Utopians & Idealists: Who Can Handle Innovation?

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Research by anthropologists and sociologists has found that the introduction of an idea or innovation into a society creates two groups: utopians and idealists. The idealist has a conservative world view and is content with the status quo. The utopian on the other hand has a revolutionary world view and want to transform society with new ideas. Recent research has shown that this concept holds true for the introduction of new products and services.

Mannheim’s theory of culture change

This concept of utopians and idealists comes from Karl Mannheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology. Mannheim saw that the utopians wanted to make the world a better place by innovation and new ideas, while the idealists where worried that the world would deteriorate, if untested new ideas where introduced. His book ‘An Ideology And Utopia: An Introduction To The Sociology Of Knowledge‘ introduced the concept of sociology of knowledge.

He saw that if you shaped an idea to suit the needs of an idealist it would discourage the utopian, because the utopian wants change and their view of the idealists is that they are a barrier to change.

Mannheim studied the political movements in 1930’s Berlin, but more recent research has shown his concept holds true for products and innovations. An example of two products fitting into the utopians and idealists camps is the battle between Mac and PC. A general perception is that the PC user sees no need of paying more for a computer. The PC is good enough, and if they changed to Mac they would have to learn a whole new way of doing things, and it would be a waste of time. Equally, there is the perception that the Mac user belief is that the PC users spend far too much time dealing with technical issues, computer viruses, and many other things, and their life would be better if only they used a Mac.

Mac vs. PC

The battle between Mac and PC may not be as alarming as the battles between the Communists, and Nazis in 1930’s Berlin. But Apple through its marketing makes it just as revolutionary to some. Research by WPP’s, (the advertising conglomerate), BrandZ shows Apples brand messages actually puts off the idealists [PDF], but encourages the utopians. Apples adverting ‘call to action’ are a Revolutionary message to buy an Apple. The first Macintosh TV ad ‘Why 1984 will not be like 1984’ emphasised this message.  This was continued with the ‘Think Different’ campaign, followed by the ‘I am a PC vs. I am a Mac’.

Apple’s message is not that their products are simple and easy to use, as can be seen from Fred Beecher’s article in Johnny Holland, but if you invest the time in learning how to use their products then your life will be better. Apple’s users are utopian, so they will not only buy the products but also encourage others as well. This is part of their utopian world view that the world would be a better place if everybody had a Mac.

Microsoft’s challenge is that, because their users have become idealists it is hard for them to sell them new products. Microsoft tries to introduce new innovations in usability, like the infamous ribbon for Microsoft Office, but because their users are happy with the status quo, they hate the change. This is why even though Microsoft has some of cleverest brains in usability and design working for them, such as Bill Buxton; they still have a reputation of bad usability. When blind tests where done with Vista, users found that they liked the product and found it usable. The issue is that the users of their products don’t like change.

Microsoft Ribbon

Apple’s challenge according to the Mannheim theory is that these two world views eventually will synthesize to become one dominant world view. The revolution will become the status quo, and their users expectations will change.

Applying Mannheim’s theory to research and design

There is no right or wrong in being a utopian or idealist. Yet, knowing which category our end users or customers fall into helps us understand their behavior and enables us to improves the odds for getting the design right and the right messages for communication.

Modified version of the Ansoff Product-Market Growth Matrix.

Modified version of the Ansoff Product-Market Growth Matrix.

The graphic above shows a modified version of the Ansoff Product-Market Growth Matrix . If you are introducing a new product into a new market, it is more suitable to identify and research the needs of the utopians for your product category. For example, for us at FeraLabs, we are developing Webnographer, a new tool for remote usability testing. It offers a new way to carry out user research. It was crucial for us to identify the utopians in the field of usability and information architecture, as they would be the people who would embrace change and try a new user research tool like Webnographer.

If on the other hand your product is aimed at existing market then you need to focus on using Idealists for your research.

How to find utopians or idealists

To find your utopians and idealists you will have to follow the advice of famous anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski:

“…the Ethnographer has not only to spread his nets in the right place, and wait for what will fall into them. He must be an active huntsman, and drive his quarry into them and follow it up to its most inaccessible lairs.”

Research is the key to gage if a user is utopian or an idealist. For our product we carried out ethnographic research, both digital and traditional. We asked people their views of current methods, and we looked at their online communication and attitudes to help us understand them better. If their view was that new methods are needed, or that the old methods need change they were classified as a utopian willing to change the world. This qualified them for becoming of our research panel, and we considered them to be potential customers.

Bronisław Malinowski during his ethnography

Bronisław Malinowski during his ethnographic research

We very quickly were able to identify utopians: the people, firms and consultancies that were open to new methods. There is a minority that believes that user research needs new tools and techniques, while the majority sees no need for change. Our target audience are of course the users that believe that change is needed.

Both, the usability utopians and usability idealists, believe that life is made too difficult by products that are hard to use. Where they differ is in the Solution. Usability Idealists believe that if only people developing products used the techniques already developed then the world would be a more usable place. On the other hand usability utopian’s belief is that if these techniques where so good then we would not still in the 21st Century have so many hard and difficult products. Our research shows that their view is that usability and user research techniques are too time consuming and expensive.

We found that the utopians believed that usability had to become more compatible with its end users, management and other people involved in the development of a product. The results had to be understandable by people outside the profession. While the idealists believed that the consumers of user research had to work harder to understand the views of usability.

Who is who?

The usability idealists view is led by gurus such as Jakob Nielson, who argue that “usability is a very stable field.” That the idealists view is led by guru’s is obvious when you consider that they have spent years perfecting their reputation as the expert in the legacy techniques making them “gurus”, “superstars”, and “ninjas”. A new method for conducting research can be a scary thought, as it means new learning, and being a novice again.

Malcolm Gladwell has shown in his book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success‘ that to become an expert in a field takes 10,000 hours. When changes happen, which the utopian believes is important, you might be throwing those 10,000 hours of hard work away.

There is of course a small majority of experts with 10,000 hours that are utopians and strive for new things and are willing to throw that hard work away. Finding the utopians is hard. For example Apples market share is less than 10% therefore if you where to conduct user research with just 10 people the likelihood is that only one user would be a Mac user.

Focusing the research

Having identified the utopians we focused our research on their desires and perceptions. This has allowed us to make Webnographer better, as we could make the product that fitted the needs of the users most likely to use it. For example the utopians wanted a simple way of reporting metrics to management, which makes it easier for the user to be heard.

We saved time and money by focusing our research on users that were open to a new method, and could ignore the feedback from people that even if we catered to their every whim would never change their ways. It is worth pointing out that if your product is aimed at the current market then you should focus on the idealists.

Yet, the research is never finished. It is not fixed whether someone is a utopian or idealist. As Mannheim’s theory explains the two world views of utopians and idealists eventually synthesize to become one dominant world view. The revolution will become the status quo, and their users expectations will change. This means research must always be ongoing, collecting information, analysing people’s perceptions, validating findings, and collecting more information.

Not a new question

At the end of the month we will presenting our talk (‘Effective Ethnography Techniques for Low Budget Projects‘) at the EuroIA conference. It is fitting that the conference is in Copenhagen, as Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet of Denmark had to make the choice between being an utopian with the life of action (“to be”), or being a idealist with the life of silent acceptance (“not to be”).

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?”

So when we visit Denmark for the EuroIA, we will visit different districts of Copenhagen and instead of visiting the museums we will be looking at the supermarket shelves and look at the percentage of new products. We will walk the streets and observe the number of people adopting new fashions. Do the restaurants cater for new culinary dishes, or do they go for the traditional cuisine?

There is no right or wrong in being a utopian or idealist. But it can be both fun, and useful to understand the behaviour for both work and pleasure.

Sabrina Mach

Sabrina is one of the founders of FeraLabs, a usability consultancy specialising in remote user research. She has been involved in the development of Webnographer, a tool for un-moderated remote usability testing. Using Webnographer, she helps clients understand their user’s behaviour, providing them with formative insight for design teams, as well as summative results for benchmarking website performance.

James Page

James is one of the founders of FeraLabs, a usability consultancy specialising in remote user research. He has been involved in the development of Webnographer, a tool for un-moderated remote usability testing. Using Webnographer, he helps clients understand their user’s behaviour, providing them with formative insight for design teams, as well as summative results for benchmarking website performance.

24 comments on this article

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  2. I think the basic problem is that idealists view innovation as something that will solve a problem; utopians want an invention that will change their life. And from this standpoint, both Microsoft and Apple can consider themselves as innovative.

    That said, innovation always solves a problem and is a planned activity. Invention may not; it often occurs by accident (“Mr. Watson, come here, I need you”). And certainly there are many ideas that do not foster innovation, which usually builds on a foundation of best-practice (although disruptive innovation is also a powerful mechanism – Henry Ford built a car, not a faster horse).

    Moreover, even Mannheim admits that being part of the idealist or utopian camps depends on the matter at hand. People can change from one to the other – and rapidly. In other words, membership of one group at one point in time does not represent a permanent label.

    We must continue this discussion over a beer at EuroIA. I look forward to seeing you!

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  5. I commend you for trying to apply some theory to the design/ux field, but I think the result here is rather simplistic.

    I’m not a sociologist and I don’t know Manheim’s theory, so maybe I am misunderstanding, but I’m not at all convinced that there really are these two kinds of people. Perhaps it’s useful to suppose there are for the purpose of argument, but you seem to be going beyond that.

    Regarding usability practitioners in particular, labeling them as being one of these two types seems unfair. I imagine that most professionals, even Jakob Nielsen, are quite open to new techniques, even if their current practice is grounded in what seems like older theory. You seem to be implying that you can’t be innovative without blindly throwing out all the old practices. In fact, I think the opposite might be true: if you don’t understand the history, you’re not in a good position to move forward.

    There may indeed be practitioners who don’t want to learn new things, but I think a lot of us are very open to new techniques while at the same time we appreciate the importance of seminal work like Nielsen’s, which is still very relevant.

  6. Arthur, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

    You are right there are not two types of people, but as Eric Reiss said above in the comments, two groups are formed. One group will adopt the new idea or method, the other will not.

    Just like there are Republicans and Democrats. Being a member of either, does not make you one type of person. But it does make you more receptive to certain ideas.

    The reason that we painted Nielson as a usability idealist is because he actively defends the older theories, and argues against some of the new ones. That does not stop him being a utopian in other areas of his life.

    What Mannheim goes on to say is that the two world views eventually will synthesize to become one dominant world view. So it is not throwing the old practices out, but the old and the new eventually merge.

    The point of using the theory is to gage how fast a person will be adopting and using a new idea. We are not saying that Nielson will never use Webnographer, but we are saying he will not be one of the first.

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  10. It just isn’t true that Neilsen rejects new ideas for old. He’s scientific i.e. let’s throw it up there and see if it sticks. It’s about proven methods. If you can prove a new idea works well for usability studies then it will be welcomed with open arms. If you can’t and your arguments are flimsy then how can it be merited or recommended? He is interested in new ideas – look at his extensive work into eyetracking that tries to ascertain any value.

  11. Ritchielee thank you for your comment.

    The challenge is that methods don’t pop into the world proven. They get proven through use and experimentation. As you said, Nielsen will use a method once it is proven. This means he won’t be one of the first trying new methods, but he will adopt them once they have become the status quo.

  12. @ritchielee Just to add to what Sabrina said above.

    Thomas Kuhn came up with the concept of Paradigm Shift to explain how science breaks away with new ideas. Kuhn theory is similar to Mannheim’s, but applied to science. Kuhn would explain Neilsen as a defender of the core, or the old Paradigm.

  13. @sabrina Don’t Nielsen’s eyetracking endeavours prove that he is up for experimenting with new ideas?

    @james the core should be defended by all if it works well; any method is part of a toolbox, and new ones should be adopted and assimilated only if proven.

    Gurus are not against innovation in their field. They spend a lot of time with new methods evaluating their worth: it simply isn’t about self preservation. Usability interpretations are extremely susceptible to fallacy so it makes total sense to be extra cautious about what you recommend.

  14. @ritchielee eye tracking has been around for years. It became popular in the 1950′s for testing magazines and packaging. So I would not say it is a new method :( But what is amazing is that there are findings that people still ignore. Like the eyes first focusing on a face and then dropping down. Look at most blogs and the headline is above the main picture, when eye tracking shows that it should be the opposite.

    In regards to there being a universal usability toolbox of methods, sadly does not hold true. Some practitioners adopt new methods faster than others. Some do not use Personas, some are skeptical of eye tracking.

    But there is a core usability toolbox. Some of the methods in time will not hold up, others will. The question we are trying to answer is who will adopt the new tools first, and it is generally not the core.

  15. Small sidestep there. He’s been using/testing with the latest gear so he *is* working with new innovations.

    For you to swiftly dismiss that there is not a toolbox is a little odd.
    Not sure what you mean by universal – I certainly didn’t use that phrase.

    Great results can be achieved through putting time into proven iterative design and testing techniques. I should know: I’ve rigorously applied them – questioning my every move for justification.

    I’m not saying for a minute that the new stuff can’t be supplementary and explored; it’s just that first exploiting proven methods must be advocated.

    I’m enjoying the debate although, as has happened before, the discussion has one party with something to sell.
    Funnily enough – I do like your idea as another tool, but I’m not sure you should take the tack of dismissing other techniques from your work e.g. personas. It would be beneficial for all to talk authoritatively about the merits and disadvantages of each, as Neilsen has.

    Good luck.

  16. @ritchielee I agree with you that there are toolbox(es), My point is that everyones toolbox is different.

    I think we agree, let me rephrase. When a new idea arrives, two groups form. One group adopts the idea, the other doesn’t do it immediately. As you say that they want it to pass the test of time. (Proven becomes a whole new debate.)

    So the idealist group will benefit from not having to waist their time on learning new techniques or methods until they become established, while the Utopian group will have the advantage of a head start if one of the ideas catches on.

    Mannheim’s theory is pretty established.

  17. The fact that testing is good, and that we agree on that is great.

    I’ve made the point a couple of times now: Neilsen and for the sake of inclusion, Jared Spool have spent years evaluating new techniques. That they adopt something or not comes down to their conclusions – it’s not that as you suggest they wait for it to be proven. It’s in their interests to be up with new developments – it’s their vocation.

    As to your second point then, the ‘idealists’ do not lose any advantage as they have been heavily involved; and due to their rigorousness they are probably more in tune than your ‘utopians’.

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