I have just finished reading Donald Norman’s article ‘Technology First, needs Last’. The premise of his essay is that design research is useless when it comes to ‘revolutionary innovation’ while it can be useful when applying incremental improvements to existing products. It also helps, wait for this, to make products ‘ever more attractive [!!!]’.
I could complain that Norman’s argument reduces design research to a superficial, cosmetic element of the innovation process, but I won’t. Instead I’d argue that his essay really lends to the argument that design research and especially design thinking is absolutely crucial, if not critical to designing in our time.
Norman’s essay focuses on products and how technological innovation can make them possible. He argues that technological revolution, i.e. the invention of new product categories has never been the result of a ‘detailed consideration of human needs’. To support his argument he lists a range of products invented in the last century. These range from the airplane to the cellphone, or mobile phone for us Europeans.
He must be right, but then so what? Is it not the case that products are dead? Is it not true that we are shifting our attention from product development to service development? If this is the case – and it is – then technology cannot in itself and by itself solve the challenges we are facing. As Tim Brown puts it ‘a purely technocentric view of innovation is less sustainable now than ever’. Services are centred on people’s needs, not technology.
Of course the technology needs to be there but can we really depend on the technologists to come up with the right invention before we start tackling both minor every day and major global challenges? Is it not also possible that design research can unearth needs that will help change the application of existing technologies? If this is possible, then can we really call these improvements ‘incremental’? Creating a new category of products as part of a service ecosystem, is design revolution no matter if the products are based on existing technologies.
In a service economy needs come first and technology second, well no, actually technology comes third, after needs and service innovation. Technology enables innovation it does not drive it. I would however agree with Donald Norman that we better leave technological inventions to lone inventors, but then again are they ever lone?