Don Norman on Ethnography and Innovation

Don Norman has a provocative article on his site about ethnography and design research. See “Technology First, Needs Last“. He gets right to the point, summarizing his basic premise in the first sentence:

I’ve come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs.

He goes on:

Myth: Use ethnographic observational studies to discover hidden, unmet needs. To achieve major conceptual breakthroughs, we should do ethnographic field study to understand the hidden unmet needs of our potential customers. Right or wrong? It all sounds logical: study people. Discover hidden, unmet needs. Fulfill those needs, and leap ahead of the competition, producing yet another wondrous advance.


But the real question is how much all this [design research] helps products? Very little. In fact, let me try to be even more provocative: although the deep and rich study of people’s lives is useful for incremental innovation, history shows that this is not how the brilliant, earth-shattering, revolutionary innovations come about.

He claims to have done some kind of investigation to arrive at this opinion:

I reached this conclusion through examination of a range of product innovations, most especially looking at those major conceptual breakthroughs that have had huge impact upon society as well as the more common, mundane small, continual improvements. Call one conceptual breakthrough, the other incremental. Although we would prefer to believe that conceptual breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs, especially fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the design research community, the fact is that it simply doesn’t happen. New conceptual breakthroughs are invariably driven by the development of new technologies

Interestingly enough, I had just finished reading an article in the Harvard Business Review called “The Innovator’s DNA” (Dec 2009) by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen. After extensive research of top executives, the authors identify five key qualities that separate innovative leaders from the non-so-innovative leaders: associating, questioning, experimenting, and networking, and observing. Regarding the latter—observing—Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, has this to say:

Often the surprises that lead to new business ideas come from watching other people work and live their lives.

A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Proctor and Gamble, is generally seen as a leading innovator amongst executives. He writes about how direct observation of customer behavior has lead to greater innovation at P&G in his book The Game Changer:

P&G spends more time living with people in their homes, shopping with them in stores, and being part of their lives. This total immersion leads to richer consumer insights, which helps identify innovation opportunities that are often missed by traditional research.

You’ve probably heard short sound bites like this before. For sure, such snippets alone don’t disprove Norman’s thesis. But if you look around a little more, you’ll find other contradictory evidence.

For instance, Indi Young, author of Mental Models, also has a recent posting that is somewhat related to this topic. See “Support Intentions, Not Existing Workflows”. Indi concludes:

When you spend time with people who might become someone you produce a service or a product for, concentrate on finding these underlying intentions. Deliberately jump past the details of how they execute something currently and spend time instead asking them what’s behind this step. What are they trying to accomplish besides the step itself? Frequently, people haven’t really thought past the steps, and your conversation turns into more of a psychotherapy session, helping the person work through the underlying issues and describe them for you. When this happens, you know you’re on the right track. With the results of several conversations like this, you can guide your organization into areas you hadn’t previously considered or been consciously aware of. This direction leads to services and products that support what a person really intends to do and makes their life smoother. And that is a very attractive proposition to most of us.

More formally, consider the results of the study “Ideation for product innovation: What are the best methods?” by Robert Cooper and Scott Edgett (2008, Stage-Gate). Ethnography emerged as the #1 method to foster innovation and creativity in organizations. The authors write:

Ethnography is ranked #1 of all methods among users, with a strong effectiveness score of 6.8 out of 10. (For comparison, the average effectiveness score for all 18 methods is 5.6, with a standard deviation of 0.73; so a score of 6.8 is, relatively speaking, “strong.”) The method provides perhaps the greatest insights and depth of knowledge into users’ unmet and unarticulated needs, applications, and problems of all the ideation approaches we studied, according to users.

Finally, the work of Sarah Miller Caldicott really flies in the face of what Norman is trying to say. She is the author of the book  Innovate Like Edison: The Five-Step System for Breakthrough Business Success, co-authored with Michael J. Gelb (Dutton Penguin, 2007), as well as the great-grandniece of Thomas Edison. She did a first-ever analysis of hundreds of thousands of documents in Edison’s collection in Menlo Park, NJ over the course of an intense three-year study.

Caldicott’s recent white paper for Strategyn is directly relevant to the debate of the effectiveness of needs versus technology: “Ideas first or needs-first: What would Edison say?”. In it she writes:

Edison learned a valuable lesson with this failure. He realized that his approach to innovation was somehow faulty. He began reshaping his efforts by redefining what success would need to look like for one of his inventions, and he decided that success was now going to be a function of utility; that is, a function of the ability to satisfy a customer need or a marketplace need. He said, “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.


He recognized that simply bringing hundreds of ideas to market would result in many failures. Being a man who was focused on efficiency and success, failure was an unattractive proposition. Edison realized that by understanding customer needs first, he could invent useful products more efficiently than he could otherwise.

It would also appear that Edison did a type of ethnographic observation in inventing the light bulb:

Edison’s trained teams visited people in their homes and watched how they used their current lighting products— kerosene, whale oil, and gas. The goal was to figure out what consumption chain jobs to consider and how to address them. This process enabled Edison to gain insight into all these critical jobs. From there, Edison worked with numerous employee teams to develop products that would address the consumption chain jobs. Products like the electric circuit, the on-off wall switch, the fuse box, electric meters, and dynamos that could power the entire lighting system were all invented. Edison received over 40 patents for these inventions. Yes, Edison invented the lightbulb, but within three years he also invented the entire system of electrical power distribution, along with the world’s first central power station. That’s fast, even by modern standards.

Here again, Edison’s needs-first approach enabled him to identify a large market and guided his research and development efforts. He was able to come up with a revolutionary lighting solution and address all the consumption chain jobs required to bring this solution to market. Because he kept his focus on exactly what customers needed, he could hone his product development timetable and production timetable very efficiently.

Caldicott concludes:

If your company wants to take a page out of Edison’s innovation playbook, it should start by discarding ideas-first thinking and adopt an effective needs-first approach to innovation. This crucial lesson enabled Edison to pioneer the creation of six industries and lead the United States to a century of prosperity—a feat that has not been duplicated since.

Compare this to Norman’s contention about how Edison worked:

Edison launched his first phonograph company within months of his invention: he never questioned the need.

Overall, it seems other examinations of innovation have proven the exact opposite of what Norman claims in his article. There is indeed a wealth of evidence that people’s needs can and should precede technology. And frankly, Norman’s “examination” seems more of the back-of-the-napkin type with several errors.

But does Norman have a point? Well, I guess it’s always good for us design researchers to step back and question our own practices. But I think there are two key arguments that speak against Norman’s main point:

  • First, there much more evidence from much more rigorous studies to suggest that ethnographic techniques and understanding people’s needs has preceded technical invention in the past.
  • Second, Norman seems to forget that there are different types of innovation, not just product innovation. There’s also process innovation, organizational innovation, business model innovation, and strategy innovation. The equation isn’t as simple as: research needs, then develop technologies (or vice-versa), as Norman suggests.

I’d actually argue that it’s better to understand customer needs before creating the strategy that allows technologists to start working on a given technology or not. That is: needs > strategy > technology. So needs do precede technology.

Everett Rogers, author of Diffusions of Innovations—the “bible” in innovation diffusion literature—also indicates that needs identification precedes the entire innovation process. In Chapter 4, “The Generation of Innovation,” he outlines six phases, the first of which is “recognizing a problem or need.” He writes:

The innovation-development process often begins with recognition of a problem or need, which stimulates research and development activities designed to create an innovation to solve the problem or need. (p. 137)

And later, in the discussion on “compatibility” as a factor of adoption rates, he writes:

One indication of the compatibility of an innovation is the degree to which it meets a felt need. Change agents seek to determine the needs of their clients and then to recommend innovations that fulfill these needs. Determining felt needs is not a simple matter, however. Change agents must have a high degree of empathy and rapport with their clients in order to assess their needs accurately. Informal probing in interpersonal contacts with individual clients, client advisory committees to change agencies, and surveys of clients are sometimes used to determine needs for innovations. (p. 146)

So innovations that are conceived around user needs from the very beginning (i.e., BEFORE technology) have a higher chance of adoption and therefore a higher chance of success. Norman alludes to Roger’s work saying:

The path of diffusion of innovation has been well studied, well documented. Most radical innovations fail. Those that succeed can take decades before they are successful.

But that’s the point: innovators generally want to increase their chances of succeeding from the beginning, even if only marginally. Needs identification up front helps with that, at least according to Rogers (among others).

Perhaps a quote from Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation, can shed some light onto this whole debate. He says:

Successful innovators spend as much time understanding the people they are designing for, their beliefs, feelings, values, and needs, as they do the technologies they’re using to build innovations, and the book offers the fundamentals on how to do this. So, the superiority of your mousetrap is sure nice in an ivory-tower setting, but if people—customers—can’t see why it’s superior, then the superiority is just your opinion. And sadly, I don’t know anyone who has made millions solely on the superiority of their own opinion.

Ultimately, I believe it’s not an either-or question, nor is it a first-last question. It’s a question of balance. This is what the HBR article “The Innovators DNA” suggests as well as detailed studies like those of Sarah Miller Caldicott. But since technology already gets so much attention, Norman’s basic claim “technology first, needs last” is in the end a more harmful perspective than helpful.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL


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  2. thanks, this is a very interesting, well-balanced discussion. cheers from milan

  3. This is a very eloquent response, in particular the last sentence “[it’s] more harmful than helpful” grabbed my attention – Norman has a voice he could be using to nurture the worthy and valuable design research, instead of knocking it back.

    The problem with Norman’s article is the lack of distinction between invention and a practice that helps organisations and teams.

    An inventor spends many years, maybe even a lifetime, pursuing a dream, grounded on understanding what’s wrong. What motivates that person, why do they stake their life, their house on pursuing it? Because they can see an opportunity to apply technology in a way that makes life better.

    People who work in organisations would not put their house on it, they would not put their life’s work on the line for it. That in itself is the problem – they won’t risk their job on it and Norman’s article just give’s employees grounds to do what’s easy…

    It’s easy to agree on a technology without a clear sense of it’s audience. What’s tough is to agree on a clear view of an audience that doesn’t know it could benefit from a new technology.

    Design research, ethnography or observation – finding the expectations of human beings and thinking of better ways to serve them should be where it all begins. This article explains that brilliantly, well done!

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  6. Ben

    I actually found Norman’s article as interesting as this one – the response to it. Instead of thinking it as wrong/right/first/last, think of it as cause/effect. So in order to accelerate what Norman talks about – new technology takes a decade to adopt, would ethnographic studies drive it faster?

    Maybe not so because the propensity of human behavior to be cynical (which btw doesn’t work anymore), and especially nowadays with so many regulations and red tape to go through (in those nanny countries), it could take longer.

    Driving technology with needs first is indeed a challenge especially when technology doesn’t exist yet. Throw in some urgency where lives are at stake and you take away all the nannying and accelerate the process.

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