Which Is the Bigger Driver of Innovation: Tech or Research?

By Sharon Leshner on Oct 02, 2016

By Chris Murray, Director of Industrial Design at Bresslergroup

There’s been an ongoing debate in the design world since legendary user-centered design advocate, Don Norman (best known for penning The Design of Everyday Things), wrote a 2010 essay that began: 

“I've come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs.” 

Is this true? Which is the bigger driver of innovation in product design: technology or research? We’ll debate this during The Great Innovation Debate on October 13th, a dmiNightOut that we’re hosting during DesignPhiladelphia 2016. 

Research- and Tech-Based Innovation

At Bresslergroup, projects often leverage either or both approaches. We divide innovation into three overlapping strategies: brand fit, insights-driven, and technology-based. The first two strategies have greater user research emphasis.

Brand fit innovation tends to focus on the softer, more emotional aspects of design — aesthetics, form, color, and branding execution. Increasingly brand encompasses more experiential touchpoints to create meaningful differentiation such as digital interactions, gestures, sound, light, unique materials, and finishes.


ABOVE: Research-driven product innovation

Insights-driven innovation happens as a result of research uncovering consumers’ unmet needs, which then shape problem definition for technical challenges. Issues with existing tasks tend to be solved by applying existing technologies. As a result, this strategy is often criticized for delivering more incremental innovation (In my blog post “By Design” you can read about a cordless drill I worked on while I was at Black & Decker that’s an example of this type of innovation.)

It is the 3rd strategy — technology-based innovation — that tends to be credited for the biggest breakthroughs in product development. Often more unpredictable with higher risks of marketplace failure, this type of innovation generates new products that would not have evolved purely from user research.


Caption: Technology-driven innovation.

Trice Medical’s mi-eye+ is an example of radical innovation driven by technology. Bresslergroup’s client, Trice Medical, developed a low-cost camera and light source technology that led to a breakthrough device for orthopedic diagnostic applications. This technology-led innovation is providing faster results, reducing costs to patients, and eliminating the false reads that can occur in other types of diagnostic tests such as MRIs that result in procedures like knee surgery. (To read more, check out the mi-eye+ case study.)

The Great Innovation Debate!

We know that research and technology each play a vital part in product innovation, but which has the greatest impact? Can this debate be won?

Join us and find out! With debaters including Poormehr Honarmand, Director of Xfinity Home Energy and NextGen Products at Comcast; Jason Busschaert, Director of Industrial Design at Stanley Black & Decker; Sarah Rottenberg, Associate Director of Penn IPD; William Braham, Professor Architecture at Penn Design; JD Albert, Director of Engineering at Bresslergroup; and Renee Kakareka, founder of Olive Devices – and moderated by yours truly — the Great Innovation Debate is sure to be a lively discussion. And a democratic one – the audience decides the winner.

Be sure to reserve your spot – the event is free, but space is limited.
(Read more about product innovation on Bresslergroup’s blog.)