Technology and consumer research: The chicken and the egg

It's funny how the planets sometimes align around a topic.  This week it's the chicken and the egg question regarding technology and consumer research. 

It all started last week when I was talking with a friend from a local technology start-up about the need to understand consumer (or other end-user in B2B situations) motivations in order to ensure the relevance of new product offerings.  Then today I saw two interesting posts that essentially dance around the same question; when developing breakthrough innovation, which comes first?  The first post is from Don Norman, and suggests that historically breakthrough innovations begin with technology, and that what he's calling design research to uncover unmet needs is only useful in developing incremental improvements.  The second post is from Roy Luebke and is a response to Norman's post, suggesting that design (observational) research can point to all types of innovations.

What was interesting was that I was able to agree and disagree with both of them, based on a) how narrowly or broadly consumer research is defined, and b) the expectations for what either research or technology will deliver.  Let's look at both.

First, Norman describes the tasks of design research, and points to the fact that pure technological invention was what drove the creation of many inventions from the airplane to text messaging.  And I would say that taken literally, he is correct.  If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I view contextual research as a source of information, not answers.  (I use the term contextual research because it does not focus the outcomes too narrowly.) And consumers could never be expected to come up with such breakthrough inventions as the ones he describes.  When viewing contextual research as a source for answers, the most you can expect is a good list of improvements to existing products.

Second, Norman then points out that it is technological invention that is the source of breakthrough innovation.  Again, he is right in that the inventions he described would not be possible without new technology.  However, they would not be successful if they didn't satisfy a consumer motivation.  In reality, consumers rarely change their behavior to accomodate technology.  They adopt when the technology is put into a form that seamlessly fits into their lives.  All of the inventions on Norman's list enable consumers to do something they already wanted to do (travel, communicate, etc), but in a better, faster, less expensive, etc way. Knowing the motivation ahead of time can save a lot of time and money, as well as help a company to define what business they are really in.

In that sense, Norman's post appears to be based on the idea that the consumer will give you the answer, and that after the technology is developed product success is hit or miss.  I would have to disagree with both of those assumptions.

On the other hand, Luebke acknowledges that learning from consumers can point to many different types of innovation.  That is true, but he doesn't comment on the fact that contextual research should be tailored to collecting the information that will inform the decision that needs to be made.  For example, a consumer can be asked directly to evaluate current product features.  Understanding their motivations, however, is what is necessary to guide the development of new products and services they would never think to ask for.  This is the type of constraint inventors typically love to solve with new technology.  This is how learning from consumers can drive technology development - it provides a purpose, not a directive.  This is where research and invention come together.

Ultimately it doesn't matter whether we are starting with a technology or a market segment.  Technology can certainly enable the creation of totally new products and services.  But these new products and services will not succeed unless they satisfy the market's motivations better than existing alternatives.