11 January 2011

Design research and innovation: an interview with Don Norman

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Donald Norman
Jeroen Van Geel of Johnny Holland interviewed Donald Norman about innovation, design research, and emotional design.

Earlier this year you wrote that design research doesn’t innovate, technology does. This caused quite a discussion. What were the main counterexamples you got back?

No, that’s not what I said. And indeed, that is the main problem with the reaction I got: many people never read my post or listened to my talk: they simply reacted. (The people who did consider it thoughtfully were very favorable; in fact, I was invited to give it at several places, like Delft and the Copenhagen Business School).

Innovation is a very complex topic, very thoroughly discussed in academia, which is not something most designers follow. The important points are these: There are many forms of innovation–process, product, radical, incremental, and so on. I considered two forms of product innovation: radical (e.g., the invention of the telephone) and incremental (e.g., releasing a new version of a mobile phone, automobile, or kitchen appliance). Radical innovation in the products, I argued, always comes from the works of inventors, excited by some new technology and anxious to explore its potential. I do not know of a single radical innovation that has come from the people who do design research. Not the telephone or automobile, not Facebook or Twitter. Not 3D television nor, for that matter, high-definition television. Not hybrid autos. Not the Internet itself. Market studies, market research, design research, field observations (ethnographic studies), etc., do not yield radical innovations. They are very important in finding new uses of and improvements to existing products, but these are incremental innovations, not radical ones.

Incremental innovation is very important. Over 90% of the radical innovations fail (some of my friends say 99%). Yes, when they happen they change lives, but think about it: how many radical new product innovations have you experienced in your lifetime? One? Ten? Even if it was 100 that is still relatively infrequent compared to the thousands of incremental product innovations every day.

Moreover, radical innovation almost always starts off being inferior to what already exists: it takes good design research to transform that radical idea into something that is appealing to the world.

Alas, we train our design students to do radical innovation, even though in the real world, these radical ideas will almost certainly fail, even though they will be asked to do incremental innovation in their practice, and even though the evidence says that the radical innovations come from anywhere, and often take years or even decades before their worth is understood and appreciated.

In other words: we are not facing facts. We shy away from truth. We are delusional.

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