Steve Jobs and Edwin Land corroborated Don Norman’s take on invention and design

No one could guess what this thing could do.

I’ve found a bit of supporting evidence for Don Norman’s unique perspective on technology and needs, in the form of what Steve Jobs once told John Scully about a visit by Jobs to Edwin Land, inventor of Polaroid instant photography.

Don Norman wrote an amazing article, Technology First, Needs Last, which I’ve written about before.  In it, he describes a true insight into the process of creative product development.  Basically, he argues that the technology to solve a problem must already exist before the problem can even be recognized.  It makes perfect sense.  Design problems are usually of the form “Aspect X of reality sucks; we shall address that suckage with a new design.”  But notice: how can you identify the inadequacy of the current state if you don’t already know that something better is possible?

This is the problem with expecting prospective users to have any idea what they really want – they don’t know what’s possible.

Norman’s article has several excellent examples of how radical new designs were executed, based on recognizing in tandem a technology and some area where that technology could be applied to improve the current state of things.

I think I’ve found another case that fits perfectly.  Here is an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review from 2011.  In it, John Scully (who ran Apple in the 80’s when Apple thought they could do without Steve Jobs), recounts a story of when Jobs met Edwin Land (inventor of Polaroid instant photography).  Here’s the pertinent section.

“He [Jobs] said if I asked someone who had only used a personal calculator what a Macintosh should be like they couldn’t have told me. There was no way to do consumer research on it so I had to go and create it and then show it to people and say now what do you think?”

I should note that Jobs’s quote was in response to a comment by Land to the same effect.  Notes Sculley, “Both of them had this ability to not invent products, but discover products.”

That’s it exactly, isn’t it? Jobs knew what technology (the Macintosh) could do.  But no one else did.  They were entirely unsuited to even guess what it could/should/might do.  The magic wasn’t just Jobs himself.  It was his insight, that it’s in knowing what’s possible (technology) that one can see how to make things better.

And that, it seems to me, is just what Don Norman was on about in his post.


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