Recently, a paper was published by Professors Don Norman and Roberto Verganti on the subject of ‘Incremental and Radical Innovation’. The paper consists of a conversation between the two design thinkers upon the role of design research as a driver of innovation. Despite their varied backgrounds, both had similar arguments on the dimensions of design-driven research versus human-centric research and its effect on the interpretation of meanings. Don Norman, in one of his other papers titled ‘Technology first, needs last‘, mentions that despite the genius of many inventors, designers and tinkerers, most products arrive in the market only to fail enormously. As a consequence, he discusses the role of design research as a tool that builds on the skill of understanding the market, technology, design and the user–to gauge the best path for product innovation. However, he says that potential solutions are restricted as human-centric research focuses on what people already know and throws light on familiar difficulties and problems with the product. These ‘incremental enhancements’ are slow and tedious, but one that ultimately leads to a better product. Therefore, the first point I would like to make is that design researchers have a lesser role to play in radical innovation as most of such innovation comes from inventors and tinkerers of new technology.
On the other hand, technology and meanings, dynamic as they are, will continue to challenge design research as the approach is often defied by unpredictable, non-rational human choices. I would like to elucidate upon how these changes in technology and meaning affect the process of design research with an example.
Lets discuss the fictional case of an e-book reader, like the Amazon Kindle, placed much before our time. Imagine the emergence of digital technology and e-books, only because a ‘design researcher’ identified that people with greater readership find it inconvenient to carry a heavy load of books (plural) in their bags. It is a brilliant innovation but would it have worked well? I can imagine that people would ‘make do’ with the advancement of technology but would highly refute virtual ownership of books. The meanings that people held at that time, of valuing assets over access, material wealth over experiences, is something that would have held it back from becoming a successful product. I hope one can make the backward connect–my point being that, advancement in technology and change in meaning, in fact, has led to the possibility of addressing the need for carrying multiple books in a portable digital device. A second point that can be established here is that technology and meaning drive the need to a greater extent than the other way around. So as design researchers, only identifying needs and behaviours is not enough to result in amazing breakthroughs or radical innovation.
The question now lies in how we can alter human-centric design research processes to actively address the changes in technology and meaning. One possible direction, as Norman says. is to work towards development of radical innovation by modifying the existing user-centric process into development of multiple ideas and prototypes, one that might extend into divergent areas, explore possible technology and meanings that emerge out of the process, that leads to new product innovation. To sum it up, while radical innovation attempts to create new meanings, design research should aim at new interpretations of what could be more meaningful to people.