Products that Help Us Learn

Richard Karash (
Thu, 6 Oct 1994 22:36:57 +0059 (EDT)

Do we learn from the products, services and equipment we use? I don't mean
learning facts; I mean useful, how-to knowledge.

This is the thesis of an article in the current Harv Business Review (ref
below). The article talks about manufacturers building smarter products
that do more *for* us (we've certainly seen lots of this...), but then
goes on to focus on how we might *learn* by using products.

I found this a stimulating idea. And, it's related, I think, to learning
in organizations. I'd really appreciate your comments about situations in
which you've learned something in the course of using a product, service,
or piece of equipment.

For example, I'm interested in photography. There are products that
assume we are dumb users and take over everything (my Mom wanted an
"idiot box" camera). But, I'm also noticing how much I've learned over
the years from using smart products, watching what they did, thinking
about and studying how they worked. Sometimes I did experiments to see
exactly what a certain control actually did. As a result, I learned,
enhanced my mental models, increased my capabilities. Often, the learning
was relevant even when I wasn't using the smart product.

And I have the same experience with computer products. In several
instances, I decided I could learn more by buying a piece of software and
using it that I would from (for example) attending a course.

I have a hunch that we learn from products if we have a model for how they
work and we learn less when the product is a black-box. I think good
black-box products can help produce acceptable more regularly, but it'll
produce some glaring duds, too. If it's a black box, then the duds will
appear to occur at random, we won't have any better idea how to control
it, apply it, when to use it. We don't learn, we're less *in control*, we
get frustrated, even if we are getting a good proportion of acceptable

Would you share instances in which you've learned by using a product?
Prefer replies to this learning-org list (Or email to me if example you'ld
rather not share so widely.) Thanks.

Stan Davis and Jim Botkin, "The Coming of Knowledge-Based
Business", Harvard Business Review, Sept-Oct 1994, pp.

Richard Karash | (o) 508-879-8301 | Golf * Flying
Innovation Associates, Inc. | (fax) 508-626-2205 | Systems Thinking
3 Speen St, Framingham MA 01701 | Std. disclaimer... | PGP * Mac * Photo