to the mouth of the Columbia.” … Just, Go! … and with insight and intelligence, creativity and critical thinking, make the most of your resources and map the territory. Design [to signify, designate, specify, assign] matches Inquiry in a much more aspiring, instinctive, intuitive way than the logos of “Research”, unless you are a cost accountant or engineer.

    Comment by Vlad Kunko 12.10.09 @ 11:04 am


      Vlad – for some reason your comment reminds of me Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, where the characters refer to an “insight” as an “upsight”!

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.10.09 @ 11:30 am


    Forget about “design research” — Don is clearly talking about ethnographic methods. The following is my interpretation of his article.

    Don is arguing that solutions are created and THEN problems are discovered that these solutions fix.

    Many solutions never find a problem and many problems aren’t adequately solved by the solutions. So goes innovation and it takes time.

    I think Don’s fundamental question is simple: Can study of people really uncover latent needs/problems that leads to a designed solution that qualifies as a “conceptual breakthrough”? Or, can such study ONLY lead to incremental improvements?

    I think he has a good point.

    It’s easy for us to look back and think if we observed people prior to indoor plumbing, we’d note that outhouses had a lot of drawbacks and this was a problem in need of solving. Take that need and compare it with a zillion others we’d uncover… would we even prioritize it high enough?

    Let’s assume we do choose to solve it. What would a typical design process result in? Would we have created the key technology or process or infrastructure necessary for REAL change? Or, would we have incrementally solved the problem – maybe added a covered walkway to the outhouse, a heating source, and some sort of deodorizer?

    Identifying a problem doesn’t automatically lead to breakthroughs. In many cases the breakthrough was created in a completely different context and the genius is in applying it to the problem at hand.

    I think this is the gist of his argument. What motivated him to pick on ethnography, I’m not sure. :)

    Comment by Jay Zipursky 12.10.09 @ 11:33 am


      And I’ll restate my response, Jay. Just because it hasn’t, doesn’t it mean it couldn’t. We discover a lot of needs that are pretty difficult to solve. Because design groups and technology groups and business groups choose NOT to solve those problems doesn’t therefore mean that ethnographic research isn’t actionable to create big change. It has to do with – as many have said here – how those groups collaborate and are empowered.

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.10.09 @ 11:46 am


        And I’ll agree with your response, again. :)

        Really, my last point is my question to the audience. What is Don’s point and why is he making it?

        Once you cut through the “design research” red herring, I’m left with, “That’s an interesting observation.”

        Your post, on the other hand, adds some excellent questions and re-scopes the discussion to one about innovation. However, it’s not nearly so dramatic.

        Comment by Jay Zipursky 12.10.09 @ 11:54 am


    In the end, as Gregory Bateson would ask, “What is the difference that makes a difference?” That’s where Semiology takes over and reflects and parses on significance … to whom? … when?

    Comment by Vlad Kunko 12.10.09 @ 12:12 pm


    Kramer auto Pingback[...] Don Norman says design research is great for improvement but useless for innovation [...]

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    Seems that the seminal exercise here is to arrive at a distinction.

    [...] Vlad Kunko says Design Research is great for improvement and Design Inquiry, great for innovation [...]

    Comment by Vlad Kunko 12.10.09 @ 2:27 pm


    Agree Steve, technology does not always have to play a role.

    A slight detour – even in the design process or creative work, we sometimes get bogged down in the tech tools we use as opposed to moving away, learning to work with people again and finding fun ways to facilitate/communicate great findings.

    Comment by Daniel Szuc 12.10.09 @ 5:12 pm


      While you aren’t literally talking about Slow Design – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slow_design- I wonder about this as a movement? I hear industrial designers talking about the need to get off the rendering machine and work in the shop, or work with a marker and paper. While the interaction design community champions low-fi stuff, there’s still a love of the tools. And certainly design research pulls in everything from online video diaries, to spreadsheets, to eyetracking, to data-DATA-DATA! that has a risk of spending too much energy with our tools and not enough on our thoughts, words, and interactions with colleagues. I think you just found your pitch for an interactions column???

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.11.09 @ 1:11 pm


    [...] Steve Portigal response [...]

    Pingback by What Good is Design Research? | Blog | design mind 12.10.09 @ 9:15 pm


    Liked your response to the original post.

    One thing I haven’t seen commented on much in this recent discussion, in the original post or other threads: the whole social/organizational dynamic around innovation and how different parties participate in that social environment.

    It’s human nature to oversimplify and undervalue a discipline that’s different from one’s own; so, not a surprise that many technologists don’t easily appreciate the value of other ways of thinking (esp highly qualitative disciplines like ethnography or design or design research). Design thinking is not (yet) a common mainstream career path or a corporate functional area — thus its practitioners will inevitably struggle to get heard or to have influence on key product decisions (unless they have a powerful sponsor).

    (one final comment about the “left brain vs right brain” disciplinary bias: I’ve spent years selling customer feedback systems to companies, and many tech buyers’ common response is “oh, customer feedback doesn’t matter because it isn’t real data – it’s just somebody’s opinions.” I’ve had many conversations about how “just opinions” *are* real data and have real business impacts.)

    Comment by Mary Walker 12.10.09 @ 11:39 pm


      Great comments, Mary. I remember being in grad school, in a CS department, in a HCI group. The legend was that other CS disciplines (loosely the technologists to us as the designers) said “Isn’t that just common sense?” [eep - slight fear that it's SUCH an old story that I may have misattributed it but it works so I'll go with it]

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.11.09 @ 1:07 pm


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    Kramer auto Pingback[...] Steve Portigal response Adam Richardson is the director of product strategy at Frog Design, where he guides strategy engagements for Frog's international roster of clients, envisioning and creating new products, consumer electronics, and digital experiences. Adam combines a background in industrial design, interaction design, and sociology, and he spends most of his time on convergent designs that combine hardware, software, service, brand, and retail. He writes and speaks extensively on design, business, culture, and technology, and he runs his own Richardsona blog. Adam is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. [...]

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    Just read Don Norman’s latest reply on Phd-design. Probably steaming out there but I think Don is probably right on the limitations of design research. We’ve yet to design something that is based on an entirely new technology. So far most, if not all are based on existing technologies. He challenges us to rethink our product methodologies which probably isn’t the taste of a lot of people. But I agree with a couple of his points on a successful product — hard core tech is important. I often feel that education in sci/tech should precede anykind of design education to make it really useful. I had unfortunately realised that only when I started my 1st yr of design education. Trying to make up for the lost by self studying may be a little too late but its better late than never.

    Successful product is one that is able to add value to the user & the environments involved. It has to be sustainable from ideation -> manufacturing -> service (customers) It can’t just stop at just making it nice to feel and nice to look at.

    All at one goal, have to go to bed now..

    Comment by Karen Fu 12.14.09 @ 10:20 am


      Don says about his columns that “they are meant to provoke, and in that goal, I seem to be quite successful.” Which is good to know that we’re on the same page here.

      Definitely some good stuff in that thread, thanks, Jay.

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.15.09 @ 3:04 pm


    I think that Don Norman is in a different business than us–some sort of “technology breakthrough” business. His approach reminds me of Xerox PARC–awesome technology, but poor commercialization. I agree, that breakthrough technologies don’t require design research to develop. What we are trying to make, however, are products.

    Norman makes the argument himself:
    Edison launched his first phonograph company within months of his invention: he never questioned the need. He had invented the paperless office, he announced, and launched his product. The notion that the phonograph was better suited for playing back pre-recorded music came much later, and from Emile Berliner, a competitor (whose company morphed into RCA Victor and succeeded whereas Edison’s several attempts all failed). Technology first: needs last.

    If Edison, the technology inventor, had stuck to his “paperless office” schtick, would Norman be citing the phonograph in his article? No, because it wouldn’t have been a breakthrough technology. It would have been a failed technology that no one wanted and, by now, long forgotten. It took Berliner’s understanding of needs and desires of customers to see the opportunity.

    The Xerox Star pioneered the GUI. It took the Mac, however, a project that married the GUI technology to knowledge of customers to fulfill opportunities and needs. The Xerox Star may be a breakthrough technology, but the Mac was the breakthrough product.

    Comment by Onny Chatterjee 12.15.09 @ 10:47 am


      Thanks, Onny. Perhaps related, perhaps not, but I feel like many many many fundamental ideas have been conceived of, either as design concepts, or science fiction plots, or whatever. They won’t be technologies until someone builds them and many of them are (currently?) impossible (that’s what your point of commercialization made me think of).

      Comment by Steve Portigal 12.15.09 @ 3:08 pm


    … if there was a baseline to >meaningfulmeaningful< innovation is another matter.

    Comment by Vlad Kunko 12.16.09 @ 9:45 am


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    Steve,

    Interesting debate and one I’m sure we’ll hear more of.

    The thesis of Don’s piece is summed up in its first 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.”

    This is classic rhetorical bait in the form of a sweeping generalization. And, everyone has gone for it hook line and sinker. The obvious fallacy is that incremental development and breakthrough innovation are two very different things with vastly different goals and methods. Research is certainly part of both but researchers aren’t responsible for creating “Innovation” or “Incremental Improvements” as Don’s quotation and overall piece intimates. They are responsible for informing the process but not for synthesizing solutions. Things don’t become innovative until they are embodied in some way, as goods or services for example. Synthesizing solutions is not the role of design research. Furthermore, if synthesis becomes a researcher’s role one can argue that they are no longer an objective researcher.

    This debate is a bit like saying museum curators are useless when it comes to creating innovative new art. Of course they are, it’s not their role. Curators and researchers are there to identify, frame, elevate and present, but not create! Someone commented earlier that “Telling 500 design researchers that they don’t do innovation is brave.” It’s not brave, its accurate. Researchers aren’t responsible for innovation although they certainly support it. This may seem like semantic hair splitting but the distinction is crucial. The goals and methods of design research and the goals and methods of innovation are very different. Due to the emphasis placed on design research and the advent of more collaborative methods such as participatory design, the distinction between “Research” and “Design” has become blurred. Perhaps Don’s piece and Steve’s blog will serve to better define the role of design research, what it is and what it isn’t.

    Comment by Russell Kroll 12.20.09 @ 9:45 pm


    Another perspective is that as technology becomes cheaper, as design patterns improve, as design and development tools open up an encourage participation away from the engineers and towards community use … perhaps … just maybe … it will allow for more opportunities to build and fail early.

    This should not discount the need for research up front but it may say something about the speed in which we design, test, iterate and how research plays a role in this trend (if it is in fact going to be a trend at all)

    It may also say something towards the role technology and platform will play as we go forward.

    Comment by Daniel Szuc 12.20.09 @ 11:11 pm



    All This ChittahChattah from @steveportigal Don Norman says design research is useless for innovation: [link to post]

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

    Trackback by pree (Pree Kolari) 12.21.09 @ 3:43 pm



      @pree @steveportigal And then he says something absolutely brilliant like the most significant innovations are the incremental ones.

      – Posted using Chat Catcher

      Trackback by rotkapchen (Paula Thornton) 12.21.09 @ 4:38 pm



      @pree @steveportigal Hmmm, a designer that doesn’t embrace the context of the problem space? Sounds like a decorator to me.

      – Posted using Chat Catcher

      Trackback by rotkapchen (Paula Thornton) 12.21.09 @ 4:38 pm



    Don Norman-Design research [link to post]

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

    Trackback by AndreyNagorny (Andrey Nagorny) 12.21.09 @ 8:55 pm


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