Research: Innovation or Understanding?

by September 13, 2006

A few recent articles have argued that some forms of design research are not optimized to yield true inventions. In We Can’t Leave Innovation Up to Our Users, Kathy Sierra states:

“Our users will drive incremental improvements. But the user community can't do the revolutionary innovation for us. That's up to us. The world never needed the iPod until Apple created it. Now, look how many of us could not live without it.”

In Why Doing User Observation First is Wrong, Don Norman points out that:

“Most projects are enhancements of preexisting projects. Why do we have to start studying the users all over again? Haven’t we already learned a lot about them? Usability testing is like Beta testing of software. It should never be used to determine “what users need.”

Having just participated in an almost complete spectrum of user research from usability testing to home visits to “unfocus groups” to usage data analysis, for me, truly innovative concepts were not the real value-add any of these techniques provided. Instead, the summation of these techniques painted a very clear picture of a potential audience: their behaviors, motivations, perspectives, and more. It’s this type of understanding that for me (I can’t speak for all designers) is perhaps the core value of research.

It’s not research to find where “x marks the spot” and a treasure of innovation is buried. It’s research to understand people, context, and as a result current and future behavior.