Some Thoughts on Applied Discovery

At this year’s Build conference in Belfast, Quora product designer David Cole gave an insightful entitled Applied Discovery, which he has made available as a post on Quora. In his talk, Cole observes that historically speaking, the term ‘design’ has been misused when discussing the creation of products. It has been relegated to surface ornamentation or marketing collateral, and conceptualized as being separate from the thing of value itself. In fact, the creation of this thing of value, from vision to execution is design: product design. And product design is very similar to what has historically been understood as ‘invention’.

He then observes that many historically significant inventions haven’t necessarily been the result of technological advancements. Many successful inventions are the result of identifying a need—a human, social, societal need—and using existing technologies to create a solution. His example is Twitter, which changed everyday communication for billions of people with the simple addition of a 140 character limit to a pre-existing channel. This is what he terms ‘applied discovery’, an apt neologism to describe the phenomenon of invention decoupled from technological innovation. One of the more enjoyable passages in the essay relate the invention of basketball as an example of applied discovery: a hugely successful game that was originally designed with pre-existing materials, based on concrete requirements.

Cole goes on to assert that the value of the work we do goes beyond the technology itself, or even the artefacts produced in the process of exploring it. For web designers, he points out, there’s a common lament that our work is ephemeral and looks dated as the state of the art changes. I myself often struggle with the fact that my work will be less relevant with time. In interaction design, there isn’t really an equivalent of a monograph or exhibition that can as a record of experiments, failures and successes. As far as a tangible legacy goes, prospects are grim.

But Cole’s perspective is liberating. He observes that we interaction designers are fortunate; interaction design is about discovering new truths about humanity, and the knowledge gained is the true legacy. The websites and apps may expire, but we’re contributing to a new body of knowledge, and that knowledge outlives any physical (or virtual) artifact.

I take solace from this idea. As new technologies appear with increasing rapidity in all spheres of life, there will be a greater need for interaction design to translate the raw possibilities these technologies afford into human terms. We interaction designers can be an interpretive layer that weaves the new into the fabric of everyday life. To do so, we need to have a strong bedrock of interaction design principles and knowledge, and we have an opportunity to start building this body of knowledge the right way, right now, with an eye to the future.

Because, as Cole continues in his essay, the two greatest themes in the history of invention are empowerment and scale. The scale is rapidly expanding. It’s up to us to make sure we continue to minimize friction and make new technologies truly empowering.