Ideas around Innovation: Technology vs. People

Psychologist/futurist, Don Norman makes a controversial argument saying that we (designers) “prefer to believe that conceptual breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs… the fact is that it simply doesn’t happen”. Norman says “the most powerful inventions do not consider design research”…

This idea is not new. Michael Hammer wrote about it in a 1990 Harvard Business Review entry “Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate,”. Hammer argued that IT must drive radical process innovation.

Norman supports the concept of “technology first, invention second and needs last” while Hartland believes to innovate “you need to identify a need… Many people have tried to innovate but because something similar had already existed, it is merely an improvement”.

Furthermore Hartland backs this up by stating that in order to take an innovative idea from concept to market, you need to have the determination to push through failure. It is estimated that 46% of all resources allocated to product development (in US firms) have failed to yield financial return. Anyone can come up with an amazing idea but not everyone can execute. How you execute will determine your success.

In the business world, one way to execute is to have front-line employees drive the change. If a project follows the people, then the process and then the technology, it will be successful.

MY THOUGHTS? If I define innovation as something that revolutionizes the way people behave, then I would say Technology comes first. If I define innovation as something that improves the way people behave, then it would be People first. However, even if you innovate the technology, you will still need design research to facilitate what is known as  ‘the diffusion of innovation’. Researching user needs will help fill the gap between technical and social innovation hurdles.


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