Design Research and Innovation: An Interview with Don Norman

Last week I got the chance to interview one of my heroes: Don Norman. This May he will be one of the keynote speakers at UX Lisbon in Portugal. I spoke to him about innovation, design research, and emotional design.

UX Lisbon

Three day conference happening in the lovely Lisbon Portugal. The 2012 event will take place from 16 to 18 May.

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Jeroen van Geel: Earlier this year you wrote that design research doesn’t innovate, technology does. This caused quite a discussion. What were the main counterexamples you got back?

Donald Norman: No, that’s not what I said. And indeed, that is the main problem with the reaction I got: many people never read my post or listened to my talk: they simply reacted. (The people who did consider it thoughtfully were very favorable; in fact, I was invited to give it at several places, like Delft and the Copenhagen Business School).

Innovation is a very complex topic, very thoroughly discussed in academia, which is not something most designers follow. The important points are these: There are many forms of innovation–process, product, radical, incremental, and so on. I considered two forms of product innovation: radical (e.g., the invention of the telephone) and incremental (e.g., releasing a new version of a mobile phone, automobile, or kitchen appliance). Radical innovation in the products, I argued, always comes from the works of inventors, excited by some new technology and anxious to explore its potential. I do not know of a single radical innovation that has come from the people who do design research. Not the telephone or automobile, not Facebook or Twitter. Not 3D television nor, for that matter, high-definition television. Not hybrid autos. Not the Internet itself. Market studies, market research, design research, field observations (ethnographic studies), etc., do not yield radical innovations. They are very important in finding new uses of and improvements to existing products, but these are incremental innovations, not radical ones.

Incremental innovation is very important. Over 90% of the radical innovations fail (some of my friends say 99%). Yes, when they happen they change lives, but think about it: how many radical new product innovations have you experienced in your lifetime? One? Ten? Even if it was 100 that is still relatively infrequent compared to the thousands of incremental product innovations every day.

Moreover, radical innovation almost always starts off being inferior to what already exists: it takes good design research to transform that radical idea into something that is appealing to the world.

Alas, we train our design students to do radical innovation, even though in the real world, these radical ideas will almost certainly fail, even though they will be asked to do incremental innovation in their practice, and even though the evidence says that the radical innovations come from anywhere, and often take years or even decades before their worth is understood and appreciated.

In other words: we are not facing facts. We shy away from truth. We are delusional.

One of your points is that there is a gap between research and practice. What did you mean? Do you see any way of changing this?

Don Norman

Don Norman

Unfortunately, the term “research” has two very different meanings in design. One is the way it is interpreted by practitioners: design research is the early studies of the needs and characteristics of the people for whom the product or service is being produced. Let me call this “Design Studies.” The other is the interpretation by the university academic community as well as industrial research laboratories, where research is an activity aimed at increasing our fundamental knowledge in a field or of producing new concepts, ideas, and realizations. Let me use the term “research” for this activity. Both have gaps.

Design studies are often clever, engaging, and entertaining. But the relationship between the knowledge gained and the design of the product is often forgotten. Those who do design studies are often applied social scientists–not designers–and they often fail to frame either their studies or their results in ways that are meaningful to the design team. Many design teams simply ignore their reports. Now, I hasten to add that in many design firms, the design studies are done jointly with the design team, so this gap does not exist. But I find this to be the exception, not the rule.

Research, on the other hand, is aimed at the development of new knowledge and concepts, new ideas, and realizations of those ideas. Researchers often push technology to the limit, demonstrating compelling, engaging prototypes. But they are seldom practical. Here the gap between research and practice is fundamental: I do not believe it can be bridged easily. This is because the goals, motives, and even personalities of the research teams differ from those of the practitioners. One wants deep understanding, the other wants to know what to do next. One is happy as soon as an idea has been demonstrated, even if it is held together only by tape, string and mirrors–that is, even if it only works on special cases and requires careful attendance and repair by the research group. The practitioner wants something complete, robust, and reliable. Researchers are incapable of delivering this; they are too curious, too driven to learn new knowledge. The practitioner is too practical.

The design studies-practice gap can be overcome by better training of the design studies people, better integration of design teams, and better attention to the needs of the product team. The research-practice gap can only be overcome by an intermediary: a translation team that translates the research knowledge into practical realizations that the product teams can develop and deploy.

On emotional design

How far can we take the concept of “emotional design” in the nuts and bolts of a product? Do you believe it can infuse every aspect of the design process?

Emotion is so fundamental to human behavior that the answers are: “all the way” and “yes.”

While product designers have been designing personality into products for quite some time, it’s still very new in web design. Do you think we can design websites with a personality?

Don Norman: Not only is the answer “yes,” but we already do so. Everything has a personality: everything sends an emotional signal. Even where this was not the intention of the designer, the people who view the website infer personalities and experience emotions. Bad websites have horrible personalities and instill horrid emotional states in their users, usually unwittingly.

Everything has a personality: everything sends an emotional signal. Even where this was not the intention of the designer, the people who view the website infer personalities and experience emotions.

We need to design things–products, websites, services–to convey whatever personality and emotions are desired. Sometimes these might be negative. Mostly they should be positive.

You know about personas? Well, in design we should always create a persona for the product and ensure that everything in that product is consistent with that persona.

Ecosystems & Design Thinking

In your book Living with Complexity, you state that products become stronger when they are part of an ecosystem. One of the obvious examples here is Apple–why do you think they were so early in adapting the model of an ecosystem? What makes them different?

Because Apple has always had a mission: to make technology understandable and easy to use. It has always put this first. (There was a period when Apple lost its way and stumbled badly in the jungle of ill-conceived products, but fortunately for all of us, Apple got back on track and now leads the way for others.)

When a company or design team wants to start working on an ecosystem, where should they start?

From the beginning: think through every single aspect of a product or service, from when the person first hears about it, to the advertisements, sales, and purchase experience. to the packaging and installation, to usage, service and updating, and to the products and services with which it must interact. Make sure everything fits the proper persona –the proper image. Finally, think of the end-of-life experience. Updating and/or replacing the item so that the transition from the old to the new is painless: no settings lost, no data, no personalization. And make it kind to the environment.

Think systems.

A lot of people, including many designers, believe that “design thinking” has become too detached from reality and too cocky. What are your thoughts? Do designers really have something different to offer from anyone else? If so, what?

Here I refer you to my Core77 essay on the topic.

As one of the pioneers of our field, where do you get your inspiration from? What is for you the best way to stay energized?

Stay curious. Always be learning new topics. I make it a point to learn a completely new topic every year. And I talk mostly with my critics. When people agree with me, it may feel good, but I don’t learn anything. I learn from those who disagree–that is, if they are intelligent and cogent, with good reasons for the disagreement. When the reasons are good enough, I’ll change my mind. But even if I remain unconvinced, i will have learned through the process.

Or as the old saying goes: Take your work seriously, but never take yourself seriously.

So let’s end with some light stuff. What book did you last read?

Ian Morris, Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future. This is an extremely important book: read the first chapter, then Section 3, then section 1. Skip Section 2, unless you are a deep history buff.

This year you’ll be a keynote speaker at UX Lisbon. Could you share with us what your talk will be about?

I never know what I am going to say until the night before. I get energized talking with the conference attendees. Quite often I change my mind at the last possible moment. What will I talk about at Lisbon? I don’t know. It might say in the program, but I never pay attention to whatever I told the conference organizers because they insisted even though I didn’t have the slightest idea. I want the audience to be surprised: actually, the person who is often most surprised by what I end of saying is me.

Thank you so much for your time. We look forward to seeing you in Lisbon.

You are quite welcome.

UX Lisbon 2011

Don Norman will be a keynote speaker at UX Lx: User Experience Lisbon, one of Europe’s premier user experience events. The second annual UX Lx conference takes place May 11-13, 2011 in Lisbon, Portugal.

Jeroen van Geel

Jeroen van Geel is founder/chief kahuna of Johnny Holland and the interaction director at Fabrique [brands, design & interaction], a Dutch multidisciplinary design agency. You can follow him on Twitter via @jeroenvangeel.