Inspiration comes in many forms- from desert landscapes to scientific exploration to seeing someone struggle and realizing a way to help them. Inspiration can lead to great design but when does creation prove to be useful or meaningful, to have value? Where does technology come into play and what is innovation?
Last week in Theory, we discussed excerpts regarding need, value, inspiration, context and innovation by five authors: Don Norman, renowned technologist and professor; Jon Kolko, designer and AC4D founder; Bill Gaver, Professor of Design at Goldsmiths University of London; Liz Sanders, Design Researcher; and Paul Dourish, computer scientist and professor at the University of California. In this post I review their arguments, filter their positions through my own lens, and illustrate those positions with a comic.
Let’s begin with Don Norman.
In “Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf” Norman writes several purposefully controversial remarks about design research and innovation in order to provoke us to “reconsider ideas they take for granted.” The final statement he makes, attempting to sum up many diverse arguments against Design Research is, “One thousand years ago people did not have a need for email or not even for the telephone: It took the existence of technologies to make these activities possible, which slowly determined the need.”
Yes, as new technologies are developed, they can become a need but need does not arise from the invention of the new technology- it moves to the most valuable iteration of that technology.
Our needs are basically unchanged from early man- we need to eat and drink, sleep and communicate with one another. Have we built socially and technologically advanced ways of doing that? Yes, but every major shift in technology came from a previous major shift.
A cell phone is a perfect example. Although the technology is imaginative and now very valuable, it was preceded by the once valued landline telephone. That was preceded by morse code and before that was smoke signals. Each advancement was considered innovative in their time.
Innovation is the advancement and eventual adaptation of technology. New technology can only be innovative if adopted as useful or meaningful by the end user, not the creator. Kolko refers to Vogel’s definition of innovation as “a valued leap from the viewpoint of the consumer.”
So let’s explore this idea with a comic about ancient technology, re-applied: socks.
Earl is an early man. He sleeps in caves, kills animals for food and drinks water from glacial melt. Earl has a problem- his feet are always cold and they get blisters from walking around. Earl tries and succeeds to fasten a covering for his feet from the hyde of a wild animal. Earl has invented socks or shoes or both.
In this ancient instance, a need developed and Earl looked for a solution in his natural environment. Need preceded invention and technology. But this is the dawn of man- let’s flip to more modern time, the 70s.
Vast technologies have change the shoe market. Nike storms onto the scene in the 70s with simple shoes to support the burgeoning indie running movement.
A couple of decades and several incremental improvements later, the shoe is relatively unchanged. It is a multi-layered outer meant to be comfortable but remain rigid for support. It’s made of dozens of materials and although it’s better-looking, the fit is clumsy and ill-suited to the variety of feet in the world. It causes runners grief but it’s the best we have so we deal with it.
Again, need comes first: a need for a material exponentially different than what is currently available. Where can Nike begin? They decide the best place to get a feel for what runners are experiencing is on the track and on the streets but why is going there so important?
In “What we talk about when we talk about context,” Paul Dourish guides us through a complicated web of evolving definitions of context. If we think context is fixed then we can definitely design something brilliant for runners from the confines of an office. By doing so, we limit technology to existing and definitive constructs. If we think of context as a product of each individual interaction between every person and their environment then we need to go see the activity being done, do it with someone, share in that experience, and observe what happens. Only then can we create something that is truly adaptable and valuable to the ever-changing human experience. Paul goes on to write,
“Users, not designers, determine the meaning of the technologies that they use, through the ways in which they incorporate them into practice. Accordingly, the focus of the design is not simply “how can people get their work done,” but “how can people create their own meanings and uses for the [product] in use”; and in turn, this suggests an open approach in which users are active participants in the emergence of ways of working.
The Nike research team hangs out with runners. They stretch with them, run with them and cool down with them. They talk about everything- all within the context of each runners life.
Something keeps happening. They watch over and over as runners take off their shoes and socks and put a fresh pair of socks on. They ask why and the runners explain, “it feels good on my feet- like a second skin with some support.”
Ah-ha! The Nike design research team strikes gold! “Let’s make shoes for runners that feel like socks!”
The Nike researchers return to what they call, Innovative Kitchen. They figured out a few years back that if they wanted to stay at the front edge of the marketplace, they needed to work with specialists in every facet of their business, including the most important- the end-user or customer so they developed a lab of sorts to make space for collaboration.
Each author, whether or not they touch on it in these readings, believes in studio culture: artists, tinkerers, engineers, designers, researchers, programmers, scientists- great minds under one roof, focused on a similar topic, challenge or problem.
Liz Sanders and George Simons write, “Co-creation […] involves the integration of experts and everyday people working closely together. […] Multiple divergent points of view need to be expressed, listened to and discussed. Empathy between co-creators is essential.”
They take it a step further. “Moving co-creation from the company to the people it serves […]” has the greatest potential to create social value. How do we do that in a real life setting?
The Nike team does this by welcoming runners into their collaborative space to work alongside designers, programmers, engineers, and scientists as “co-designers” as they attempt to develop a valuable product.
The team is assembled. There’s just one problem. No one has any clue how to make a supportive, breathable, lightweight running shoe that’s like a sock.
This brings us back to Norman who says, “new technologies […] inspire technologists to invent things.”New and interesting technology was once a novel thing- something that we reveled in, that we were excited to see just because it was shiny and new. Today, technology is ubiquitous. It’s not enough to say what new and shiny thing can I invent? We are flooded with technology and therefore you have to ask, “what should I create?”
In this instance, the Nike team is inspired by their customer- runners. They have a collaborative team synthesizing runner interviews and observations into opportunities for design. By keeping the customer or user at the center of their process, each designer is confined to a specific set of needs and simultaneously free to search their environment and new materials for potentially useful and meaningful technology.
We make space for new technological advancements because we are empathetic to our customers or users and understand their needs.A team member comes back to the Innovation Kitchen with a photo of a suspension bridge and old bridge plans drawn by engineers in the 1930s. He spreads the images on a table and the team embarks on a 4 year collective journey developing a new fiber called Flywire. Out of that comes the Nike Flyknit- the lightest, best-fitting, least wasteful shoe to ever hit the market. Runners and walkers alike snatched up the Flyknit and with their adoption, have made it a truly valuable product.
Why is this my illustration of value? Revolutionary tools existed before we made use of them. It is only through their use that become valuable to us and the same goes for other species.
A new product or service can be inherently valuable when we put the end user at the center of the design process.
DISCLAIMER: THE EVENTS IN THIS BLOG POST ARE BASED ON A TRUE STORY BUT LOADED WITH FICTION. IF YOU WANT TO READ THE REAL STORY, CLICK HERE.