Design, Develop, Create

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Mutual Adaptation

The following commentary can be understood in terms of the product explanation videos at, as examples of how 'use' can be learnt by the organisation and turned into actionable change in the organisation's product or service.

Technologies that aide the process of understanding customer/user behaviour across all possible dimensions of interaction with a high tech system are one way of enabling organisations learn how their products and services are used. When 'use' is available to observe and analyse then the product can be tuned and adapted to suit. The idea of 'mutual adaption' can become a core process in development. The consequence then is that development can no longer be viewed as a project with an origin and an end point (perhaps it never was). Rather, development becomes an on-going process of constructing, deconstructing, maintaining and responding to use.

New product development projects are often presented as radical innovations driving change and transformation in industries and markets. But If we take a closer look at actual projects we see that there are few 'one-shot' projects that come 'out of the blue' and become dominant by virtue of being better or best at something. Indeed we know that few (if any) innovative products are specified, designed, implemented and introduced in one smooth process of development. The practical reality is that novel high tech systems are more often developed by being ‘tried out’ through prototyping and tinkering.

Eric Von Hippel (2005) traced the history of selected technology innovations and arrived at a pragmatic realization that products continue to be developed even when they leave the confines of a laboratory or engineering shop. He develops the concepts of ‘lead user’ and ‘innovation communities’ and concludes that innovation is a process of co-production shared between the producer and the consumer of a new product. Innovation might therefore be thought of as maintenance; a collective and intrinsically social phenomenon resulting from the fluidity of systems undergoing cycles of design, delivery, learning through use that feeds back into further design, delivery and learning.

The innovator's dilemma (Christensen, 1997) is the consequence of a situation where organisations (and therefore management) attach perhaps simplistic overarching emphases on financial optimisation of product offerings. We might argue that businesses resort to such measures as strategy from an era when customer data and feedback was difficult or impossible to gather. This produces the dilemma identified by Christensen, goal displacement, by focusing on cost or short term profit rather than value to customers. Learning and understanding what makes a product successful in the first instance and needs to be done to continue to succeed is the crucial point. What matters is how an organisation responds to both its further development and what they 'learn' from their customer's use of the product once a product starts to get used.

Note: This kind of analysis is well and good when you have the product to start from. But how do you go about producing a product you don't have for people who don't know they need it? (paraphrased from the HBR blog article,

References and links
Christensen, C. M. (1997) The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Harvard Business School Press.
Von Hippel, E. (2005) Democratizing innovation, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.
See promo videos at