About Don Norman's take on "design research"

Reading Technology First, Needs Last by Don Norman the other day echoed a lot with recent discussions I had with clients, recent panel invitations, discussions with Julian and meetings last week with people such as Rémy. To put it shortly, Norman claims that design research (i.e., to him, it refers to ethnography-like observational studies) is good for improving but less at something he refers to as "innovation":

"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. "

What I find curious in the article is that this view seems to reflect a narrow understanding of what field research about people can convey (not to mention the limited vision of what is *design research*, but that's another big debate). The way Norman characterizes this notion of research-before-design is caricatural as shown by this straight-forward motto he employs: "Discover hidden, unmet needs" or "aim at one thing: to determine those hidden, unspoken needs that will lead to a novel innovation and then to great success in the marketplace". I thought we were a bit beyond this and it definitely reminded me some discussions I had with clients and some engineers who crave for finding a new "need" their technology can fulfill. This is IMHO a limited perception of what studying people can bring to the table in terms of "innovation".

Observing people and their practices is not just about finding needs and problems waiting to be solved (nor it was about asking people what they need, but that's another story). There are other possibilities, other insights that can be extracted, other opportunities that can be uncovered. A good example of which is described in "Transfer Scenarios: Grounding Innovation with Marginal Practices" by Ljungblad and Holmquist. In their paper, they described how they studied “marginal practice” (in their examples having unusual pets, such as snakes and spiders) not to regard the persons involved as "end users" but instead as a way to understand underlying human interests and qualities of interaction, relevant for the design outcome. The whole point in this case is to observe people to draw some elements about their motivations or interests and explain how this can be "transferred" as a material for design purposes. Beyond this example, observations are also about surfacing ideas, drivers, constraints and opportunities which can be turned into pertinent materializations.

Furthermore, applying observatory methods is not just meant to fuel engineers and designers as a preliminary step before design. This distinction between "Technology first, invention second, needs last" is awkward as the boundaries between all of these elements are not so firm. Observations can also be done during the design process with iterations, product prototypes (WoZ or something more complete. Given that nobody never knows how a technical object will evolve (and Norman agrees with that in his paper: "New products arose through the tinkering and experimenting of inventors. Most fail."), it can be relevant to observe the appropriation and the way it is repurposed by users... and feed this back into a new iteration. It's also about studying failures and understanding the slow adoption Norman is talking about. Understanding what the hurdles and pain points are, etc. to refine the proposition.

But then it leads to the second problem that bugged me in the article: the distinction between improvement and breakthrough (or what he calls "revolutionary innovation"). the idea of revolutions and the rhetoric of innovative breakthroughs is surprising to me. Especially when discussed by someone such as Norman. It's weird to bring David Nye (the introductory quote) into this given that a great deal of researchers in history of sciences and technologies have published a lot about how technical objects such as the dish-washer or the phone never came out from the blue. The situation is much more organic, lots of people are working on similar topics, some products are released and fail, are reinterpreted, etc.... and it becomes hard to date what is the first "phone" (as a commercial success). Perhaps it's a framing issue but the notion of a "breakthrough" seems a bit weird when one think about the whole history of technologies. This terms seems more appealing to the marketing/business people than observer of how objects evolved over time.

One of my favorite book about this issue about the history of the dish-washer (sorry for the obscure french reference) shows how this device has evolved over time from both technical possibilities AND the work done by inventors to understand what is the practices of cleaning, what is important to potential users, etc. ... to a point where some of the first patents for dish-washers has been set by inventors and their wives (the users of the device at the time, sadly enough). Of course, it's hard to say that "design research" had an impact on the invention of the airplane or the phone at a time where this term wasn't used. However, the activities undertaken by "inventors" at the time covered many things: tinkering technical material, finding business models, etc. and surely observing people. What I mean here is that the skills great inventors (such as Edison) had certainly shared some common patterns with what good ethnographers can bring to design. Should it be called ethnography? design research? maybe, maybe not indeed.

That said, it's however fair to question the extent to which insights coming from field research help and nurture design. It's indeed hard to evaluate the influence of such approach. As Jan Chipchase described here:

"For all the current buzz currently surrounding ethnographic / anthropological research - this isn't the only way to feel out what or how to design (in the broadest sense of the word), doesn't always provide value, and absolutely shouldn't be part of every design process - anyone who thinks otherwise isn't asking enough questions about what their client needs and hasn't factored in the skills of the team at hand. At it's worst ethnographic research is an expensive, time-consuming distraction that can take the design team (and the client they represent) in the wrong direction."

Why do I blog this? this debate is highly interesting and the lines above are just my two cents on this. Lots of the issues raised by this article are very important lately and it's surely something I'll try to discuss with students in my course about field research for design. The problem is see in all the fuss about field research to nurture design is rather about how to translate observations and implications into materializations, that's quite an issue.

See also Steve Portigal's feedback on the same article.