The Innovation Imperative

November 3, 2016

Is good design a result of science, or an evolution of ideas?

Axel Roesler
Associate professor and chair of the Interactive Design Program at the UW

Innovation is all about people. And the world of innovation is a world in which humans define what is new and accepted and embraced. So, yes, human interaction is essential when we innovate. And, yes, again, 21st century innovation has to be people-friendly.

Unfortunately, though, because so much innovation today is trans-disciplinary, not every innovator in every discipline understands that innovation is people-centered. They think about science scientific discovery or technical specifications that drive design, aiming at business models that were defined before design starts. But these specifications have to revolve around how people will experience innovation when they encounter design. Understanding the patterns of how people adapt design to their needs can shape a completely new strategy for business and development. People centered design becomes the driving force for responsible and successful innovation.

For me, any innovation has to fit into people’s daily routines and lives. And, for me, the human element is the measure of all things innovative. I want to make the world work better, and technological innovation that reflects the needs and desires of people who will be affected by change is a means for this.

Take computers, for example. By themselves, they’re just impersonal boxes, and they can’t do great and meaningful things unless we design them to be really usable. Here’s a good case in point. When the Three Mile Island nuclear accident unfolded, the operators in the control room couldn’t make sense of the data presented to them because the system showed them all data at once, regardless of how data elements were related and what mattered in critical instances. So, the accident ended up being worse than it might have been if the computer systems were designed to provide meaningful information in context.

Which brings me to two central questions for innovators today — “How do we represent information so it makes sense to people, taking into account the situation they are in and what they want or need to accomplish?” And “How do we show users the information they need and when they need it, and in the form they need so that they are able to act?”

This is the province of Interaction Design. And, as the Three Mile Island episode illustrates, it’s often a matter of making the information actionable so that people can be kept safe, whether at a nuclear reactor, during wars, or in airplanes. Also in medicine and aviation, when designers have to have to work with practitioners and engineers to understand the conditions at work in order to innovate — and innovate with regard to human life.

Participatory design in work settings emerged in Scandinavia in the 1970s when industry and worker unions collaborated on fielding new information technology in the printing industry. Today participatory design approaches help shape urban development, transportation, education, and healthcare. Although the term Designing for People was coined by the Industrial Designer Henry Dreyfuss in the 1950s, it would take another four decades before people-centered design approaches gathered momentum and were brought to the attention of virtually every organization world wide, including the corporate sector, start-ups, non-profits and even government, by the San Francisco based design firm IDEO.

IDEO’s website presents a number of recent examples of people centered design practices, methods, and case studies. In its essence, people-centered design is empathic design where designers and researchers move into the world of the people whose lives will be affected by design. In contrast to the old world, Henry Dreyfuss was convinced to pay attention to the people that were confronted with technology; design today can be initiated by community representatives that are connected with the real needs of people. As connectors, they serve as a bridge to facilitate the work of designers with people in need. People centered design works to better connect people with the world, opportunities, and possibilities around them.

That’s why I believe that some of the best innovation is pragmatic innovation. What makes sense, and what is it good for? What difference does it make?

Much of the past century’s design debate has focused on the aesthetics of design. Based on visual aesthetics, clear understandability, usefulness, and usability, good design is beautiful desirable. But besides looking great, design has to go beyond this by being appropriate, based on understanding exactly who people are, what’s at stake for them, and how they’re living their lives. In other words, how will the innovation actually help them impact the world?

The form that design takes is changing from the creation of novel artifacts and representations to the integration of new systematic connections in existing hardware structures. Think about it this way: In an industrial scale innovation context, the idea of novelty was still bound with the concept of creating new products to be produced and distributed with the intent to replace existing products, despite the fact that what they replaced was still working. The car industry and rapid and costly replacement cycles for entertainment and computing hardware are poster child examples for this wasteful approach. New systems-oriented service design approaches have countered this development. Über and Car to Go have provided individual transportation alternatives as a service model. Combined with networked public transport that can be monitored in real time from mobile devices, transportation on demand has many of us reconsider the ownership of a vehicle altogether. Streaming content such as Netflix and Spotify, based on cloud computing have affected how we own and use computers, entertainment electronics, and media. The emergent Internet of Things (Think Nest, Drop Cam, and Amazon Echo) goes several steps further, providing seamless connections between people, products, and environments to shape entirely new forms of interaction. Surprisingly, most of these innovative new platforms were not driven by large corporate design strategies, but are some of the most successful examples of design output from small start-ups that were able to commit to new ideas because of their compact organization. In their essence, these services enable new patterns of use and new types of content that emerge in older hardware structures. This has real impact: Smartphones replace laptops, and as processing from smartphones moves increasingly into the cloud, replacement cycles for mobile hardware will slow down, potentially resulting in more universal, valuable, and reusable products that are accessible to a broader audience.

Innovative design is different from science. Design doesn’t usually start with a problem that requires a solution. Instead, innovative design is hypothesis building for what ought to be – what might be promising in the next stage of a given situation. Designing requires challenging initial problem statements and digging deeper to identify the real issues. This analytical stage of design can employ scientific methods, but there is more to it. Shifting analysis to synthesis means engaging in exploration. Designing is studying adaptations in the world by changing the world. Design innovation presents new opportunities and ways to do things differently. And then the problem of getting people to change and adapt arises. Innovating is hypothesis testing. Design innovation casts light on unknown territories that the designers didn’t consider. To address the resulting limits of the design, redesign is necessary. Fixing design problems (that wouldn’t exist without design) generates design knowledge. Innovation is a bit of a Pandora’s box in this way – at the same time it’s not so different from how evolution works.

So, after you’ve designed something new, you are handing it over to people to make it their own – to find the breakthrough’s meaning in their lives and make change useful. You have designed it so that it can be adapted to a variety of uses, including those you would never think of. What you have overlooked leads to user-initiated work-arounds. Stay with the product and observe these adaptations. If cutting-edge equipment doesn’t work the way doctors want it to, for instance, they might tweak things to function in a more useful manner, use it in a different way, or not use it at all. Aesthetics play a role, too. If a product is beautiful, but hard to use, people will opt out. But if it works and looks good, they will use it over anything that works the same but isn’t designed with the same quality and aesthetic standards in mind.

Apple’s products demonstrate this: Their technical performance is comparable to their competitors, but they embed this technology in great Industrial Design that sets the benchmark in the market. People feel connected with their products and identify with them. Other companies can get here by taking design more seriously – and invest in the design of how people experience their products and make them part of their lives. Think about it this way: Well designed products are being resold on ebay,regardless if their technology is outdated. Mediocre designed products become landfill—and we have enough of that for generations to come.

Being a great innovator today means staying ahead. Many times, when we innovate, we are creating newness based on our previous or current understanding of the world. We don’t always innovate based on our projected world-view. So, it’s essential that innovators keep up with how the world changes as they grow, expand, change or move in new and unexpected directions and dimensions and be a step or two ahead. Design is providing a vision of the future that defies many traditional engineering approaches. You can’t test what doesn’t exist yet and we need new ways of thinking to address challenges of unprecedented scope. Design makes a difference.

To be a great innovator, then, you have to do things – bring people together, explore ideas and experiment with different forms of realization. But you also have to be an exceptional reviser when you see early on that ideas don’t play out the way you expected. In the end, we’re dependent on fresh innovation that addresses the unknown and the unstable side effects of prior breakthroughs. That’s the realistic — and truly human — way that innovative cycles work on behalf of people.

The University of Washington believes that nurturing boundless innovation and creativity empowers students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners to create a world of good. Through the Innovation Imperative, the UW is creating inclusive solutions to society’s grand challenges. This article is one in a series commissioned by CoMotion, the UW’s innovation hub. To learn more from UW innovators, visit This article also appeared on the website Think Big.