Ethnography and Innovation

Also from Grant McCracken recently:

[Ethnography] turns out to be a good lantern to take with us when we go looking for innovation. Innovation is not usually a really great idea we find fully formed sitting neglected in a corner of the consumer culture. (“Velcro, of course!”) Innovation often depends on a conceptual cunning, that sudden insight that if we look at this problem or product or person in a slightly new light, everything changes. (Not a digital home, but digital home making.) Innovation comes, that is to say, to those who are capable of changing conceptual frame quickly, often and well. Because it is so good at provoking and then managing messiness, ethnography delivers value here. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me almost as if purpose build for critical parts of the innovation process.

An interesting quotation and perspective. The “conceptual frame” business sounds exactly right; the “sudden insight” and the “quickly, often and well” parts seem much too narrow, and even old-fashioned. There is innovation within a pattern as well as innovation beyond it; there is gradual change as well as sudden, insightful change.

The point seems relevant to Teleflex v. KSR and to how patent law might conceive of “nonobviousness” in a way that doesn’t commit the error of ignoring how the PHOSITA actually acts and thinks, that is, the error of always requiring explicit “teaching” in prior art references, and the error of looking for “synergy” in combinations of prior art elements. Perhaps Joe Miller has a comment on point.

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