Integrative Innovation


I guess most design students have learned about integration at some point. Business, Costumer-relations, Engineering, Marketing and other departments may have very different demands for a new product and the designer has to find her (his) way across the different value sets and constraints of these different departments. An integrated design manages to do so; elegantly. Integration is difficult enough when the product is ‘just’ a new loot on a product family tree; but in innovative projects integration can be daunting. In this post I would like to address such projects and show how modeling ‘integration’ in innovative projects can relief some of the design tension that emerges in integrative innovative design projects.

In his PhD thesis Describing Design, A Comparison of Paradigms, Kees Dorst defines integration as follows: “Someone is designing in an integrated manner when he/she displays a reasoning process building up a network of decisions concerning a topic (part of the problem or solution), while taking account of different contexts (distinct ways of looking at the problem) or solution”. This is just a formal way of saying a designer needs to take different (incompatible) viewpoints into account in the design process. So: for innovative design projects the question is if there are generic viewpoints that apply to most projects and capture most of the design space. Finding such viewpoints takes experience, but for the interactive product design projects I worked in: user, design, and technology always were the ‘big three’. ‘Business’ may be a fourth, but I’ll get back to business near the end of this post.

Of course, I am not the first to highlight user, design and technology as the most important perspectives in interactive product design. In their seminal paper called “What Do Protoypes Protoype?”, Charles Houde & Stephany Hill make a distinction between four types of prototypes: role prototypes, implementation prototypes, look and feel prototypes and integration prototypes (see the figure below).

The prototyping model of Houde & Hill

Each of these prototypes forms a tangible and temporary answer to a design question. Role prototypes answer the question “what changes in the life of the user because of the new product”. Look and feel prototypes are about the sensory experience of the product. Implementation prototypes address the question how the product will work. Finally, integration prototypes answer multiple of these design questions at the same time.

Rather than just a prototyping concern, the three corners of the Houde & Hill model are  general concerns in innovative design projects. So to use the Houde & Hill model as a model for integration in innovation, you need to interpret it more broadly. Therefore we extended the model to include three relevant contexts for design and three innovation forces (see the figure below). The first innovation force is user pull. A design team shows to master user pull if it has a concern with the user and the utility of the product in the context of use. The team creates new user scenario’s in writing and with storyboards (role prototypes). Most of you will recognize this as a user centred design capability, but ‘pure’ UCD is not enough. If the other two forces: design push and technology push are neglected the result may not be innovative and may not appeal to users (beyond the utility of the product). A walker for example, fulfills all functional user needs but somehow something seems to be missing. Perhaps walkers do not appeal to soft values such as status and power because of a lack of design push in the design, and possibly the latest technologies could bring improvements to walker design too.

The second force is design push. For design push a team needs to be sensitive to the social and cultural context and have the ability to translate this into design solutions. Anthony Dunne’s critical design (design for debate) movement, aiming to expose undercurrents in society, is an example of design push in its purest form. But there are lighter forms of design push too. For example: many designers are able to translate brand values into a design, thus showing sensitivity of the social cultural context. In the Houde & Hill model, design push ends up in the ‘look and feel’ corner, but I do not like this term at all. A good ‘look and feel’ prototype expresses meaning in a specific social cultural context, which is more than a ‘pretty picture’. Therefore I prefer the term semantic prototype. Design push is a positive force, but there can be too much of it too: projects with too much design push are ‘interesting’ or ‘provocative’, but not always useful.

The Integrative Innovation Model


The last force is technology push which is the ability to identify new technological developments and to appropriate them for the design.  Of the three forces technology push has the worst name. You do not need to be a user centred design fundamentalist to know of a product that is mostly unusable and only suitable for technology geeks. But it is hard to deny technology push is an invaluable innovation force too. Where would smartphones have been without multitouch technology? Do we blame the engineers developing this technology without a user need, or Apple for recognizing its potential? Just like the other forces technology push can be a major driver in new product development, but it needs to be balanced with the other forces.

By zooming out of the nasty details of integration in specific projects, the integrative innovation model is a design management tool, more than a design tool. It helps planning design projects by focusing on the most important viewpoints and contexts. It can be a useful checklist in several ways. It shows which skills you need in the team, it allows for a constant ‘integration’ check when the project is running and it guides the research questions of the projects. The model has disadvantages too. User, technology and design may work for interactive product development, but often business is just as important. Also the set of forces and contexts may be quite different for other disciplines such as media design or social design. Also, the model doesn’t solve the difficulty of integration in design. In most of the projects I did, new viewpoints arose along the way. These could not always be ‘fitted’ on the original big three of the integrative innovation model, but where just as important for preserving an integrative solution. But then again, once we found those “project specific viewpoints”, we were always close to the finish, and design management was no longer a top priority. Until that point the model served us well.

Reading More

I wrote about the integrative innovation model before in our The Web And Beyond paper: “UX in the Wild: on Experience Blend & Embedded Media Design”. In this paper you can find examples of projects for which the model served as a starting point.

The paper by Charles Houde & Stephany Hill is available online as well.


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