Technology precedes needs

New conceptual breakthroughs are invariably driven by the development of new technologies. The new technologies, in turn, inspire technologists to invent things, not sometimes because they themselves dream of having their capabilities, but many times simply because they can build them. In other words, grand conceptual inventions happen because technology has finally made them possible. Do people need them? That question is answered over the next several decades as the technology moves from technical demonstration, to product, to failure, or perhaps to slow acceptance in the commercial world where slowly, after considerable time, the products and applications are jointly evolve, and slowly the need develops.

Several years ago, Don Norman made a convincing argument that technology precedes our need for it. Rereading this article now, a few things strike me.

The first is that he is talking specifically about design research and its outcomes. Much of the discussion of the article came from a much broader audience which reacted as if he was speaking of design as a whole. There are some designers that I’d argue fall into the category of “technologist” in the sense that Norman uses it: “The new technologies, in turn, inspire technologists to invent things, not sometimes because they themselves dream of having their capabilities, but many times simply because they can build them.” That sounds like a lot of “designers” I know. Perhaps we’d call them “makers” these days (and perhaps that’s a better word).

The second thing that struck me is how long it took me to get my head around the way he used the word “innovation”. Early in the article, makes a distinction between two types of innovation: “conceptual breakthroughs” and “incremental improvements.” He then goes on to speak of “revolutionary innovations” and “grand, breakthrough innovations” which I assumed was the same as a “conceptual breakthrough.” On rereading the article I’m not sure this is the case.

The grand, breakthrough innovation is what professors love to teach their students, love to write about, and to discuss. But not only is it rare, even the occasional brilliant concepts are difficult to pull off. Yes, it is exciting to contemplate some brand new concept that will change people’s lives, but the truth is that most fail. The failure rate has been estimated to be between 90 and 95%, and I have heard credible, data-based estimates as high as a 97% failure rate.

Here, it seems to me that it is the “conceptual breakthroughs” fail. What interests me is his mention of “changing people’s lives.” He mentions it again later in the article:

Major innovation comes from technologists who have little understanding of all this research stuff: they invent because they are inventors. They create for the same reason that people climb mountains: to demonstrate that they can do so. Most of these inventions fail, but the ones that succeed change our lives.

Once again, these seem to be the “conceptual breakthrough” innovations (“inventions”). Some fail and others succeed and “change our lives.” What I find interesting here, is that I don’t consider either the “incremental improvements” or the “conceptual breakthroughs” to be innovations. Innovations have an impact on people and the society the live in. I don’t think we’re actually talking about innovation until Norman starts talking about the major / grand / revolutionary innovations.

It might seem that I’m splitting hairs here, and maybe I am. But it took me several readings of the articles to unpick the difference between Norman’s three kinds of innovation (“incremental improvements”, “conceptual breakthroughs/inventions” and “change our lives innovation”). I’m currently reading Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation, and I like his straight-forward best definition of innovation: “Innovation is significant positive change.” Even better, I like the fact that he encourages people not to use the word at all. So in that spirit, here’s my understanding of what Norman is saying:

A technology is created. Someone (a technologist/inventor) has a conceptual breakthrough and invents a use for that technology. It is into a product and released into the market. The product may fail. If it doesn’t, it just may end up changing our lives. We won’t know we needed the technology until well after it’s been invented. Once we recognize that we need the technology, design researchers come along and research those needs and help to incrementally improve the product. (Or to use Norman’s tidy summary: “technology first, invention second, needs last.”)

The final thing that struck me on rereading the article was the discussion of “incremental improvements.”

Revolutionary innovation is what design companies prefer, what design contests reinforce, and what most consultants love to preach. But if you examine the business impact of innovation, you will soon discover that the most frequent gains come from the small, incremental innovations, changes that lower costs, add some simple features, and smooth out the rough edges of a product. Most innovations are small, relatively simple, and fit comfortably into the established rhythm and competencies of the existing product delivery cycle.

It sounds to me as if Donald Norman is describing a local maximum problem. The proposed solution to a local maximum problem is getting out the building and talking to our customers, i.e. design research. Norman does not think this is going to have as much as an impact as we’d like to think:

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.

I’m not writing this blog to convince myself (or anyone reading it) of anything, but to explore the assumptions that underpin the way I live and work. And so, I’d like to leave this as a dangling question for the moment. Can design research go beyond the incremental improvements that attain to the uninspiring heights of a local maximum? Can it lead to significant positive change? I’m not sure of the answer. I’m not even sure it’s the right question. I suspect the right question might have more to do with creating more value than you capture.

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