Norman, D. A., & Verganti, R. (2014). Incremental and radical innovation: Design research vs. technology and meaning change. Design Issues, 30(1), 78-96.

User-centered or human-centered design (HCD) has an iterative cycle of investigation including observation, ideation, rapid prototyping and testing. According to Norman, HCD can only lead to incremental enhancements of the product. This process can be compared to the mathematical procedure of hill climbing; tiny movements towards a certain unknown higher peak representing product quality. As the first step of HCD includes observing and analyzing user needs, it focuses on things people already know about, therefore restricting potential solutions to incremental innovation.

As opposed to incremental innovation, radical innovation seeks the highest hill, which could exist somewhere else in an unknown terrain. In Norman’s research radical innovations were always driven by technology changes. Verganti continued by stating that radical innovation could also result from changes in meaning. An innovation is radical if it is novel compared to prior inventions, unique in terms of current inventions and adopted so that it will influence future inventions. Successful radical innovation is rare, as most attempts fail. Incremental innovation is not as exciting as radical innovation, but it is needed to transform the radical idea into an acceptable form and capture the value in it.

The authors approach innovation through the dimensions of technology and meaning change, both of which can change either incrementally or radically. Radical changes in technology lead to technology-push innovation; radical changes in meaning lead to meaning-driven innovation. This can imply a change in socio-cultural regimes without any new technology. Technology epiphanies combine radical changes in both meaning and technology. They typically do not come from users but rather challenge the existing interpretations. Market-pull innovation starts from analyzing user needs and developing products to satisfy them, and makes only incremental changes in both technology and meaning.

The authors view product research through the dimensions of the quest for a novel interpretation of meaning and the quest for practicality. Basic design research searches for novel interpretations but does not consider practicality. Human-centered research focuses on practicality but does not explore new meanings. Design-driven research envisions new meanings applicable in products, leading to radical innovation. Tinkering is playing around with a product or a technology without any specific goal in mind. It can lead to brilliant insights, but this happens completely by accident.

Incremental innovation has a multitude of existing methods and processes, but radical innovation does not yet have successful methods. Radical changes in technology are enabled when the technology reaches a reliable, economical form. After that innovation results from the explorations of inventors and visionaries, usually refusing to do market research. Meaning as an approach to innovation has yet to provide anything beyond early insights. However, it could be researched by observing more general socio-cultural changes.

One direction towards radical innovation is modifying the HCD process so that it requires simultaneous development of multiple ideas. If the design team starts their work dispersed in multiple directions, some will start in a different design space, leading to a higher, more productive hill. Design-driven research can lead to radical innovation of meanings as well when it is directed towards new interpretations of what could be meaningful to people.

Personally I found the article very interesting. It challenged the HCI field with fresh thinking but acknowledged also the importance of traditional UCD work and Design Research. Don Norman opened the NordiCHI 2014 conference with his keynote Fun, Fast & Foundational. In his keynote, he discussed the relationship of radical and incremental innovation, among many other topics. According to Norman, everybody wants radical innovations, but they are rare and most of them will fail. The time-consuming incremental innovation is necessary for gradual improvements, as almost always a radical innovation is worse than the current state.

Posted by Karoliina

About Karoliina

Bachelor of Science, Information Networks Degree Program. Master studies major: Human and Interaction. Minor subjects: Work psychology and Leadership, Sound in New Media (Aalto ARTS).
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