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Steve Baty
Aug 5, 2014
Re-imagining our world – Disruption

Celebrated in design industry magazines. Lauded in the business press. Disruptive ideas are the heroes of our tech-focused society. And for all the attention they receive, disruption is an elusive outcome of the creative process.

So let’s take a moment to review what we mean by “disruption”, and why it is so difficult to come by.

The Disruption category of the Interaction Awards defines disruption as an idea that redefines the industry, or changes the basis of competition. To quote the entry criteria, Disrupting entries “re-imagine completely an existing product or service by creating new behaviours, usages or markets”.

IxDA 2013, Winner Profile, Disrupting from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

Within the interaction design sphere we might point to gestural interfaces as a disruptive idea. The mouse certainly was. These two innovations, in their own way, changed the way we think about human-computer interactions.

The challenge with disruptive ideas is that, whilst they often seem right and natural in hindsight, they represent an intellectual discontinuity. The world becomes polarised into “before” and “after”.

Our world, for example, is now one in which smartphones reign supreme. Their introduction, in late June 2007, now feels inevitable. And yet the mobile phone industry was on a completely different trajectory prior to the release of the iPhone.

In my opinion the same cannot be said about the iPod or, more broadly, mp3 players. The category evolved slowly, keeping pace with technological changes – tapes changed to CDs changed to mp3 files – without any particularly ground-breaking innovations. The real step-change came, firstly, with the Sony Walkman and, much later, with the iTunes store. The basic concept – portable music – remained unchanged in the interim.

The discontinuity we see in the disruptive idea is born of the abductive capability of the designer. It represents an illogical leap based on disconnected and incomplete data. A join-the-dots picture, without anywhere near enough dots. And this is why the disruptive idea is so elusive; so rare; and so sought after.

Such thinking is difficult. It requires an intellectual effort that can sometimes be managed out of the project plan in favour of predictable timelines and “resource” management. Further, in the midst of an intensive process of understanding a notional ‘user’ and (re-)framing a problem, putting forth the necessary effort can be a strain.

Of course, the organisation then needs to possess the courage to invest in the ideas that come from such efforts – something that few can boast. But that is a topic for another day.

The Disruption category of the Interaction Awards seeks to highlight the efforts of design teams to reshape their industries and change the way we think of things. Those efforts aren’t always entirely successful, however they are worth examining and encouraging.

I’m interested in hearing of designs you think live up to the promise of disruption described here. Who, in your opinion, is actively working to reshape our world in truly significant ways – not just in their ambition, but in their results?

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