Filling Much Needed Holes

Column written for Interactions. © CACM, 2007. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. It may be redistributed for non-commercial use only, provided this paragraph is included.

One of my mentors, the distinguished American psychologist George Miller, once passed judgment on the contributions of a research scientist by stating "he has filled a much needed hole." The same judgment can be passed upon many products.

Much of our research, especially the ethnographic studies that watch people in their daily lives to find areas of potential support, aims to find unmet needs, to fill those necessary holes, those essential voids. Essential voids? Yes. Holes, gaps, and voids are essential to civilized life. They give us respite from the press of modern civilization, returning us to ourselves, with our own thoughts and our own resources. It is the space between things that allows us to be at peace with the world, to be in silence, to be undisturbed. Many things need to be done by people, by us. Doing gives a sense of accomplishment, of participation, of belonging, Doing, thinking, dreaming: all are needs best left unfilled by products and designs.

We need more unmet needs, not less. How many times do the never-ending ethnographic studies coupled with ever-eager design groups lead to unwanted, unnecessary, overburdening, and environmentally insensitive products? How many times are these unmet needs best left unmet? Why must we rush to fill the essential voids in our lives?

My comments were inspired by the remarks of John Thackara (2005, in van der Lugt & Stappers, 2006), commenting on a seminar on design research at the Delft University of Technology. Thackara worried about the frenzy to fill all those unmet needs. ”Why?” he wondered. I asked Pieter Jan Stappers, one of the seminar organizers, what he thought of the comments. Pieter Jan obviously approved:

Holes, the negative space, unstructured spaces, have always been important, especially in the areas of creative thinking, such as arts, design, science, and probably everyday life and religion. One danger in modern technology fitting closely into the patterns of people's lives, is that an efficiency drive takes over, with over-structuring as a result. (P. J. Stappers, email: 2007. Used with permission.)

Innovation is good, we are all told. Innovation is a growth industry, with books, seminars, and firms all devoted to promoting its virtues We teach our students – and our executives – to do field observations, to define and create, to brainstorm and innovate. Come up with the better idea and the world will rush to your door. We take existing products and tweak them, modify them. We add intelligence and features. The world of products grows ever more complex every year, every hour.

But most innovations fail. Most new products fail. What does that tell us about the unmet needs? Maybe most of them deserve to be unmet.

I fear that we have uncritically accepted a huge amount of baggage in our rush to turn human-centered design into a science. Personas sprout everywhere. Teams of ethnographers scour the land. Even marketers now claim to be doing ethnography instead of surveys and focus groups, although I fail to notice any difference in results. Everyone’s actions are being scrutinized, from office work to love making. As a result everything grows in complexity from kitchen toaster to the bathroom toilet.

Ethnographic research is fun. You get to go out into the world and watch, take pictures, satisfy your curiosity and inherent nosiness. Back at the office it is great fun to scribble notes, to post them on walls and rearrange them to form patterns. Then we can create personas, colorful little artificial people with cute, interesting lives, or maybe overstressed, over-busy lives. We delight at personas, at prototyping, at watching people go through their paces. New products galore. Innovation is the new hot topic. But does all of this activity lead to actual success in the marketplace? I fear not.

All across the world stores, catalogs, and internet shopping sites contain an endlessly proliferating choice of products. Do we need all of these things? Are they actually used? Or does every home have its own private cache of discarded gadgets, hidden away because they serve no useful function.

Designers take pride in innovation, but what percentage of new product innovations actually succeed in the market place? Estimates vary, but they range between 4 and 10%, depending upon which study you believe. In other words, 90 to 96% fail. That’s pretty miserable. It means that whatever we are doing, it isn’t the right thing.

Innovation is not a guarantee of success. Successful products must satisfy a large number of dimensions: form, function, value, design, marketing, production, distribution, sales and servicing. Successful products seldom stand alone, in isolation. Most are part of a strong product family that provides supportive infrastructure, where there is a solid platform that builds each individual product’s value and sustains it. Unmet needs? Essential voids? Let them be.

Lugt, R. v. d., & Stappers, P. J. (2006). Design and the growth of knowledge: Best practices and ingredients for successful design research. Delft, The Netherlands: Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Delft University of Technology. http://studiolab.io.tudelft.nl/symposium/

Don Norman wears many hats, including co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, Professor at Northwestern University, and author, his latest book being The Design of Future Things. He lives at www.jnd.org.