Saturday, December 26, 2009

Design vs. Technology

There is a good article over on BusinessWeek about the nature of technology vs. design thinking in the innovation process. Folks like Don Norman and PARC director Mark Bernstein commented. My commentary submitted as below:

Norman's conclusion comes from the view that technology tends to precede design thinking. That is, a new technique or technology is invented first, before design thinking takes over and refines it. Refinement requires the understanding of user needs, which is the focus of the design research. So the mobile phone and mobile communication is invented first, and took Apple to refine it into the iPhone experience. The invention of the mobile communication is the disruption, and the iPhone impact, while great, is a good refinement of the original invention.

But, the real world is messy, you'd say---sometimes the need precedes the invention, and other times it follows. I'd say "Yet other times, they co-evolve." The invention of laser printing is a good example of the need and the technology co-evolving. The need to mass produce paper documents had been around for a long time. But later as people started using computers, the need to translate graphics on the screen into marks on paper evolved at the same time. I suppose one could argue that Xerography was the invention, and laser printing was merely a refinement. We can go round and round on that debate and not get anywhere.

Ultimately, the measuring stick that we ought to use is the amount of impact each (tech vs. design) brings to the innovation process. The question is "How much impact does either design or technology eventually deliver?" I think Norman is mostly right. It is much easier to think of major disruptions coming from the technology side. Not many people (at least not the general public) thought about wanting a personal computer back in the 70s when it was being invented at PARC. To wit, that's why it we call it a "disruption"! It disrupts current ways of doing things. There is an element of surprise in the "disruption", suggesting that the need might not have been there yet.