Do the questions we ask about what we design and use limit the answers and innovations we come up with? According to Michele Tepper, senior design analyst at Frog Design, “good design is as much about asking the right questions as it is about whatever you create, and making it easier for users to answer those questions themselves.” In a recent essay on the blog Gizmodo, Tepper looks both software and physical products to see how both users and manufacturers are working together in order to create new products and customize existing ones to help provide better, more usable products and services and to try to answer some of the questions that haven’t been asked yet:
Think about the mountain bike. As Eric von Hippel points out in his book Democratizing Innovation, this multi-billion dollar market grew out of a small community of young bikers who wanted to ride off-road. Their bicycles couldn’t handle the terrain, though, so they ended up having to hack together bikes they called “clunkers” out of the materials at hand. It took another decade for mountain bikes to reach the mass market in 1982, and even today, the (ahem) cycle of user innovation and new products continues as extreme-sports riders use their bikes in more and more complicated stunts and jumps. The riders ask new questions of their bikes — and sometimes parlay their answers into second careers as bicycle designers.
Custom hardware tinkering isn’t for everyone, of course, anymore than most people want to hand-code their own blogs or write video-game levels. Eric von Hippel calls these tinkerers “lead users” — people like the would-be mountain bikers who have needs that aren’t met by the product on the market and who have the motivation to do the work to create the precise thing they want. But lead users’ creations can be important for the users who follow them, in the same way that plug-ins get added to new releases of Movable Type, or Counter-Strike began as an amateur mod for Half-Life — just ask anyone who’s ridden a mountain bike lately
Thomas Pynchon, offering advice to aspiring writers, said that “as a corollary to writing about what we know maybe we should be getting familiar with our ignorance.” Pynchon’s advice resonates not just for writers but for thinkers and creators of all sorts. Getting familiar with our ignorance as product designers should mean, among other things, that we accept that our creations will wind up as the answers to questions that haven’t been formulated yet, and that we find ways to let users write what they know on our creations as well.
Read the entire Gizmodo article here.