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).

Good website signup practice

With so many websites competing to attract users – to sign up for their products/services – it becomes increasingly important to make sure the website’s sign-up process is easy and obvious to use, and appeals to the prospective user. A technique used by designers (and An Event Apart designers) is to remove the ‘technical face’ from the sign-up process. Users feel more at ease with site and this builds trust with its owners.

Specific elements about this design I like include:

  • Join the mailing list!” – no machine-generated words like ‘subscribe’
  • Don’t” – avoiding words like ‘Do not’ – casual and human language
  • required” – avoiding the commonly used asterisk ‘*’ minimising user confusion. Making it readable also helps with screen readers too
  • Email address box that spans the entire page – making it obvious where the email address is entered
  • Pretty HTML” – understandable words for non-tech users (not everyone understands what HTML means)
  • We swear on a stack of W3C specifications” – using humour to soften the important stuff and not scaring subscribers off.

A heuristic evaluation

The usability ‘guru’

I seem to be known as the usability or website guru at work. Don’t get me wrong, I love it and flattered, but importantly I’m slowly crafting a UX (user experience) culture within the office. The biggest problem I have, however, is I’m usually drafted in at a very late stage – usually just before it’s about to go live. I know I’m not alone here – especially in the corporate world – so I know it’s common.

A typical scenario -email transcript – might look like this:

Hi Rob,

Please could you run your checks over my designs? I need to send it back to the designers tomorrow so could I have your feedback as soon as possible please?


– the requester –

“..run your checks..” It’s quite comical, but at least I’m asked so I can’t complain. The trick is to embrace the request and respond (to the requester) in an interested manner.

My lo-fi heuristic evaluation (feedback)

I need to be sensitive to my clients needs. Instead of diving into full scale heuristic – strengths and weaknesses – evaluation, I start basic quick wins feedback they can take to their designers now (before it goes live). I start by printing the visual on an A4 piece of paper and attaching it on to an A3 piece. This gives me plenty around the artwork of space to add my comments, draw lines, speech bubbles, add post-it notes, and even attach cut-out printed Twitter feedback tweet (after I’ve internally posted). I ensure the artifact has lots of colour and activity – making it look interesting and appealing. Once the piece is littered with ‘constructive’ feedback I present it in person for a walk-through. I preferably go to the clients desk so that our walk-through is ‘on show’ for all to see.

I ensure the feedback piece is left with the client so that the UX legacy is left behind – for reference and reminder.

The outcomes

The early results speak for themselves. I’ve been receiving direct and indirect feedback on how it has helped and how they appreciate all the effort. Whilst I’ve not seen earlier requests for help yet, I’m confident that will change.

My 5 most influential books

The most important bookshelf

I’ve been meaning to write a post about my beloved books. In the last four years I’ve really found a facination for books. Before that I may have read (cover to cover) two books in my entire life – even at school I avoided them.

Now days, however, I have to hold myself back (buying new books) – unless the deal (usually Amazon) is too hard to ignore. And of course Amazon doesn’t help that cause either. Their retail marketing precision is faultless. I get my weekly Amazon email with recommended books – a must-read email. The ease-of-purchase process is within touching distance – the one-click purchase option.

So I decided to take a look at my books and hightlight the 5 I thought have most influenced me and my career (and my life in some ways):

1. Communicating Design
Dan Brown

Communicating Design


2. Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide
Amy Sheun

A Strategy Guide


3. Purple Cow
Seth Godin

Purple Cow


4. Don’t make me think
Steve Krug

Don't make me think


5. The Principles of Beautiful Web Design
Jason Beaird

The Principles of Beautiful Web Design

Usability testing

One thing I love about my job – Digital Manager – is its wide ranging activity set. I get involved in various activities like email marketing, web design & feedback, formalisation of online procedures & spec writing, strategy consultations, community building and much more (perhaps another post). One area I’ve not done much work in is Usability Testing (which I love), however this week is quite different.

Yesterday I met two guys – Phil & Cyprian – from Webcredible (Usability Specialists) for a kick-off meeting ahead of two tests we’ll be conducting next week. Today I meet Leisa Reichelt (Disambiquity.com) to participate as a test subject in the Drupal.org redesign project – an open community-driven feedback project.

My career tides are changing and I’m slowly moving into activity areas I love and feel our business needs to focus on (and where I’m best suited).

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