Northwestern University’s Don Norman wrote an essay, “Technology First, Needs Last” that discusses his disconcerting conclusion that design research is “essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs” and it is technology followed by invention that leads to revolutionary innovation. He uses a number of provocative statements and historical examples to support his position and concludes his essay by saying that even though we should leave the grand innovation to the technologists, design researchers will forever be indispensable because they need to clean up the complex and overwhelming “horrid applications” of the technology. 

Others have started to weigh in with positions of support and rejection. At Insight, we would agree with the conclusion that most design research is limited in its impact, however his statement highlights a very narrow thinking of innovation and what design research is. The way design research is currently defined and practiced, it generally does have limited impact and has most often shown its value in the world of incremental innovations, described by Norman as “changes that lower costs, add some simple features, and smooth out the rough edges of design.” At the same time it must be addressed that there is a right way to do design research, which can result in innovations that have huge impacts on people, business and society. Our goal is to help people in both the design and business worlds understand what encompasses good design research and how it can result in more than incremental innovation.

Incremental vs. Conceptual Breakthroughs

There is one oversimplification in the argument put forth by Dr. Norman. He states that the outcome of design research activities must fall into one of two categories: incremental innovation or major conceptual breakthroughs.

Many different definitions of innovation and ways of categorizing innovation exist. The examination of these categories is not important in this discussion; however the impact of any given innovation can be plotted on a continuum based on their market impact. The incremental and conceptual breakthroughs Norman cited as examples typically exist at the opposite ends of that continuum.

There is a huge amount of innovations that are vastly different than a single feature change or other incremental innovation and can “change the game” for a business or industry. Understanding that the true impact of an innovation can span the range of this continuum is important to keep in mind as we discuss the impact that design research can have. Additionally, Norman frames “conceptual breakthroughs” as having a 97% failure rate; a risk that companies are obviously not excited to embrace. His definition of innovation as a technology shift that happens outside of the constraints of business and becomes commercialized many years later is not a sustainable business model for the vast majority of companies. It’s not the type of innovation that companies can pursue nor is it the focus of design research. Design research is a business tool that drives innovation within these business constraints. If you are operating outside of these constraints, very few business tools will be useful in the process.

Faulty Design Research Limits Impact

In many situations, the people who are carrying out design research don’t understand how to conduct it with any sort of methodological rigor and don’t realize that they are doing an incomplete job. This has happened as more people have started conducting design research activities without proper training and without understanding the full spectrum of responsibility a design researcher should have. As practitioners we must be aware that although the field of design research is young and the methods are adapted from a range of tangential disciplines, certain best practices must be followed and we can not lose site of the fact that we need to be providing research sponsors with accurate data.

Design research is prone to the following pitfalls because practitioners don’t fully understand the importance of conducting rigorous research:

  • Improper Research Methodology: It’s common for people to assume that certain types of research are appropriate, without fully understanding the range of research methodologies that can be employed. Ethnography, observational studies and other contextual and qualitative activities are especially prone to miss-application because they require a great amount of discipline on the part of the research team to shelve their assumptions and take an analytical view of the research subject. Quantitative approaches are often necessary to answer complex product development questions and should not be excluded from a program.
  • Poorly Thought-Out Research Plans: The planning phases of research for product development are paramount. Determining things such as sample sizes, participant criteria, length of interview/observation/participation time and number of geographies for data collection are important on two separate levels: First and foremost, failure to address these issues can result in findings which are inaccurate for a number of reasons, such insufficient number of participants, participant exhaustion and inaccurate comparisons across regions. Secondly, it is difficult to get organizational buy-in to research results which cannot illustrate a thoughtful and rigorous design, which can result in design research efforts being dismissed in favor of other input (e.g., marketing research), which more carefully defines sampling and methodological rigor.
  • Lack of Discipline During Data Collection: The more exploratory research methodology preferred by design researchers often introduces more room for error in the actual data collection process than more structured activities such as focus groups and surveys. This is because these methods require the research to constantly adapt their focus and line of questioning throughout the effort. This is problematic because it requires a great deal of maturity on behalf of the research team to not lose focus and grasp onto outlying data as unconditional truths.
  • Poor Data Analysis and Synthesis: Contrary to popular belief, the interpretation of research data into findings for design is not a mysterious or magical process though it does require a lot of effort and attention. At a high level, research should be designed in a way that allows results (data) to be plugged into an analytical model/tool (of which there are many, such as affinity diagramming and process diagramming). It happens too often that design research teams insist that their methodology involves going out into the field, observing some activities, asking some questions and then intrinsically interpreting the meaning and putting it to paper. There is more to it than that. If your research team cannot articulate their method of analysis, you should be worried.

These pitfalls of how design research is sometimes practiced are significant and improper research results in breakthroughs that often fall on the lower end of the innovation continuum, which, according to Norman, are lower impact and more incremental in nature.

So what if you’re doing research correctly? In short you have the potential to deliver much more impactful innovation. Greater rigor in design, proper application of methodology, discipline during data collection and proper analysis/synthesis of data expands the level of impact your resultant innovations can have and push the impact further along the innovation continuum.

Applied Design Research Has Greater Impact

Even if design research teams are planning, collecting and analyzing research correctly, there are still missing elements that need to be considered to push the impact of design research even further. Business and technology must be brought into consideration to fully understand how to make the greatest impact with a new innovation.

The intent of applied design research is to answer questions related to the design of a new product or service with the purpose of supporting the goals of an organization (e.g. making money, providing goods and services, meeting needs). With this in mind, design research efforts should focus on delivering innovations that:

  • Support the business models of the organization
  • Are relevant to their customers
  • Are supported by technologies that allow the final product to be economically feasible

If these three conditions cannot be met, the likelihood of success for a new product or service quickly decreases, and it is less likely to be relevant to customers. In other terms, even if design research activities result in powerful concepts and directions, they aren’t always implemented because they don’t make sense from an organizational risk perspective.

Ensuring that these conditions can each be met in entirety may not be within the scope of all design research teams due to the depth of knowledge needed about the business or all available technologies. These three considerations are rarely considered in concert early enough in the development process to allow teams to weed out the winners and losers from their pipeline to avoid unnecessary financial investment. Too often this investment will lead to the commercialization of products and services that should never have hit the market. In his article, Norman described many of these products as being “ahead of their time,” leading to the 97% failure rate.

Design research, as a discipline, should take it upon itself to consider these conditions, as it will only increase the likelihood that the efforts are actionable. The synthesis of all of these types of information is necessary at a point in the process where design researchers are answering questions and defining opportunity. Expanding the analytical process to include these inputs will increase the relevance of design research outputs and the potential impact of any resultant innovations.

There are simple ways that a design research team can do this, such as integrating engineering team members to the analytical process, briefing the team on the business models that can be supported by their organization and expanding their project involvement to include moderation of these discussions among the qualified parties.

Dr. Norman argues that the technological piece must come first, however it simply needs to be included as a part of the process. What comes first in this process is a “chicken & egg” question: User desires and needs can help guide technological exploration in the same way business or technological considerations can be analyzed to determine how they can provide benefit and be relevant to people.

There is opportunity for design research to play a deeper, more strategic role in aligning personal and societal needs with business goals and technological developments/new inventions. This is what will result in high-impact innovation for business, people and society.