Filling Much-Needed Holes
Donald A. Norman
Nielson Norman Group | email@example.com
Summary: Many of our clever ethnographic and field methods are
designed to identify unmet needs. You
know what? Most are far better off if
they stay unmet.
environmentally insensitive products? How many times are these
unmet needs best left unmet?
Why must we rush to fill the
essential voids in our lives?
My comments were inspired
by the remarks of John Thackara,
commenting on a seminar on
design research at the Delft
University of Technology [ 1].
Thackara worried about the
frenzy to fill all those unmet
needs. “Why?” he wondered. I
asked Pieter Jan Stappers, one of
the seminar organizers, what he
thought of the comments. Pieter
Jan obviously approved:
Holes, the negative space, unstructured spaces, have always been
important, especially in the areas
of creative thinking, such as arts,
design, science, and probably everyday life and religion. One danger in
modern technology fitting closely
into the patterns of people’s lives, is
that an efficiency drive takes over,
with overstructuring as a result. (P.J.
Stappers, email: 2007. Used with
January + February 2008
[ 1] Lugt, R. v. d., and
P. J. Stappers. “Design
and the growth of
practices and ingredients for successful
Delft, The Netherlands:
Faculty of Industrial
Delft University of
Technology.ht tp://stu-diolab.io.tudelft.nl/sym-posium/. 2006.
One of my mentors, the distinguished American psychologist
George Miller, once passed judgment on the contributions of
a research scientist by stating,
“He has filled a much needed
hole.” The same judgment can be
passed upon many products.
Much of our research, especially the ethnographic studies of observing people in their
daily lives that search for areas
of potential support, aim to
find unmet needs, to fill those
necessary holes, those essential
voids. Essential voids? Yes. Holes,
gaps, and voids are essential to
civilized life. They give us respite
from the press of modern civilization, returning us to ourselves,
with our own thoughts and our
own resources. It is the space
between things that allows us
to be at peace with the world, to
be in silence, to be undisturbed.
Many things need to be done by
people, by us. Doing gives a sense
of accomplishment, of participation, of belonging. Doing, thinking, dreaming: All are needs best
left unfilled by products and
We need more unmet needs,
not fewer. How many times do
the never-ending ethnographic
studies coupled with ever-eager
design groups lead to unwanted,
unnecessary, overburdening, and
Innovation is good, we are
all told. Innovation is a growth
industry, with books, seminars,
and firms all devoted to promoting its virtues. We teach our
students—and our executives—
to do field observations, to define
and create, to brainstorm and
innovate. Come up with the better idea and the world will rush
to your door. We take existing
products and tweak them, modify
them. We add intelligence and
features. The world of products
grows ever more complex every
year, every hour.
But most innovations fail, and
so do most new products. What
does that tell us about the unmet
needs? Maybe most of them
deserve to be unmet.
I fear that we have uncritically
accepted a huge amount of baggage in our rush to turn human-centered design into a science.
Personas sprout everywhere.
Teams of ethnographers scour the
land. Even marketers now claim
to be doing ethnography instead
of surveys and focus groups,
although I fail to notice any difference in results. Everyone’s
actions are being scrutinized,
from office work to love making.
As a result everything grows in
complexity, from kitchen toaster
to the bathroom toilet.
Ethnographic research is fun.
You get to go out into the world
and watch, take pictures, satisfy your curiosity and inherent
nosiness. Back at the office it is
great fun to scribble notes, to
post them on walls and rearrange them to form patterns.
Then we can create personas,
colorful little artificial people
with cute, interesting lives, or
maybe overstressed, overbusy
lives. We delight at personas, at
prototyping, at watching people
go through their paces. New
products galore. Innovation is the
new hot topic. But does all of this
activity lead to actual success in
the marketplace? I fear not.
All cross the world stores,