Does usability hinder innovation? (Was RE: ADMIN:)

20 Jul 2004 - 12:18pm
1024 reads
Gerard Torenvliet

Dan quoted Nico Macdonald who wrote:

> "Usability can be used to improve an innovation, but
> it can't drive innovation...Usability has come to dominate
> thinking about the design process...Too much user focus
> may be a barrier to innovation. Research is likely to tell us
> that users desire an improvement on something they
> already understand. Ask them if they would use a
> proposed innovation and they will say no - and then adopt
> it when they have seen its utility demonstrated.
> Recognising this, designers should rise above the interests
> of particular users and push their own intuition for innovation.
> They might note the sentiment of BBC titan Lord Reith, who
> when asked whether he was going to give the people what
> they wanted, replied: "No. Something better than that."

Since we're trying to get clean on terminology here, I'd like to suggest that what Dan and Nico MacDonald are getting at is similar to Don Norman's argument in his recent book, Emotional Design.

Norman muses that design can be successful on three levels:

1. Visceral - something that is just appealing
2. Behavioural - something that works well
3. Reflective - something that you can reflect on and appreciate

For example, I write with a fountain pen. I think that they write smoothly and clearly, so they score high on one aspect of behavioural design. However, they require refilling and cleaning, and can be messy - so they score much lower than ballpoints on other aspects of behavioural design. Reflectively, though, is where they have the most appeal for me - I like the *thought* of writing with a fountain pen. If somebody wants to contribute a nice Mont Blanc pen to my cause, then I'll have a great visceral experience as well.

It is true that a strict focus on behavioural designs - things that work well are easy to use - *can* lead to designs that are boring. They work well, but who enjoys using them? It is also true that there is lots of scientific and quasi-scientific research published on doing behavioural design well.

So, to ease up the burden on the terms we're using around here, I'd like to suggest that it isn't usability that hinders innovation, but the type of usability that optimizes designs only on the dimension of behavioural design. Or rather, it is a one-sided focus on behavioural design (or visceral design, or reflective design) that hinders innovation. Truly innovative designs take all of these things into account and makes decisions about which are most important for a given context. I design devices for pilots to use while flying aircraft - behavioural design holds the trump card, and actually produces the best innovations. Someone else might work in a much more consumer oriented, and marketing-driven domain - then visceral or reflective design might be the keys to innovation.

Does that clarify anything? Any comments to build on this?


:: Gerard Torenvliet / gerard.torenvliet at
:: Human Factors Engineering Design Specialist
:: CMC Electronics Inc.
:: Ph - 613 592 7400 x 2613
:: Fx - 613 592 7432
:: 415 Legget Drive, P.O. Box 13330
:: Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA, K2K 2B2

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