Design Research versus Technology and Meaning Change: A Review

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.

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4 Responses to Design Research versus Technology and Meaning Change: A Review

  1. Ekta Ohri says:

    Interesting post. I would like to argue though that user-centered research can result in radical innovation. Key though is to identify unarticulated needs of users through participatory and observation based methods.

    • Anuradha Reddy says:

      Thanks Ekta. As per my understanding, even unarticulated needs emerging from user-centric research such as the aforementioned ‘need to carry multiple books in a single device’ will remain a radical idea with a new meaning, but without any appropriation to current availability of technology and existing meanings held by users– therefore, making it important to extend user-centric research into fashioning design ideas and prototypes that will allow further dialogue and analysis into the designed product, which would encompass varied ideas for technological applications and values associated with such changes to the product.

  2. Aditya says:

    great post, anuradha, and many substantive claims packed into a small amount of text.

    my sense is that design research theory is highly constrained by a ‘just-the-facts-ma’am’ theory of observation. that is, we must report what users say effectively and accurately to our clients, the technical or design team, which will deal with these findings. in fact, the most effective teams are entirely integrated and cross-functional, wherein social researchers and design researcher are part of the tinkering, thinking, designing, making, doing, problem-solving continuum. to see-think and to think-make are two linked and interrelated parts of the creative process, in my view, which these two sources you have cited wouldn’t seem to have taken into account.

    your thoughts?

    • Anuradha Reddy says:

      Thanks Aditya. I completely second your viewpoint on the creative process. But the first point you mentioned about clients dealing with our findings, and thereby constraining us from thinking beyond facts– is probably the assumed scenario in which the two articles were written. As design researchers, we take it for granted that our role ends with meaningfully lending our ethnographic and contextual findings to respective clients. These findings are mostly in the form of reports or occasional mock ups of our solutions. In the case of radical innovation, however, technology and meaning change will be the greatest challenge to design research. These technology and meaning changes need to be constantly or periodically addressed by engaging in building ideas and models upon our existing user-centric research methods. Only then, I feel, will the see-think and think-make link be complete.

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