Review: Design-Driven Innovation

I’m surprised there wasn’t more discussion last year when Roberto Verganti’s Design Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean came out. It’s fairly controversial, striking as it does at one of design’s current sacred cows: user-centered design.

Verganti’s premise, in a nutshell, is this: there are two ways to achieve innovation: through technology, or through design. If you want incremental innovation, user-centered design is a fine method. If you want radical innovation, you have to change what the product means by what he calls “design-driven” methods. “Meaning” in Verganti’s context means, roughly, the reason that customers buy a product. If design-driven innovation is combined with technology innovation, all the better.

Design, Verganti argues, is no longer much of a differentiator. As design comes to most companies, it is “mandatory and not distinctive.” In order to really innovate, designers need to become “radical researchers” and investigate not just what people want and need, but instead focus on what could be: possible new futures.

People do not buy products, Verganti claims, “but meanings. People use things for profound emotional, psychological, and sociological reasons as well as utilitarian ones.” In order to radically change a product (and thus gain competitive advantage), you have to radically change the meaning of the product. And that, Verganti says, “doesn’t come from user-centered approaches…User-centered innovation does not question existing meanings but rather reinforces them, thanks to its powerful methods.” He goes on, “Firms that develop design-driven innovations step back from users and take a broader perspective.” Innovative products don’t conform to the market or to what users already know, but rather create new standards by which competitive products are then judged. To use another phrase, they redefine their category.

Meaning and technology are often intertwined.

Technologies are…closely related to meanings, and indeed technological breakthroughs often trigger radical innovations in meanings…[However] there is a profound difference between changing a product’s function but leaving its meaning untouched, and changing a function in order to radically innovate what a product means, In the latter case, the ultimate purpose is to innovate meaning (hence, “function follows meaning”).

When a new technology appears, most companies just substitute it for an older one, “leaving existing meanings untouched. But a new technology often hides a more powerful meaning. Eventually a company discovers and reveals that quiescent meaning–celebrating what I call a technology epiphany–and in doing so becomes the market leader.” The Wii is the example he uses to illustrate this.

But what are meanings?

Meanings result from interaction between user and product. They are not an intrinsic part of the product and cannot be designed deterministically. A company may think of a product’s possible meanings and design its features, technologies, and languages to act as a platform, a space where the user can provide his own interpretation.

Meanings, Verganti says, are discovered when the following questions are asked: “What is the deepest reason people buy our product? Why is it meaningful to them? And, most of all, How can we gratify people and make them more content by providing products that suggest new meanings?”

User-centered design, Verganti argues, is not a useful tool for this kind of radical innovation, only for incremental innovation that does not change the meaning of the product, only reinforce and extend that meaning. “Radical innovation of meanings does not occur when companies get closer to users. It goes in exactly the opposite direction: a company pushes a breakthrough vision into the market my making a proposal to people. When this proposal is successful and people love it, the company gains significant long-term competitive advantage.” This is because radical innovations are outside the spectrum of what people know and do. “But not outside what they [can] dream of and love, if only someone could propose it to them.”

This is all well and good, and personally, I’m inclined to agree with Verganti, especially since he is able to provide a wide variety of examples, from the Wii to the FIAT Panda to support his claims. Where he loses me is in the second part of the book on how to do design-driven (“design push”) innovation. His solution is for companies to seek out and collaborate with “interpreters,” those who “conduct research on how people (the same people who are also our users) could give meaning to things…[and who] help shape sociocultural models and influence people’s meanings, aspirations, and desires,” such as artists, technology suppliers, sociologists, and cultural institutions. Through a process of listening, interpreting, and participating with these interpreters, it allows for a long-term research that allow for small batch style experiments that eventually lead to finding new meanings.

This may be true, but my qualm is that many of the examples given in the first part of the book do not follow this method. Does famously-secretive Apple collaborate with a circle of interpreters? Not to my knowledge. This process, based off what a handful of Italian firms have successfully done, doesn’t seem to be the only way you can change meaning for a product.

I thought Verganti was onto something else in one section, when he talks about bridges, and the brokering of design languages across industries. He notes, for instance, how Jonathan Ive, whose pre-Apple job was designing household products, was able to bring that language to the computer industry. This, I think, is a valuable insight: that meaning can be changed by positioning an object as another kind of object: a formerly workplace product like a computer as a household product instead. This kind of activity has a lot more actionable meat than to simply be involved in design discourse.

I do highly recommend this book, as I feel it does have some powerful ways of reframing design work as creating and manipulating product meanings. But take its solutions and recommendations on how to do that work with a grain of salt. There’s likely many ways to achieve the result of meaning-focused innovation.