Invention and User-Centric Design

The entirety of this article was originally published by Xerox as an interview of Mike Kuniavsky, Principal Scientist in PARC’s Innovation Services Group. Please join us at the October 11 PARC Forum: “Design in Research — How do you use design to support and shape R&D where Mike will be a featured speaker.

Interviewer: Mike, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Mike Kuniavsky: I am a principal in PARC’s Innovation Services Group, and I consider myself a user-experience designer, although I’ve worn several different hats in the past. At PARC, as a principal at Innovation Services, roughly speaking, leading the user-experience design practice, what my role is, is that I use user-centered methods to help our clients reduce the risk of adopting novel technologies. And we have a small team of people who are essentially forward-thinking user-experience designers whose specialty is envisioning not just the interfaces, but the entire environment that a device might be used in, or an app or any kind of artifact might be used in. And then creating or simulating that environment so that it has some degree of realistic fidelity, so that we can identify whether it’s a good idea or not.

Interviewer: So your specific take on user-centric design is actually thinking of products that don’t yet exist, and you’re working out whether there is a value to them?

Mike: I believe that user-centered design is a risk reduction strategy. That, essentially, it’s not about, kind of, identifying new greenfield markets in order to capitalize on them, it’s actually about protecting the core value chains of the company or the organization in the first place. Really understanding people’s perspectives, really understanding what the core value is that people experience from a technology, from a product, from an experience, from a brand, are all critically important.

Interviewer: This seems like it breaks with the traditional waterfall model for development. What are the problems with that traditional waterfall model?

Mike: That brittle set of assumptions is that at the beginning of a process, you can know enough about what the world is going to be like at the end in order to be able to define what the parameters are that the technology has to meet. That is incredibly brittle, it’s incredibly risky. Sure, in the moment it seems like it’s a really good way of going forward because everybody feels happy in that room, because they feel like they’ve been heard and, you know, their idea is up there on a post-it.

But in the end, it’s actually incredibly risky. And what it does, from my perspective as someone who works in innovation, it wastes an enormous amount of resources that could actually have been spent on focusing on what people really want, what they could really make use of, what they would really be willing to pay for it even if they’ve never thought of it before.

Interviewer: So it sounds like the hardware world is trying to catch up with the more agile and lean world of software. Is that fair?

Mike: I think the models that were developed in software over the last twenty years, when it went from being a packaged good to being, essentially, a cloud-based service, those models for the development of those kinds of products have started to bleed into the development of other kinds of things. The notion that-, for example, Tesla, which is really a great example of a brick-and-mortar company that is structured like a software company. Tesla collects a huge amount of data about how people are using their cars, and they not only adjust their production in response to that, they also adjust the experience of the cars themselves while they’re out in the field, the ones that have already been sold. And that’s very much like a software perspective.

Interviewer: And if we can get specifically into probe methodology, can you give a brief description of what that means?

Mike: So, what we call “probes” are essentially a way to explore the value that a particular technological artifact — whether, again, that thing is a physical thing, you know, it’s a fan in your house or, you know, it’s a tram, or whatever — what kind of value people find in that physical thing, without building it. So, the idea is that what we want is we want to get as much signal as we possibly can, and what I mean by signal is, kind of, “understanding.” But as much signal as we possibly can about where people find value, and how to deliver that value for as little effort as possible.

Read the entire interview.

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