“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
— attributed to Henry Ford

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Steve Jobs

In his 2010 article “Technology first, needs last” renowned design professor Don Norman came to a disconcerting conclusion:

Design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs.

[…] Although we would prefer to believe that conceptual breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs, especially fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the design research community, the fact is that it simply doesn’t happen.

New conceptual breakthroughs are invariably driven by the development of new technologies.

The new technologies, in turn, inspire technologists to invent things, not sometimes because they themselves dream of having their capabilities, but many times simply because they can build them. In other words, grand conceptual inventions happen because technology has finally made them possible.

Do people need them? That question is answered over the next several decades as the technology moves from technical demonstration, to product, to failure, or perhaps to slow acceptance in the commercial world where slowly, after considerable time, the products and applications are jointly evolve, and slowly the need develops.

[…] But if you examine the business impact of innovation, you will soon discover that the most frequent gains come from the small, incremental innovations, changes that lower costs, add some simple features, and smooth out the rough edges of a product. Most innovations are small, relatively simple, and fit comfortably into the established rhythm and competencies of the existing product delivery cycle.

Successful revolutionary innovation is rare. In any given arena, it happens only a few times per decade. Why? In part because it is difficult to invent a new concept that truly fits people’s lives and needs. In part, it is because existing products already satisfy most people and when the new concepts appear, the older, existing technologies have a remarkable way of rising to the challenge and sustaining themselves for years – decades even – long after people thought they would disappear. […].

Major innovation comes from technologists who have little understanding of all this [design] research stuff: they invent because they are inventors. They create for the same reason that people climb mountains: to demonstrate that they can do so. Most of these inventions fail, but the ones that succeed change our lives.

Build it and they might come?

If you disagree with Don Norman’s view – that he subsequently refined in a presentation on “Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research versus Technology and Meaning Change” together with Roberto Verganti – you may want to consult Bruce Neumann’s objections documented in “Technology Vs. Design – What is the Source of Innovation?“. Then again, Mr. Neumann has meanwhile distanced himself somewhat from the “Design Thinking” movement.

Norman has a model of innovation that is top-down, one-way and very old. It goes this way. Engineers invent. Marketeers construct products around the new technology. Designers put on a pretty face. And then the stuff is thrown at the consumer marketplace, with the hope that it finds a need or a want. In the past, sometimes it did. Often it didn’t.
Thanks to design thinking and new tools and methods in ethnographic research, we now have a new model of innovation that is flat, open-source and dynamic. It pulls people into an engagement with technologists early and perhaps more productively, rather than have them wait for technologies that may evolve into innovations they can actually use. Ethnographic research is especially important in an era of co-creation and social media, where consumers demand a say in creating the products and services they use.

I take note of Neumann’s quote, though:

Invention has to have socio-economic value to become innovation. It has to be socialized or else it sits in the lab.

Technology-Push or Marketing-Pull?
See the “Typology of Innovation” blog entry for further categorization of innovation types.