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Home > Jeff Ubois > Design-Push Innovation: Changing Accepted Meanings (part 1)

Design-Push Innovation: Changing Accepted Meanings (part 1)

by Redazione FGB [1], 19 March 2008

An interview with Roberto Verganti [2]

Roberto Verganti is a visiting scholar in the Technology and Operations Management unit at the Harvard Business School, and Professor of Management of Innovation at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy. His research explores the management of innovation, particularly design driven innovation in rapidly changing environments.

In this interview, we discuss different types of design innovation, ranging from incremental approaches (such as user-centered design) to more radical, "design-push" innovations that change the meaning associated with products and services. But how can responsibility can be assessed in the context of different types of design innovation? What is the new roles for media, political, and corporate leaders? Can product liability drive greater responsibility in innovation?

"Design is making sense of things. My model is that you can improve the technology and the performance of a product, but you can also change its meaning," Verganti explains. "The point is that changes in meaning can bring as much disruption in society as technological change."

Ubois:
Can we start at a high level with a general explanation of work on design push innovation, how it is distinct from technology driven or market pull innovation? Maybe we could talk some about the characteristics of that to start, and then maybe we can get into the responsibilities that innovators following that discipline would have.

Verganti:
Yes, as I said, there are different types of innovation. One is technology push, innovation that starts from the dynamics of research in laboratories, basically. Engineers put together chunks of different technologies to find new combinations and new applications that solve general problems that result in radical, big changes. The other type is market pull, which is innovation that starts from a better understanding of people's needs. This kind of innovation tends to be more incremental because people hardly help you to envision new possibilities. Users help designers to improve what they already know. User centered design is part of this market-pull innovation because it tries only to better understand what things mean for people already, in order to give them a product that they're satisfied with. The purpose of user centered innovation is to bring forth existing meanings and meet existing needs of people.

Ubois:
So, it's a refinement?

Verganti:
It's a refinement, which can be significant in terms of innovation, but it's still a refinement [rather than a breakthrough] because you don't change the meaning of things with user centered design. You want to satisfy users' existing needs better. So, the user centered design is that usually companies do not look very carefully on what people need. And so, user centered design has developed new methodologies, more sophisticated and traditional market pull innovation that typically use it in surveys or something like that.

Ubois:
So, survey-based?

Verganti:
Exactly. User centered design is based on observing people who use things and so on. And so, you are supposed to understand better what are the things that people must feel as they use these objects. The purpose is to start from existing needs and satisfy them better. But it's still pulled by the market, in a sense it is pulled by the current situation. The research I'm doing is to study what I call design-push innovation. And it mixes the two worlds, one is design, the other one is push. Design because it's innovation that works on meanings. It doesn't work on the function of technologies. It works on the meanings of the objects.

What is design? And my approach, which is based on design theory, is that design is about the meaning of things. Actually, if you think about the etymology of the word, design, it's from the same family of meaning as designate, designata. And in English, designate means to give meaning to things. So, design means using signs, like it could be sound or whatever, using signs to designate, to give meaning to things. So, design is making sense of things. My model is that you can improve the technology and the performance of a product, but you can also change its meaning.

Ubois:
So the designed car is not transportation. The car is sexual fulfillment.

Verganti:
Meaning can be symbolic. For example, I talk about a lesson, this is very extreme but in a way, you know that they are doing this fancy objects, they are a Chinese like lemon squeezer or a dancing corkscrew. Well, people think they are simply crazy creative things. These kind of objects are like transitional objects, so these are kind of objects you give to kids when they are about one year old. Transitional objects are like Teddy bears, that help kids learn to separate from their mothers. And others, also traditional objects, maybe it is not the Teddy bear. We, as adults, have traditional objects. And so, Alessi one day, designed this product line that is playful, and it includes dancing corkscrews.

Ubois:
They want to evoke the childhood memory kind of thing?

Verganti:
Yes. In a way, yes. They realize that people can see in a corkscrew something that is not simply something functional. They know that people want to talk about, maybe people want something more. So, the reason why people buy an Alessi corkscrew could be emotional, because it reminds you when you were a child and it's playful. It can be symbolic, I buy this because I want to tell my friends when they come to my house that I'm using a cool model of Alessi's products, and it's not simply because I wanted to open wine. But simply to have that object tells something to my friends. So, when we talk about this, we're talking about this kind of innovation, changing the meanings of things.

And user centered design is understanding better how people give meaning to things and how to fulfill those needs better. So, it's more incremental. Design push innovation is changing the meaning of things. When Alessi created this playful kind of thing, no one would have asked you for a dancing corkscrew before.

When they did this crazy product line, people were not asking for it before, people were not saying "I want to have a dancing corkscrew." So, that was a proposal that the company did, and not something that came from the market, or user centered design. It radically changed the meaning that people gave to kitchenware. So, this is design push, design because it works on meaning and push because it's pushed by vision of the company. It doesn't start from the market, it's pulled by market. Another example is the Wii, they did the Wii, there's a radical change on what a console may mean for people.

Ubois:
So, a lot of these things are communicative about user identity, you are the kind of person who has this kind of an object.

Verganti:
When they did the Wii, it's really changed the meaning because you don't buy Wii because you are a teenager, you want to practice. You want to work out. Whoever thought that game consoles could have been for workouts? The most popular game of Nintendo is a workout exercise game. So, it's a Nintendo sport. And so, that is a radical change in meaning and did it come from market? Nintendo was not asking teenagers about what they wanted from a game console when they created the Wii. Users were just asking for more powerful machines with more graphics. And so, it's not user centered. Its push, its design push is pushed by a vision of a company, of something different that could happen. So, this is design push innovation. It's a radical innovation of what that product could mean for people that does stuff for the markets or for the vision.

Ubois:
Can you give a couple other examples of that?

Verganti:
The Swatch watch. The Swatch watch is an interesting example because before the Swatch, basically, in the 50's, the watch was a jewel. This is a jewel, basically. Then, in the 70's, there were like quartz watches. And basically, the industry moved completely to Hong Kong and Japan with Seiko. And the watch became a tool, basically, it was cheap, it's more precisely what time is. Then, in the 1980s, Swatch came out with this watch, which is a radical change of what a watch can be. It's not a tool, anymore, it's a fashion accessory. Now, it's obvious, how could a company not think that a watch could have been a fashion accessory. But before then, no one thought about it. If you ask people in the 70's what they wanted from the watches, OK, given that now there was another trend, can I have also a calculator? Watch with a calculator. So, thinking that a watch could be a fashion accessory was a radical change in what a watch can mean for people. And didn't start from the market, it started from the proposal of a company.

The iPod, itself, is a radical change in meaning because on the technology side, there were MP3-like players 10 years earlier or more. We used the Sony Walkman, we simply substituted cassette technology with software. And the meaning of the same technology's changed. But the iPod doesn't change the meaning because it's an entire experience of not just listening to music in the streets, but it's about organizing your music with your computer, it's about buying music. It's about subsidizing the industry. It's not the idea that you could buy a song for $1.00, it is a great idea culturally because guys simply didn't steal music anymore, it was cheap.

And if you have an iPod, it means that you basically are a friend of music, which is not bad. This is another example of design push. It didn't start from users.

Much of the innovation we find in our life is more incremental, but most destructive that change the way we think are radical. The way we think about this music that has been influenced marketers.

This comes to our discussion about responsibility in innovation. User centered design physically, they design it like this, there is a company and there is a user, OK? And with user centered design, you take a lens, you look at people, you can better understand better what they want. In a way, it is like a person is isolated by the society. If you ask the person, if you observe the person, you understand everything simply by looking at people. But people are not isolated, people who live in society -- the way people think, the way people believe is influenced by a change in the society.

So, why shouldn't you ask the society about what is happening because eventually, the change in society and culture will affect people and the way they give meaning to things. I mean, given your background is in media, you can understand better than an engineer when I explain this thing. Basically, the idea of design push innovation of study is you step back from the user and you try to see things in a broader perspective.

So, in the short term, for incremental information and change, that's perfect. But for radical changes, if you go there and look with a lens, you miss the big picture.

The way you understand and the way you look for phenomenon around, it's something that there is a process for that. And basically, this process is a little of what I described in the article in HBR. So, companies, instead of moving closer to the user, are becoming interpreters with the competence to understand what's happening in society. So, through designers, through cooperation with other firms, with artists and so on, you have another lens you can look in in what's happening in culture, and it shows more than what's directed to one person.

Ubois:
Innovation happens on an arc between the initial ‘aha' moment and the market application. It's interesting to look at that arc to see where responsibilities fall out between the innovator and the ultimate user...

Verganti:
Yeah, that's interesting. So, where is responsibility in this type of design-push innovation? Let's start from user centered design first. User centered design, as we were saying before, in a way, one could think that responsibility's not an issue because, you know, you are asking the user. See basically, when you move with a lens close to the user, in terms of responsibility, you feel safer because, you can say the user asked me for that, I'll provide it. And this is great for business because if you can measure what the user want, you can go to the board of a company and say, "OK, these are the data for the market, people want this." You can't be blamed for having chosen the wrong thing because of the numbers. So, in a way, user centered innovation is a little safer.

Ubois:
You know what effects you're building for in a way that you don't with technology-driven innovation. It's much harder to know what the effects will be of technology push.

Verganti:
Exactly. In a way, design push innovation is similar to technology push innovation because instead, it doesn't come from a user. It comes from a vision. Technology push innovation comes from the combination of technology about a vision - for example, maybe people could love to control atomic reactions and that it could be useful. Or if we can map the DNA of people, it would be usable. And the sense with design push innovation, we propose, I mean, what is the responsibility of Swatch of having invented that watch as a fashion accessory?

Ubois:
More landfill!

Verganti:
A part is that the issue of responsibility in innovation, in design push innovation is huge. I mean, let's consider an example. Let's come back to Alessi. I mean, just to show you some of the products because maybe it would be easier to show you what is Alessi with some pictures. I'm sure you have seen these products here.

Ubois:
In fact, I was in someone's house and they had one of the teapots and I knew what it was.

Verganti:
Here it is, OK, this product. I'm sure you've seen that (see Alessi [3]). So, these are kind of object toys. So, people buy this thing, not simply because they have to squeeze them, but is to say it reminds them as a child, symbols of their identity and it's more for the meaning.

The point is that changes in meaning can bring as much disruption in society as technological change. I give an example in my book, which is the reality show Big Brother. The Big Brother reality show has been a radical change in meaning. It's a radical change of what a TV show is. There's no technology, it's not a matter of technology, it's a matter of meaning. People used to think of TV drama as fiction. In that case, they're looking at real people doing real things. I don't know what you think about the Big Brother, but I think it's the most stupid thing that has been invented in the past century.

So, the reality show, it's as dangerous as the atomic bomb. Yeah, you don't kill people, you make people stupid, and I don't know what is worse. So, in my book, not always a radical innovation of meaning makes things better, makes human race to grow and fulfill their mission. So, who's responsible for that?

Ubois:
It seems like the design push innovation also touches closely on the political realm. I'm going to attach a new meaning to an ethnic identity or to a religious practice or to membership in a group.

Verganti:
It's related to conscience. But my thought was radical innovation of meaning, design push innovation is something that is changing the way that people think. So nowadays, you see the Big Brother for really, really stupid people with stupid problems.

The example of Alessi's work on that is much more sophisticated culturally, and it was an interesting experiment. But then when other companies started to imitate it, [stores] were full of objects with computers that looked like mice or something that -- it became like a kind of gadget work. And what's the meaning of that? So, when you do this kind of experiment and exercise, you have responsibility for changing at least cultural meaning. When you talk about the responsibility in innovation, you talk about an GMO or health or privacy entity. But changing the culture means to have some responsibility. Big Brother is responsible for having created one decade of stupid television. And sometimes, in a way, it's even more disruptive if you think about that because, you know, you are really talking about what is the meaning of things.

Ubois:
So, that brings up an interesting point. When you talk about design push innovation, and how design is about changing the meaning of things, I can imagine doing that by simply changing what meanings are attached to the object, by causing me to reorder my priorities in some way. To use your iPod example, I'm not just a person who listens to music, I'm a patron of the arts and it's important to be a patron of the arts. Is there a distinction between design push innovations based only on our own subjective interpretations? What I'm trying to get at is you can target people's own sense of self and meaning and their own hierarchy of values and, thereby, change the meanings that they impute to an object, or you can develop a new object and say this object is different because of the following reasons ...

Verganti:
I understand your point. It's hard to separate the two, I think.

Ubois:
I think it is, but you can imagine like advertising in a sense like if advertising is a portion of advertising design push, that's more about changing ...

Verganti:
Yeah, I understand. But actually, my research is more on you could do the same with other advertising in a way, which you don't change the object, you just send messages. You change only the way people think. I'm a little far from that perspective, more working probably because you've to still have engineers. I think that yes, advertising has power, but when messages are built from real products, they are more powerful. And in a way, Alessi never did advertise with it because the objects are self-explanatory.

They don't need to be advertised. I mean, you can bring Nike shoes and build advertisement that this Nike shoe is for running faster and it's still a Nike shoe. So eventually, in a way, the advertisement changes meanings a lot. But again, it's much easier to find incremental innovation in advertisements; you've got 15 seconds to say something, and you can't say something radical in that space. Usually, advertisements send messages, but they are not very radical, they want people to listen to something. In fact, there is a lot of market testing involved in advertisement to check what is the most in promising. It means you first ask a sample in the market if the advertisement is correct.

Ubois:
Much closer to user-centered design. Advertising agencies have been pushing user-centric design for a long time in a way.

Verganti:
Yeah, in a way, yes, right. You know if you are an advertisement company, you don't want to be too radical because you have a few seconds.

Ubois:
You have to violate expectations enough to get people's attention, but not so much they turn you off.

Verganti:
You can be provocative. Provocation doesn't need to be a narrative. Because if provocation means to say something that you know is provocative, I mean, if I show an advertisement with two guys kissing each other, we know that this is provocative.

Ubois:
So, in this arc from conception to marketing, where is responsibility in the design push innovation?

Verganti:
So, what I was saying, is that there is a lot of responsibility, we'll say, in push innovation. And in a way, if I think about that, often design push innovation is very close to a vision of a company or the world. So, I got the message do something like this because he really believes that people is looking for more poetry and more emotion. I really do.

In a lot of papers by Alessi, he shows really believes that people are really willing to have more poetry, more poetic things and more art in their life. And I do believe that people would be happier if they could have more emotional and poetic things in their life.

So, as I said before, I do not know which is the method to make a guy like Alberto Alessi or the producers for Big Brother more responsible, but they definitely are accountable. You can blame Alessi. I'm blaming them for having invented Big Brother, I know who I can blame. And companies that want design push innovation are very cautious about that. Every time we have an interview with companies like this, they say, "We have the vision that the world was going the direction ..."

Ubois:
Right, in fact, they maybe believe that a big part of their value as a company is this idea that they've had, they want that attributed to them.

Verganti:
Exactly, so they believe.

Ubois:
So, accountability is built into the design push innovation cycle.

Verganti:
Yes, exactly, exactly. It doesn't mean that they would be more cautious or responsible for what they are doing, but at least they are very accountable because the statement so strong, they say, "I'm doing this."

Ubois:
Has anyone ever been sued over a design push innovation?

Verganti:
I don't know, no, I don't believe so. The point is that it's a little slippery. You can sue someone because it's much more easier to sue someone because for more technological function innovation because I was jumping with this toy and it broke. But suing someone like Big Brother because it makes people more stupid isn't really actionable.

(more on 21th March [4])

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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://www.verganti.it/
  3. 3] http://www.alessi.com/novita/index.jsp
  4. 4] /en/ubois/2008/03/designpush_innovation_changing_1.html
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