Don Norman says design research is great for improvement but useless for innovation

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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