The Research-Product Gap

Bernhard Kappe
Bernhard Kappe

This post was previously on the Pathfinder Software site. Pathfinder Software changed its name to Orthogonal in 2016. Read more.

What I will talk about at DRC is the ‘research-product’ gap. I just gave a talk at the Stanford D School about some of these issues. I discussed the research-product gap. This didn’t concern them. I said that if they were not interested in how their work got into a product, they were wasting their time.

“And they said, ‘We’re just doing the research, we’re not responsible for the product.’ And that’s the problem (even with you folks at the Institute of Design). You guys do the research – who does the product? And you complain, ‘Why don’t they ever take our brilliant ideas and make them into products?’

“If you look back in history to before design research existed and take the lightbulb, the telephone, the automobile, television, radio—none of those came out of design research. I challenge people to give me a counterexample. Give me one major breakthrough that came because of design research – nobody has yet succeeded.”

Don Norman, Nielsen Norman Group

DN: No – It’s the way to come up with new uses, and modifications to things that exist. The important breakthroughs, which only happen every couple of years, never come out of design research. If you look back in history to before design research existed and take the light bulb, the telephone, the automobile, television, radio; none of those came out of design research.

[Verganti, Design Driven Innovation]

But Apple usually leads the way. I think the iPad is going to dramatically affect the design of laptops. It’s interesting what it does not have. For example, no external storage: it assumes that we’re all living in the cloud. The iPad isn’t really about production, it’s about consumption, entertainment and watching.

That said, the thing that intrigues me most about the iPad is the iWork suite. A spreadsheet, presentation tool, and word processor, all controlled with your finger. And they did it very nicely from what I can tell. Obviously, none of us have used it yet, but I think that’s going to be a major change. People think it’s killing e-books, but really it’s killing laptops.

DN: Inventors are the creative ones, and it’s almost always driven by some new technology. They see it and wonder if they could use it, so they create something. Sometimes it’s something they need for themselves, and they think everybody will too, or they build it just because they can. Most of these fail, but occasionally they don’t, and then design researchers can come along to find the real use and also make it work better. Often these inventions are only usable by the very dedicated early adopter.

My favorite story about Thomas Edison: he invented the phonograph and six months later he had a factory making them. He didn’t waste any time. But what was it for? He said he had invented the paperless office. It took a competitor to discover that the killer application was pre-recorded music by the great musicians of the day.

Gene Young: So inventions are this generative force that happens almost randomly, and once they’ve started to take shape, design research can come in and reconceptualize or refine them.

DN: Right. I’m not saying that’s the way it has to be, I’m just saying that’s the way it is. Maybe that will change in the future.

RD: So can you think of any people or companies who are bridging that gap?

DN: When I have this conversation with my friends, they always give me examples: XEROX PARC, Microsoft, IBM, Intel research labs. In my opinion, every one of those fails, they always have the same problem.

DN: That’s good, and that’s where design research is good, but it’s also consistent with my argument. That’s taking an existing product, seeing its flaws and making it better. I’m not arguing that design research is worthless – it’s extremely valuable for the transformation of an existing product – but it has its limits.

Design research is at its best when the product is out on the market and people are interacting with it. But anyway I’m part of the design research community, so if I’m going to go out and scold them in this way, it’s from a friend to a friend. Let’s think about what we’re doing and do it better.

Complexity is in the world, simplicity is in the head. The more you understand, the simpler things become. So the real trick is understanding.

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