"What's Next?" was the question posed to the speakers at this year's Design Research Conference held by IIT's Institute of Design on May 10-12. In its 9th year, the DRC has seen Design Research go from a niche field to being internationally recognized as the leading way to understand people. In response, this year's organizers, student chairs Raphael D'Amico and Gene Young, focused on the new challenges Design Research faces now that it has become widely accepted.
Kicking off the conference was the ever-insightful and purposefully controversial Donald Norman. Rekindling the fire he started earlier this year in the Design Research community with his article "Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf," Norman challenged the crowd with his assertion that none of the major innovations to drastically alter society were the result of a needs-based approach. Instead, when it comes to revolutionary innovation the "technology comes first, applications second, and needs last." He argues that fundamentally Design Research does not lead to new product categories, despite the fact that radical innovation is what design companies prefer, what design contests reinforce, and what most consultants love to preach. Norman suggests that the most frequent gains provided by Design Research are incremental changes that fit comfortably into the existing product-delivery cycle. However, if innovation is driven by technology and not needs, what does this mean for human-centered design?
Donald Norman (top) and Rick Robinson.
Rick Robinson, co-founder of Elab (http://www.elab.com/), agreed that considering needs is "entirely beside the point, and an outdated way of thinking." Quite the loaded statement, Robinson supports this concept by explaining that needs refer to the motivations and drives of one person, and only captures a small piece of a complex and dynamic system. He contends that the field of Design Research has been in a "methodological malaise" for the past twenty years due to its preoccupation with methodology and its search for needs. To become "unstuck" the field needs to embrace openness and uncertainty. Doug Look of AutoDesk concurred with Robinson in his comment "its time to get over our fascination with methods and tools and focus on ways to influence." Look suggests one way that Design Research can be influential is by increasing communication and integration between business silos.
"Ethnographic research has become the security blanket of Design Research." - Rick Robinson
The next step for Design Research then is to get out of its own way. The methodologies that drive us to find "key insights" are simply bogging us down. According to Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, "we should spend a little less time scripting the play and more time building a stage for people to collaborate." Other conference speakers such as Martha Cotton of gravitytank and Heather Fraser of Rotman DesignWorks reiterated the value of collaboration in their talks.Martha Cotton made us think about how all the different components of business communicate and interface with one another with her music metaphor, 'We're in the band, but do we sound good together?' Currently it seems like business is creating a lot of noise instead of music when presented with the statistic that 75% of new products fail by Eric Wilmot, director of innovation at Wolff Olins. If, according to Wilmott, only 8% of customers are satisfied with the new products that are introduced to the market, despite the involvement of Design Research, clearly we need to re-think our business models and get the people we are designing for engaged and involved in their development. So how do we provide a structure that allows this communication and co-creation to happen? Heather Fraser suggests one solution; design researchers should function as translators that connect all of the stakeholders in a project.
"When it comes to ham and eggs, the pig is fully committed but the chicken is just involved." - Doug Look
Along these collaborative lines, IDEO is launching Open-IDEO this summer with the goal of creating open source innovation projects for social good. Its not about research techniques anymore, its about fostering communication between industry and society, and creating spaces where users have the opportunity to become co-creators in the design process. As Kim Erwin of IIT's Institute of Design so aptly put it, "Participants are no longer our lab rats but collaborators with us." Collaborative innovation may just be the term that best describes what's next for Design Research, where consumers are involved in the product development process and clients are forced out of their silos.
Corralling the capabilities of the internet and cloud-computing is going to radically alter how design researcher's interact with both their clients and users. The immergence of online research platforms such as Revelation and Qual-vu are already enabling design researchers to access hard-to-capture behaviors, establish greater intimacy with participants and foster relationships that exist location-independent. And this is just the beginning. Usman Haque developed his data brokerage platform Pachube for "the internet of things" to give clients the ability to store, share and discover real-time sensor, energy and environment data from objects, devices, and buildings around the world. Haque takes advantage of the ubiquity of sensors to show us the potential power and interesting relationships that can be formed by connecting and networking our environments.
Design researchers are uniquely positioned to facilitate collaborative innovation because of their established relationship to both culture and industry. Innovation is much more than pure technological advancement as Norman suggests. The temporal, social, economic, and political contexts of an innovation is equally if not more important to the success of the resulting product than the innovation itself. Kevin Starr, director of the Rainer Arnhold Fellows Program explained in his discussion of the recent products designed for developing countries that it is distribution channels, not new inventions, that are the challenge to measurably impacting poverty. A product isn't always the best solution to a problem, and as Cathy Huang, founder of China Bridge International, related, you can't take a few cultural insights and combine them together to create a successful product without understanding the societal values behind them.
"Invention is not innovation. Invention has to have socio-economic value to become innovation." - Bruce Nussbaum
What has been and always will be true about Design Research is its consideration of people. The future lies not in ignoring needs, but in broadening our horizons. We need to think about more than just insights. We need to be collaborators and co-creators not only with the companies we are designing for, but also the communities and individuals we are researching. The increasingly elaborate tools available to us will enable these connections to happen in both traditional fieldwork and through digital interactions. The present calls for new business models where design researchers will function as the translators between society and industry.
Image credits: Christopher Royer and Junyoung Yang, IIT Institute of Design.