Paradigm Theory



  1. a set of forms all of which contain a particular element, especially the set of all inflected forms based on a single stem or theme.
  2. a display in fixed arrangement of such a set, as boy, boy’s, boys, boys’.
  3. an example serving as a model; pattern. Synonyms: mold, standard; ideal, paragon, touchstone.
  4. a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community.
  5. such a cognitive framework shared by members of any discipline or group: the company’s business paradigm.

I got on the trail of researching paradigms when I watched a lecture by Philips Design VP Paul Gardien. They have a paper out about how changing paradigms in business, change basic assumptions and business models. From a commodity model in the industrial era, to the experience economy today, which is already shifting to a new paradigm: the knowledge economy, where people network with their peers to come to decisions about their life, instead of relying on brand promises.

A paradigm is a model of the world, that all or most people in it recognize as true, agree to, and work by. Theories that fall outside the paradigm, are commonly rejected or ridiculed, if not penalized, before they gather traction and become the new paradigm. For example, when Galileo was sentenced in 1633 for his ideas, the current paradigm was that the earth was the centre of the universe. Claiming otherwise would have sounded ridiculous to even the most enlightened minds at that time. Today, we can hardly believe the lengths they took in explaining away the observations that did not fit the paradigm.

When X-ray was discovered by Röntgen in 1895, he first locked himself in his lab for weeks to do tests, to convince himself that the cause of the mysterious glow he observed, was indeed a new kind of light and not some kind of mistake. Other scientists before that, had seen evidence of the existence of X-rays, but thought nothing of it, because it was not supposed to happen. And so it did not happen. That is the power of a paradigm.

Thomas S. Kuhn, in his 1970’s book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, refers to paradigms as:

[…] sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity. Simultaneously, it [is] sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve.

[…] the successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science.

And Kurt Lewin, in ‘Field Theory in Social Science’, 1951, makes some very recognisable observations:

To proceed beyond the limitations of a given level of knowledge the researcher, as a rule, has to break down methodological taboos which condemn as ‘unscientific’ or ‘illogical’ the very methods or concepts which later on prove to be basic for the next major progress.

The history of acceptance of new theories frequently shows the following steps: At first the new idea is treated as pure nonsense, not worth looking at. Then comes a time when a multitude of contradictory objections are raised, such as: the new theory is too fancy, or merely a new terminology; it is not fruitful, or simply wrong. Finally a state is reached when everyone  seems to claim that he had always followed this theory. This usually marks the last state before general acceptance.

transform paradigm PhilipsWhat the next paradigm will be in the world of design, is something that perhaps no one knows. At Philips Design they say that the shifts in paradigms will occur faster and more often in the future. It will not be enough to just understand and perfect the current paradigm. We will need to be prepared to change paradigms almost constantly, always ready to completely change their ways of thinking and creating value.

So how does a paradigm change take place? Lewin describes the process of change in the following way:

We have seen that a planned social change may be thought of as composed of unfreezing, change of level, and freezing on the new level.

I also look back to my earlier post about Roger’s Innovators-Laggards curve, and see that radically new ideas have a very small following first of innovators and early adopters, and need to leap over the ‘chasm’ to be accepted by the larger group of early masses. The idea is that once this ‘chasm’ is bridged, the late masses and laggards will automatically follow. But it also shows that getting new ideas from obscurity to a new paradigm is difficult and does not always succeed.

The change-phase can be confusing and energy-consuming. Why invest in new concepts when many do not even make it across the ‘chasm’ to the masses? Or can we accept that constant change, or constant improvement is the new ‘normal’? This brings me to the current models of Agile and Lean, both focused on iterative processes, continuous improvement and an ability to adapt to a changing world.

Principles behind the Agile ManifestoBecause I too believe that the new paradigm will be one of ongoing change of assumptions, values and needs, I think it does not make sense for businesses to assume that their knowledge about their customers and users, is currently up-to-date or can be learned from a book. The advantage of an Agile development process is, that in any cycle, there is a new opportunity to go out and test, discuss and evaluate your product with the people who are supposedly going to use it. Focus on ‘individuals and interactions‘ will enable businesses to always produce the best user experiences in a changing world.

Probably a business that has newly adapted to the ‘Transformation’ paradigm, works in an iterative manner, and is ready to involve users in their development process, is going to run into the question: How to do user research? Which is why there needs to be a source that provides the basics of user research, so that companies can then develop their own methods. This is what my toolbox will be able to do.

Please tell me what you think!

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