Essays & Articles


Workarounds – Leading Edge of Innovation

Workarounds and Hacks: The Leading Edge of Innovation

Column written for Interactions, volume 15, issue 4. © CACM, 2008. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. It may be redistributed for non-commercial use only, provided this paragraph is included.

For years I have been pondering the similarities and contradictions among the ways of coming up with new ideas for products. “Design research,” as this phase is called, offers a wide range of methods. The marketing community has long championed focus groups, surveys, and questionnaires whereas the user-centered community favors observation, contextual analysis, and ethnography. Each method has its proponents and detractors.

I have also pondered the emphasis by most practitioners, abetted by many product design courses, to invent novel products and services to fill the needs discovered through whatever form of design research the group practices.  This pondering led to my Filling much needed holes column in the January + February 2008 issue of interactions where I suggested that although many of our clever ethnographic and field methods are designed to find unmet needs, most are far better off if they stay unmet.

Where do new ideas come from? How should designers create, transform, innovate? Some assume that inspiration strikes suddenly in the night: without warning insight strikes, and the inventor astounds all with a powerful,  innovative idea. Psychologists agree that this can happen, but they add the important caveat that chance favors the prepared mind. These insights usually follow a prolonged period of intensive thought and study of the problem.

Do we need formal observational methods? When I talk to today’s foremost designers, most are scornful. At first, I was quite disturbed by this attitude: why were they so dismissive of these methods? Was it just arrogance? The problem is, I thought their work excellent: if they were arrogant, it was well deserved. But further interaction with them convinced me that they were experts at human-centered design, except that they did it informally, without the fuss and formality that we ascribe to the activities. Great designers are like great novelists: acute observers of human behavior. Although they are scornful of formal methods, they themselves are expert practitioners of observation, and if you can corner them in a quiet room (or better yet, a noisy bar), they will brag about those abilities.

Moreover, the great inventions that have changed our lives did not come into being using our ethnographic methods: they preceded the invention of these techniques. Think light bulb, radio, automobile, telephone, television, home computer, cooking equipment, and for that matter, almost everything that we use on a daily basis.

Does this mean that we should ignore the formal methods? No, because great designers are rare. And all of us have seen the horrors that result when unskilled, unobservant designers, engineers, programmers, create their products. So what methods should those of us who are less skilled use?

I am not a fan of undirected, explorative ethnography. This is an excellent procedure for developing our scientific understanding of human behavior, but it is too diffuse for practical application. I prefer directed observation: search out the workarounds, hacks, and clever improvisations of everyday life. That’s where the answers lie: someone else has already encountered the need, someone else has already hinted at a solution.

Nokia’s designers, the New York Times tells us, visited China and noticed people using the light from their mobile phones as a source of light, so they added a penlight to some of their phones. The point is that the observations didn’t just reveal a need: they revealed a solution. Someone needed to get to a light switch, or navigate a dark corridor or read some text in the dark: their hack was to  use the lit screen of their cellphone as a light source. Hacks and workarounds are truly revealing, both of needs and also of solutions.

Although the story is enhanced by the exotic location in China, Nokia’s researchers didn’t really have to travel to Asia for this observation. They could have stayed home – or simply watched me.

How many readers of this column have used the lit screen of their portable electronic device as a light? Probably quite a few. How many of you recognized this as a potential product? Probably very few of you, possibly none. Ahah! We don’t need exotic methodologies to discover new product ideas: we need prepared minds, minds that make the leap from casual observation to business insight.

Eric von Hippel of MIT has long championed a related approach to product development:  “lead user” is a concept he first introduced in the mid 1980s. None of this average user stuff: look at experts who push the limits in novel ways. Von Hippel carefully identifies those who are lead users and then studies, observes, questions, and interviews them. But I don’t think von Hippel’s formal classifications and careful legwork apply to everyday products used by everyday people. In fact, I think his formal processes may blind him to the real creativity that comes about from everyday, unheralded people.

Hacks and workarounds. Look to see how everyday people have modified and cobbled together some product with other stuff to try to meet their needs. Analyze how they use duct tape, and mashups, and workarounds. In other words, you don’t have to invent, you can copy (and improve) what your clever, extreme users have had to do to accomplish their needs. Some people keep shampoo bottles or mustard jars upside down, standing on their lids, to make it easier to get the last remnants out of the bottle. Clever, observant design teams have seized upon those observations, and now a variety goods are packaged in bottles that were designed from the beginning to stand on its cap.

Many ordinary people use the objects around them in unordinary ways. Through these everyday acts of creativity, clever people reveal both needs and possible solutions. They lead to the innovations that will benefit many. Always be looking for how people cover confusing labels, or how they mark standard settings, and prestructure devices to eliminate complexity.

Those who hack and create workarounds are people like you and me when we have encounter a problem: we cobble together some new device, post notes and labels or remove confusing knobs and buttons, point the cellphone screen at the walls and doors while we try to find light switches and keyholes, and tape over switches and controls to prevent accidental activation. Hacks and workarounds: those are the soul of innovation. Observing is easy: recognizing the innovation and then knowing what to do with the observations are where the difficulties lie.

Holson, L. (2008, February 29). Plumbing the consumer’s psyche to come up with the next hit_. New York Times_ (New York), pp. C1, C8.Norman, D. A. (2008, January + February). THE WAY I SEE IT: Filling much-needed holes.interactions, 15(1), 70-71.von Hippel, E. (1986). Lead Users: A Source of Novel Product Concepts. Management Science, 32, 791-805von Hippel, E. (1988). The Sources of Innovation. New York: Oxford University PressDon Norman wears many hats, including co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, Director of a dual-degree MBA plus Engineering program in Design and Operations at Northwestern University, and author, his latest book being The Design of Future Things. He lives at