According to Don Norman, technology comes before identification of need. That is, you can only recognize a need if you already know about the technology that can be used to address it. It’s not a conventional idea, and it can rub some people the wrong way, but – as I’ve written before – I think he’s right.
You know you’ve got a good idea when you find different connections from it to other ideas. Here’s two ideas that connect to Norman’s, and that help explain why I think he’s right.
Norman’s tech-first idea is consistent with the notion that analogy is an essential process of designing. In analogical design, we take something we already know (a technology) and (re)use it in a different setting, having identified a correlation between two situations such that applying the technology from one situation to another will make the other better (i.e. applying the technology addresses a need). That is, designing by analogy requires something to already exist that can drive the design activity forward. So the technology must come before the need it addresses. QED.
There’s also a correspondence to evolution.
Consider a situation including a market, various technologies, etc. That situation will be in a certain balance (or imbalance). (You can read about my ideas on balance and design here.) That market can be thought of as an ecosystem of sorts. The introduction of a new technology is like an environmental change. This changes the balance of the situation, by allowing things to be done that were not possible or feasible before. This stimulates the design of new products and services. The new products are mutations of existing products, (hopefully) adapted to the new situation. Some new products succeed; others fail – just like in natural evolution, where some organisms adapt successfully to new environments while others become extinct.
Technologies don’t usually arise from product development – they’re usually happy accidents in labs and in the garages of inventors. As such, they don’t come from the usual product development cycles within markets and organizations, just as environmental changes are not part of natural evolutionary cycles. Instead, both new technologies and environmental changes drive evolution by unbalancing a situation.
So there you have it; two more reasons why Don Norman’s idea that technology precedes the identification of need is a good one.