Essays & Articles


Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research versus Technology and Meaning Change


Donald A. NormanNielsen Norman GroupRoberto VergantiPolitecnico di Milano and Mälardalen University

ABSTRACTWe discuss the differences between incremental and radical innovation and argue that each results from different processes. We present several methods of viewing incremental and radical innovation. One is by examining the quality of product space, envisioning each product opportunity as a hill in that space where the higher one is, the better. Under this view, human-centered design methods are a form of hill climbing, extremely well suited for continuous incremental improvements but incapable of radical innovation. Radical innovation requires finding a different hill, and this comes about only through meaning or technology change. A second approach is to consider the dimensions of meaning and technology change as two dimensions and examining how products move through the resulting space. Finally, we show how innovation might be viewed as lying in the space formed by the dimension of research aimed at enhancing general knowledge and the dimension of application to practice.

We conclude that human-centered design, with its emphasis on iterated observation, ideation, and testing is ideally suited for incremental innovation and unlikely to lead to radical innovation. Radical innovation comes from changes in either technology or meaning. Technology-driven innovation often comes from inventors and tinkerers. Meaning-driven innovation, however, has the potential to be driven through design research, but only if the research addresses fundamental questions of new meanings and their interpretation.

**Published as:**Norman, D. A., & Verganti, R. (2014). Incremental and radical innovation: Design research versus technology and meaning change. Design Issues, 30(1), 78-96. Link to entire paper as a PDF file.

(Based on a talk presented at the Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces conference in Milan, 2011.)


John Langrish challenged our analysis of hill-climbing, arguing that we had ignored the evidence from Darwinian evolution. He called us “creationists.”

We disagreed with his objections, but gladly and warmly embraced the title of creationist, for after all, that is precisely what design is about: creating new things.

The correspondence can be found at

Langrish, J. Z., Norman, D. A., & Verganti, R. (2014). Correspondence: Incremental Radical Innovation. Design Issues, 30(3), 104-107.

and our response as:

Norman, D. A., & Verganti, R. (2014). Hill climbing and Darwinian evolution: A response to John Langrish. Design Issues, 30(3), 106-107.