11 January 2011

Design research and innovation: an interview with Don Norman

Be the first to share

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.

Read interview

Be the first to share
30 January 2016
Is design thinking the next big thing for U.S. power?
The U.S. Army is already using design thinking to inform its battle doctrine, and now voices go up to apply it to US foreign policy as well. Design Thinking Comes to the U.S. Army by Roger Martin The …
29 January 2016
[Report] Consumers more frustrated by smart home apps than devices
New report by Argus Insights suggests disappointing apps break user experience, may cause decline in consumer delight over time. The Smart Home ecosystem comprises both hardware devices and software apps and together they are supposed to …
29 January 2016
Solving health care problems through design methodology
Stephen Klasko (an MD with an MBA, CEO of Jefferson Health System and Thomas Jefferson University) and Bon Ku (MD, a professor of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital) joined the Knowledge@Wharton show …
27 January 2016
Human-machine interactions and the coming age of autonomy
Melissa Cefkin is a Principal Scientist & Design Anthropologist at Nissan Research in Silicon Valley where she explores the potential of having autonomous vehicles as interactive agents in the world. In an article that was published …
27 January 2016
Remaking Ford into a user experience-driven company
Ford CEO Mark Fields recently declared that Ford would be remade as a user-experience driven company: "We have obviously a lot experience in the car business, over 113 years, and our differentiation is going to be …
26 January 2016
The computational anthropologist
When people think of quantitative analytics, big data, and statistics, they rarely picture an anthropologist. The truth is that although anthropology is well known for gathering qualitative data, anthropologists are trained to understand all kinds …
26 January 2016
Designing for Crisis, Design for Real Life
It’s easy to design for the idealized user, someone who’s smart, calm, and informed. It’s less easy, and thus more important, to design for a more realistic user: still smart, but harried and uncertain. The …
22 January 2016
The power of creativity from below
Anthropologist Michael Thompson believes in the power of creativity from below in solving some of the smaller and bigger problems of our time. "People generally are very creative and innovative. Many anthropological case studies have shown …

We are an international experience design consultancy helping companies and organisations to innovate their products, services and processes by putting people and their experiences first.

18 January 2016
Experientia website completely reshaped

Experientia is pleased to announce that we’ve started 2016 with a brand new website. Experientia’s now officially 10 years old, and we decided that the best way to celebrate is by building a new website that showcases our growth – with new projects, new people in the staff, and two new locations in Lausanne and […]

1 January 2016
For when things get personal…
13 October 2015
Experientia report: Design for ageing gracefully

Design for Ageing Gracefully Rethinking Health and Wellness for the Elderly: Public Services Asian Insights & Design Innovation, DesignSingapore Council October 2015

29 September 2015
[Experientia book] Ethnography on elderly health and wellness

As we age, we increasingly depend on public services and the community for support. Well-designed public services can greatly affect the lives of the elderly and their experiences of healthcare. Experientia collaborated with DesignSingapore Council on understanding how the elderly interact with public services and how we can look towards improving their lives with design. […]

2 July 2015
Getting citizens involved in protecting fragile energy environments

A new project funded under the FP7 European Commission framework is getting citizens involved in testing new tools for reducing energy consumption during peak loads, in the hope that its pilot program will set the new state of the art for protecting locations with fragile electricity supplies. One of France’s most fragile regions The Provence-Alpes-Côte […]

5 May 2015
Experientia designer Dohun YuLuck Jang 유록 in Design 4 Disaster

Design 4 Disaster features an engaging illustrated safety manual for ship passengers, a personal project by Experientia designer Dohun YuLuck Jang 유록. After the Korean ferry accident last year, Yuluck (who is Korean) wanted to find a way to make safety manuals more interesting to read. He spent one year designing an interactive safety guide […]

See all articles