Here’s three great articles that a design mind will find compelling, two articles are closely related while the other article shows why leading with technology isn’t the best solution to jump in with. Technology First, Needs Last by Donal Norman, Don Norman says design research is great for improvement but useless for innovation by Steve Portigal, and Upgrading the children from The Economist print edition. The primary reason for this post is to pass along Norman’s article talking about conceptual vs incremental breakthroughs and why design research doesn’t help shift the conceptual model. Portigal responds with his post while my friend Kara Pecknold passed me along the Economist article that sheds some light on the OLPC idea.
Norman suggests that design research didn’t play any role in major breakthroughs such as the airplane, automobile, telephone, radio, television, computer, personal computer, internet, sms text messaging and cellphone. I think it’s a misguided argument because the same could be suggested about other popular roles these days. The potential for self educated people to come up with any of those ideas was possible, there wasn’t the need initially for an engineer, president or janitor yet they all helped inform the process in a way. Maybe design research as a title wasn’t involved but by trying to create and solve an issue is what helps inform Design Research.
Another part of the argument is that it’s about the technology first—needs last. When I think about Napster, YouTube and Craigslist I think of a need that wasn’t being met, and technology helped drive it’s success, not the other way around. Look at what Napster started. Once it was shut down it allowed services like iTunes become viable. From that informed learning Apple was in a great position to offer apps via their same music sharing service. Learning about selling music allowed them to have a huge advantage when they brought out apps to sell for their iPhone. People wanted to share videos online yet there wasn’t a way to do it until a designer and technology person decided to do something about it. Those were all built on iterations. There was an unmet need before the technology was there.
In Portigal’s post, the conversation is more about expanded on the discourse unlike me who is refuting what Norman is suggesting. There’s some worthy points to consider such as partnering technology with insights, and how creating big changes isn’t a solo act. “I’d suggest the problem is not with design research but in how it’s deployed, applied, and integrated. Because it absolutely could happen. The underlying conditions need to be there.”
How about the One Laptop Per Child? I think it’s a good example of why leading with technology is a misguided western form of thought. Assuming that giving a tool is going to make everything okay is shallow, learning what the issues are and how they can be informed with action is more beneficial. How does that happen, not with a laptop maker but with design research.