— Cultural Sources of Newness

From user to innovation

Last week I found an article by Madeleine Akrich that was published in 1998, even before I went to University. So I feel like I am really lagging behind. Mais, mieux vaut tard que jamais. In her paper, the Engineer, Sociologist and Director of the Centre for the Sociology of Innovation (CSI) in Paris focuses on users as innovators. These 14 pages on les utilisateurs, acteurs de l’innovation made my day — not only because it took very long to read it in French but also because it offers a good point of departure to think about valorisation practices, the interaction of experts and amateurs or the role of platforms for exchanging experiences and knowledge.To begin with, Akrich points out that linear innovation models do not allow for taking into account the users as they are, in these models, only considered as the passive recipients of the new. However, there are various ways in which users play a role in the innovation process.

First, Akrich distinguishes implicit and explicit design practices. According to her findings, they result in an “overrepresentation” of users in the process (rather than their representation in commonplaces) [1]. The implicit techniques are encapsulated in people or in devices (dans des personnes, soit dans des dispositifs, p.1).

Researchers can trace them when designers…

  • justify their decisions by refering to their own or others’ experiences or tastes
  • refer to expert knowledge about the users and their preferences
  • deduce from existing objects that are used by the user/ the target group by imitating them or by criticising these objects pointing out their weaknesses (p. 2).

The explicit techniques of representing the user in the design process include

  • market studies
  • tests or usability studies
  • learning from customers’ or clients’ complaints

Or in the original:

“Dans cette catégorie, on trouve les études de marché et les tests dont la variété est considérable : selon que l’on souhaite tester la capacité d’un dispositif à se faire acheter, installer, comprendre, aimer…et en fonction des hypothèses que l’on fait sur l’objet lui-même – il doit satisfaire un goût ou un besoin “moyen” ou au contraire permettre l’expression de la plus grande pluralité en la matière. Enfin, les remontées des services après vente ou équivalents, vers lesquels les usagers insatisfaits, désemparés, repentis font retour, peuvent être encore utilisées afin de modifier le produit, ses adjuvants (mode d’emploi entre autres), ou les services qui lui sont associés.” (p. 2)

In this first case, the users stay where they are, the do not change sides, they are not  asked to take decisions or participate in the process. The work of translation is left to specialists, the ones who interpret the tests or do the design. But Akrich is more interested in the « l’utilisateur actif ». Here, the aim is to show how users might take an active part in defining the functionality of a product or device and also in making design choices.

The active user

«Dans la suite de cet article, nous voudrions essayer de montrer que, dans un certain nombre de cas, les usagers, qui ici redeviennent essentiellement des utilisateurs, peuvent être encore plus actifs que nous ne l’avons suggéré et prendre une part importante dans la définition des fonctionnalités d’un dispositif ou d’un produit, mais aussi dans les choix techniques qui déterminent sa physionomie définitive. » (p. 3)

Akrich identifies four ways in which users modify “objects that are already stabilised”, objects that are already on sale or somehow available. These interventions either concern the objects themselves or the prescribed uses.

Displacement: when the spectrum of uses is modified

The more complex a device, the more it relies on external conditions. Thus, the design of a laptop, for instance, is incomplete since it presupposes the availability of an electricity grid—at least from time to time—that allows its users to recharge the battery. But this incompleteness is not only a constraint. Instead, it allows for modifications and for widening the spectrum of possible uses. If my laptop is portable and the electricity grid is available even outside my workplace, I might use the computer to write personal mails and blogs, to watch DVDs or to even skype with friends. The professional’s tool is transformed into a toy or communication device because its users push the boundaries. As we know, the hardware and software industry is very responsive to these displacements.

Akrich gives different examples, e.g. various ways of using a hair dryer. Yet, how do these user practices differ from everyday bricolage? How do they result in an innovation. Akrich’s answer offers little newness: It is probably necessary that a new usage reaches a critical mass so that it is taken up and commercialised (my emphasis, p. 4)

In the following, Akrich gives examples of how products developed further after their users had already changed them. Reading the text, I wondered how—through which practices and means—displacements and product re-designs are linked. However, Akrich’s answer to this question remains defensive: “It does not seem unreasonable” to assume that such a communication takes place given the close connection between labs and users (p.5). She concludes that deplaced products reappear in the market either as spin offs (autonomisation, p.5) or in form of a different product placement.

Adaption: when a device is modified to meet the users’ needs

Adaption means that the function of a device (dispositif) remains unchanged but can only be met through a modification of the product. To give an example, Akrich mentions a French project that aimed at providing African countries with solar lamps. Only, that the people there did not want to illuminate their homes but the mosque… The equipment was not made for that. So, cables had to be extended and a second lamp had to be added to the kit. Akrich suggests that if there had been funding, this solution might have been more generally applied (p. 6). Again, she refrains from answering my key question: How does the bricolage become an innovation?

Extension: when new elements are added to modify uses

To illustrate how a device is modified in form and function the author first refers to modifications of baby carriages that were transformed by parents to carry not only their offspring but also their errands or baby bags in a box underneath (p. 7). A “less harmless” example she refers to is the case of a computer programmed tool that was introduced in French police departments to render their work more efficient. Yet, the indicators were too rigid and, as far as I have understood, the frustrated users started to reinvent the tool and couple the entry mask with other devices. The extended versions of the programme then circulated between different departments and will probably been taken into account in further versions of the version of the programme (my emphasis, p. 8).

Diversion: when the purpose of a device is changed, often irreversibly

Again, Akrich gives an everyday example: Children as well as artists use leftover materials to create something new – art, musical instruments, objects to play with or things to enjoy… (9) To make a longer story shorter: She does not refer to the mechanisms that allow for, facilitate or enhance that sort of creation or creative destruction. But there is more; the article culminates in a part that is dedicated to the «l’utilisateur-innovateur»

The user-innovator

Here, the basic pragmatist assumption is that things are not finished once they are on the market, bought and used. Instead, it is assumed that they change according to the ways in which they are used and can start entirely new careers. As I take it as a prerequisite that anyone, especially any user, can become an innovator, I wonder under what circumstances such metamorphosis happen.

Akrich suggests that there are two cases in which user innovations seem more likely. Firstly, in highly technological and quickly developing areas; secondly, in highly specialised domains with very few users and/or very special needs. The examples she gives for the second case are medical treatments for individual patients in need of new but very specialised treatments that cannot be provided by the market. In the previous setting, users have to keep up with complex technological developments so that they often become semi-professionals or very well informed amateurs (p. 11). Akrich refers to climbing, a quite recent sport, where a lot of innovation is user driven as they know best what they are looking for to enhance their personal challenge, their excitement and their fun.

Interestingly, in both user-innovation-settings the connection between users and producers seems close, the boundaries between the two groups permeable. In both cases the market cannot provide what the users demand. Thus, they are forced to specify their needs, to make an effort to finally get what they need or desire – be it a medical treatment or the perfect climbing wall.

From conditional do conditions?

I suppose I have made it quite clear what I have been missing, especially in the first part: The text offers a plausible argument and a number of good examples. They all imply that users matter in the innovation process. But there are little clues about how situative, singular and local diversions, extensions, adaptations and displacements are translated to be sustained, to be translated and to be absorbed by the market as an innovation.

Reading Akrich’s accounts on what might probably occur, I was reminded of our discussions on causality in social research and of the fact that we will not find it in cultural sources of newness. Abstract models just seem to miss the ‘thickness’ and richness of the matter. Nevertheless, I think that many of our projects contribute to answering the question raised above. I rephrase it once again: How are surprises sustained, how is the new translated to result in an innovation?

I think that valorisation processes, the emergence of ‘weak cultures’ that bridge the gap between experts communities or between producers and users might qualify as a good answer. Focussing on platforms, studios, conferences, clubs or public spaces—as the socio-material settings in which creative modifications and interventions take place—might enhance our understanding of the specific conditions under which the unique newness is echoed, perceived as valuable and finally commercialised.

Finally, I like the idea of ‘shifting the subjunctive’, away from the object of research, by tackling the ‘probable’, even if we cannot be sure of pinning it down.


[1] She makes a reference to : Akrich, M., Boullier, D., Le Goaziou, V. et Legrand, M., 1990, Genèse des modes d’emploi : la mise en scène de l’utilisateur final, Rennes: LARES.