Who first conundrum surrounding product innovation and user needs

Recently, Don Norman, from The Nielsen Norman Group, posted (Technology First, Needs Last) what seems to be a provocative assertion that in product design, technology comes first, then it’s user needs. Put another way, of all the notable innovation to emerge the driver was technology (and not what UX design folk universally believe –  user observation and ethnography). Norman cites examples of how new products evolve when technologist take existing products and serendipitously produce innovative products. The examples include: “The Airplane, The Automobile, The Telephone, The Radio, The Television, The Computer, The Personal Computer, The Internet, SMS Text Messaging, and The Cellphone”

While still relatively new to the field of interaction design and all its associated family of off-shoots, I’ve found myself at a cross road of understanding. I’m looking for some clear thinking of what truly exists (of possible). The most frusting thing about the aforementioned assertions is it’s personally frustrating that I have no absolute stance. Let me continue and take a stab at it at this posts conclusion.

I’m currently reading Alan Coopers’, The Inmates Are Running The Asylum, in which Cooper begins by arguing that in a world of products operated by computer chips, products are being designed that do exactly what their programmers instruct them to do with very little user empathy. From his writings I deduce Cooper implies that we need to do more ethnography so that products offer better support and function to its users. Where technology leads it seems difficult to achieve this.

In James Kalbach’s post, Don Norman on Ethnography and Innovation, he counters Norman’s Edison example deducing:

“It would also appear that Edison did a type of ethnographic observation in inventing the light bulb”

My view of product design and innovation is that before a new product is realised many hours of work goes into understanding what users need or what would help better fulfill a users tasks. Time is spent observing – through ethnography and other methods – users and how they interact with their surroundings. Also, a great deal of time is spent truly understanding exactly what the problems are. Answering the ‘why do we need it?’ questions. After reading Norman’s piece I can see that there are alternative instances where innovation stems from evolution alone (using technology). As the world moves through the technology age, more and more instances of ‘technology-first’ will become evident.

My views are divided. I fully accept that new products (and services) are created by technologists first, especially nowaday’s for example in web applications, thus supporting Norman’s assertion. But, I also accept that there is a huge and essential role in understanding user needs that leads to innovative products development (and services).

Typographica’s food for information design

Typographica sketch

Typographica sketch

I don’t visit art exhibits however today I attended a UX Field trip event ,organised by Alice, exploring local art. Today’s visit took us to the Kemistry Gallery, in Shoreditch London to see Typographica (11 September – 31 October). I walked away feeling inspired by the cleverly curated collection of photographic pieces. I enjoyed the company of like-minded folks from our local London UX/IA social group http://london-ia.ning.com too.

The journal (Typographica) was founded by a 25 year-old Herbert Spencer, who went on to become one of the most influential British communication designers and typographers. Typographica’s pioneering content included concrete poetry, avant-garde type experiments and photo-documentary, all highlighting Spencer’s ability to fuse images and words in meaningful new relationships, and featured the work of, among many others, Dieter Rot, Robert Brownjohn and Alexander Rodchenko.

We spent time admiring and ‘seeing’ the many visual stories of snippets from 32 publications (two 16 part series: Old and New series) presented as re-prints around the gallery. I particularly enjoyed Hernert Spencer‘s “Mile-a-Minute” edition as well as his “Piet Zwart” piece. Robert Brownjohn’s “Street Level” was seriously inspiring too. I managed to take some sketch notes of interest bits. It gave me a chance to think a little harder stand-out snaps… one in particular was about the “juxtaposed, accidental or design” question posed after a photo appeared of a shop sign ‘ACCESSORIES’ with the first ‘C’ lying at an odd angle provoking that very question (juxtaposed, accidental or design).

After the viewing we spent some time catching up on studies, work and our mobile worlds… with special attention being played to the new social network iPhone/Android app, Foursquare.

Typographica Exhibit

Typographica Exhibit

Typographica Exhibit

Typographica Exhibit

Simple Service Design

When you think about rail services (especially the ones in the UK) a common problematic theme springs to mind. Time or punctuality seems to be the hardest attribute to get right and thus the common problem theme. Our trains (in the UK) are notoriously late and delays inevitable. If an rail operator like Southern Trains can get its timing perfected or at least improved then an element of its service design is achieved right?

If you can synchronise the controllers of its service then you head one step closer to this goal. If all its on-board conductors work off the same time then there are no individual excuses. “My watch is five minutes late“, “my watch is the synch’d with BBC time“, etc… every conductor having their own time system and subsequent time issues ensues.

So, how does a railway operator like Southern Trains ensure its entire operating workforce works off synchronised timing? Simple, every conductor in its operating work force – conductors actually on the trains – are issued with a satellite/radio frequency controlled and adjusted wrist watch.

I was given a demo by an on-board instructor this morning. He showed me how by depressing a button the second hand moves around the clock face to position 12, pauses for 5 secs while it locates the universal time signal, and finally adjusts the time. There is of course a few issues with this system. One I can think of is it relies on the user to re-sync manually. An periodic self-syncing system might be a better option?

Some of the advantages of this system I’ve identified are:

1. Train despatch times are synchronised
2. Train times are consistent
3. Conductor employees receive a perk (useful item of clothing issue)
4. Marketing exercise through branded design

The CEO’s office

How cool is this? I was recently given 30mins to meet with our CEO to discuss the rollout of the corporate wiki. I immediately noticed the unusual office decor and asked “Where?” The decor was old wall-paper from an previous exhibition that was going to be thrown away. The throw-away pieces were brought back to the office and put up on the walls. Neat huh? (and resourceful too)

The office wall

The office wall

Visitor profile sketch

Visitor profile page

I’m working on a project to design an online visitor experience ahead of an exhibition. Here I quickly grabbed pencil and paper and translated an idea on it. This lo-fi sketch will be transformed as more and more thought is put into it.