April 27, 2005

Backtalk

I'm back. In fact, we've been back for several days, but a combination of fatigue (could it be jet lag?), catching up with stuff that needs doing, teaching and digesting the Chile experience has meant that I haven't felt like posting anything here. In the meantime a lack of new posts over the last month or so seems to have had little effect on the number of visits to this site - quite what this means I'm not sure.

Anyway, back to business.

One of the unexpected pleasures of my return to teaching is access to a decent library. My latest exciting find is "Bringing Design to Software" edited by Terry Winograd, a book I have been meaning to read for years.

One chapter that grabbed my attention was an interview with Donald Schon - a long term hero of mine. In it he was talking about the invention of Scotch tape at 3Ms and how it was conceived as a material to repair books, but how users found all sorts of different applications for it, which 3M smartly used to create new product lines. In response to the question whether this was a feedback cycle, Schon responds:

"I would say it was a backtalk cycle, because they were not just being told, "You're steering slightly to the left when you should be moving to the right". They were being told, "This product is not what you think it is". Consumers were projecting onto the product meanings different from the intentions of the product designers. As a result, 3M came out with a hair-setting Scotch Tape, a medical Scotch Tape used for binding splints, a reflective Scotch Tape for roads, and so on. I forget how many new uses there were, but they built on the order of 20 or 30 businesses through the differentiation and specialization of the basic product idea. They learned what the meaning of the product was by listening to what people said and by observing what people did.

So, if you were asked the question, How was the invention made? you would have to answer, Through a conversation with the users. In this phrase, the term conversation does not denote a literal verbal dialog. Rather, it refers to an interactive communication between designer and users in which the messages sent, received, and interpreted may take the form of words, actions, or objects. In the 3M example, Scotch Tape-both the product and its name-conveyed a message to users about the products intended function. Consumers received that message and transformed it. The designers, in turn, picked up the new messages that users were sending to them through consumer behavior, reframed the meanings of the product that they had designed, and incorporated those meanings in new variations of the product."

I suspect if many companies really listened they would also find that their product or service was not what they thought it was. Information that could spell new opportunities, but equally could forecast future disaster.

Posted by richard at April 27, 2005 2:21 PM