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).