Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Filling Much Needed Holes

The need for ethnographic research ...

"One of my mentors, the distinguished American psychologist George Miller, once passed judgment on the contributions of a research scientist by stating "he has filled a much needed hole." The same judgment can be passed upon many products.

Much of our research, especially the ethnographic studies that watch people in their daily lives to find areas of potential support, aims to find unmet needs, to fill those necessary holes, those essential voids. Essential voids? Yes. Holes, gaps, and voids are essential to civilized life. They give us respite from the press of modern civilization, returning us to ourselves, with our own thoughts and our own resources. It is the space between things that allows us to be at peace with the world, to be in silence, to be undisturbed. Many things need to be done by people, by us. Doing gives a sense of accomplishment, of participation, of belonging, Doing, thinking, dreaming: all are needs best left unfilled by products and designs.

We need more unmet needs, not less. How many times do the never-ending ethnographic studies coupled with ever-eager design groups lead to unwanted, unnecessary, overburdening, and environmentally insensitive products? How many times are these unmet needs best left unmet? Why must we rush to fill the essential voids in our lives?

My comments were inspired by the remarks of John Thackara (2005, in van der Lugt & Stappers, 2006), commenting on a seminar on design research at the Delft University of Technology. Thackara worried about the frenzy to fill all those unmet needs. ”Why?” he wondered. I asked Pieter Jan Stappers, one of the seminar organizers, what he thought of the comments. Pieter Jan obviously approved:

Holes, the negative space, unstructured spaces, have always been important, especially in the areas of creative thinking, such as arts, design, science, and probably everyday life and religion. One danger in modern technology fitting closely into the patterns of people's lives, is that an efficiency drive takes over, with over-structuring as a result. (P. J. Stappers, email: 2007. Used with permission.)

Innovation is good, we are all told. Innovation is a growth industry, with books, seminars, and firms all devoted to promoting its virtues We teach our students – and our executives – to do field observations, to define and create, to brainstorm and innovate. Come up with the better idea and the world will rush to your door. We take existing products and tweak them, modify them. We add intelligence and features. The world of products grows ever more complex every year, every hour."    (Continued via Don Norman,    [Usability Resources]


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