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Design-Driven Innovation VS User-Centred Design. Not Really…

By Francesca Zampollo Ph.D.



What are the differences and similarities between Design-Driven Innovation and User-Centred design? In this article I first give an overview of these two design approaches, identifying the main differences. One of the most defining characteristics of Design-Driven Innovation is that this approach aims ad designing for meanings. Employing this approach means being interested in understanding sociocultural contexts in order to define new languages. User-centred design on the other hand does not share this particular goal. Even if both approaches have a participatory approach, a major difference is identified in the type of people involved in the design collaboration. User-centred design is of course centred on users, whereas Design-Driven Innovation is centred on interpreters, a figure whose relevance in the design process is explored and explained. After presenting the debate between these two approaches, this article emphasises that they are not on the same level, as Design-Driven Innovation is proposed as an additional phase of the design process, the very first research phase adopted before including users. Finally the article highlights these approaches’ similarity in the type of design methods employed.


User-centred design, Design-Driven Innovation


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On Design-Driven Innovation

Design-Driven Innovation (DDI) is a process that allows a company to create its own vision and proposal and to develop a radical new meaning:

Design-Driven Innovation is based on the idea that each product has a particular language and meaning. As a scheme, it expands and elaborates on the concept of form, in order to better capture the communicative and semantic dimension of a product. (Verganti, 2003, p. 35)

As Verganti (2009) says, design management literature is characterized by two major findings. The first is that radical innovation is one of the major sources of long-term competitive advantage. The second is that “people do not buy products but meanings” (Verganti, 2009, p. 4), a statement that is very close to what Levy said in 1959: “people buy products not only for what they can do, but also for what they mean” (Levy, 1959, p. 118). Verganti explains that

the process of Design-Driven Innovation is a research project – that is, it is exploratory, it aims at creating an entire breakthrough product family or new business, and it occurs before product development. It is not the fast creative and brainstorming sessions that are typical of concept generation but rather a deep investigation that, like technological research, escapes attempts to imprison innovation in simple, sequential ten-step rules. (Verganti, 2009, p. 172)

Design-Driven Innovation therefore is a phase of the design process, the very initial phase of the design process. It aims at opening up opportunities before thinking in terms of product or solution to be designed. DDI should be adopted to “sense the dynamics of sociocultural models and think of new languages and visions with an exploratory aim” (Verganti, 2008, p. 450). Figure 1 below shows how Verganti positions DDI within a process, and in relationship to other phases of the process that have different focuses.

Figure 1. The process of Design-Driven Innovation as research and its position relative to other phases of innovation. Source: adapted from Verganti (2009, p. 173)

Dell’Era and Verganti explain:

[N]owadays firms have to consider the necessity to introduce new product languages and meanings besides new functionalities and technologies; consequently, a firm has to manage the knowledge about both technologies and socio-cultural trends. (Dell'Era & Verganti, 2009, p. 4)

The union on these two aspects, technologies and socio-cultural trends, is a focal point in DDI and in the research necessary to create the opportunities for new meanings. Dosi (1982) for example introduced two approaches to innovation: market-pull and technology-push. The market-pull approach considers the market the main source of innovation, where products development is a consequence of explicit needs expressed by the consumers. The technology-push approach implies that innovation derives from the company’s re- search and development activities, that identifying new technologies allows the creation of new products.

Verganti (2003) on the other hand, describes a design push approach that is complementary to market-pull and technology-push (see Figure 2). In the design-push approach, innovation comes from a third knowledge source: the knowledge about product languages which “describes knowledge of signs and symbols that will deliver a particular message, as well as the semantic context (the socio-cultural models) through which the user will give meaning to those signs” (Verganti, 2003, p. 37). DDI therefore aims at generating a design push, which emerges from research into new messages and the appropriate new language, and which has the potentials for proposing new meanings. In other words, within DDI “the driver of innovation is the ability to understand, anticipate and influence the emergence of new product meanings” (Dell'Era, Marchesi, & Verganti, 2010, p. 13).

Figure 2: Framework of Design-Driven Innovation. Source: adapted from Verganti (2003).

In the framework of DDI that Verganti proposes (see Figure 2 above), the horizontal axis shows the changes in meaning, which is radical when the meaning differ significantly from that of the products that dominate the market. This framework also shows that there can be a conjunction of radical change in meaning supported by, or led by, a radical technological improvement: this is the scenario where the most successful products are usually located, and is called Technology Epiphany.

This framework also explains the difference between incremental innovation of meanings and radical innovation of meanings. Norman and Verganti explain the difference between the two:

Incremental innovation: Improvements within a given frame of solutions (“doing better what we already do”). [...] Radical innovation: A change of frame (“doing what we did not do before”). (D. A. Norman & Verganti, 2012, p. 5)

DDI aims at Radical Innovation.

On User-centred Design

User-centred design, or Human-centred design, was the response to the interest on investigating people’s experiences and the interaction with products, when understanding the user’s experiences and the users’ needs became essential. Significant effort has been put in defining User-centred design (see e.g. Chayutsahakij & Poggenpohl, 2002; D. A. Norman, 1998; D. A. Norman & Draper, 1986; Sanders, 2002; Veryzer & Borja de Mozota, 2005). This approach, in the spotlight because of the success of major firms like IDEO (Kelly, 2001) or Continuum (Lojacomo & Zaccai, 2004), implies that product development starts from the analysis of the user’s needs. User-centred design should inform product innovation by investigating users’ needs, or by observing users’ behaviour when interacting with an existing product. This approach has helped to surpass the interpretation of design as ‘style’ and as a process that is exclusive of the designer.

Since the aim of user-centred design is to investigate the user’s needs, it s not used in technological push, but rather in the market-pull approach (see Figure 2 above), where the innovation is adapted to a current socio-cultural model. Within non-technological push, Liem and Sanders indicate three approaches:

The user-centred perspective uses research-led approaches coming primarily from marketing and the social sciences to make incremental improvements to existing products or products lines. The design-led perspective uses design thinking and has the potential for significant innovation but it does not value the input of potential end-users as being participants in the early front end of the process. The co-creation perspective puts the tools and methods of design thinking into the hands of the people who will be the future end-users early in the front end of the product development process. (Liem & Sanders, 2011, p. 113)

These perspectives identify user-centre design as having a participatory mindset (where users participate in the design research), and most importantly as being research-led; user-centred design is therefore a research process, just like DDI is (Verganti, 2009). DDI’s argument against user-centred design is that users cannot anticipate radical changes in meanings: user-centred design can only produce incremental innovation because it focuses on things people already know about.

Want to be radical? Forget user-centred design

How is radical change of meaning achieved? Verganti gives a short answer with the title of a section of his book Design-Driven Innovation: Want to be radical? Forget user-centred innovation (Verganti, 2009, p. 48).

Analysing successful Italian manufacturers, such as Alessi, Artemide and Kartell, Verganti understood that their approach to innovation is not centred on users but centred on meanings. Verganti says:

No one questions the importance of user-centered design. Yet this is only one piece of the puzzle. There are indeed firms that have effectively developed a different approach to rely on design, an approach that does not fit the user-centered model and, to a large extent, is orthogonal to it. [...] The innovation process of these Italian companies in furniture, kitchenware, lighting, and small appliance industries (as well as other worldwide leaders in different industries such as Apple or Bang & Olufsen), is definitely not user centered. Rather, these companies have developed superior capability to propose innovations that radically redefine what a product means for a customer. For them, Design-Driven Innovation is the radical innovation of a product’s meaning. (Verganti, 2008, p. 437)

A company looking for radical innovation of meaning does not do too much research on users, because the meaning that users give to things is defined by the sociocultural regime in which they belong. Users hardly help in understanding possible radical changes in product meanings because they are immersed in today’s sociocultural context which shapes their interpretations towards current meanings (Gero & Kannengiesse, 2004). The goal of DDI on the other hand, is to anticipate trends. Verganti explains that successful companies such as Alessi or Artemide do not scrutinize how the user behaves with a product or what are the meanings she associates to that product, instead they take a step back: they enlarge their perspective, and investigate evolution of society, economy, culture, science and technology. These companies search for new possibilities that are consistent with the evolution of socio- cultural phenomena but that are not there.

When asked how their firms investigate users’ needs, entrepreneurs of leading design-driven companies replied (Verganti, 2008, 2009):

Market? What market? We do not look at market needs. We make proposals to people. Ernesto Gismondi, chair, Artemide.
Working within the metaproject transcends the creation of an object purely to satisfy a function and necessity. Each object represents a tendency, a proposal and indication of progress that has a more cultural resonance. Alberto Alessi, chief executive officer (CEO), Alessi.

The user’s needs and meaning are still investigated, but the user is not the ‘centre’ of the research. Companies look at the users’ needs as well as at a changing sociocultural context. As we have seen in the section above, DDI is a phase of the design process that precedes the phase where the focus is on user-centred design (see Figure 1). During DDI these companies take a step back and consider what people could love in a non existing scenario and how they might receive new proposals. Who is then the ‘centre’ of research in Design-Driven Innovation? Verganti introduces the concept of the Interpreter as one of the actors in the innovation environment. Interpreters are “people who can act like bridges, that is, those who do not belong to your industry but who target your same life context” (Verganti, 2009, p. 154). DDI is the result of a networked research process where firms and external interpreters develop knowledge on languages and meanings (Dell'Era & Verganti, 2009).

Verganti also explains that pursuing radical innovation of meaning usually has different implications. Let’s consider for example the question that the company Artemide asked before producing Metamorfosi: How can we make a person feel better when she comes home after work at seven at night? (Verganti, 2008). Verganti explains that this question has three implications. First of all it introduces a broader context: it is not asking about changing a light bulb, but it is asking about life. Second, the subject is broader, as it is not asking about a user in relationship to a particular product, but instead it’s asking about a person, with her social background and culture. Third, the purpose is broader: not a pragmatic need but the reason why people do things in the context proposed. Broadening the perspective, a richer environment emerges for considerations, showing that other actors may share the same question. These actors, interpreters, are companies or individuals from very different market sectors that all have the same interest in understanding how people give meaning to things when they come home from work. These may be: manufacturers of computers and furniture, as well as editors of magazines (who publish articles on domestic scenarios), food companies, universities and design schools and many more.

Figure 3: The Design Discourse Surrounding the Firm. Source: adapted from Verganti (2009, p. 144)

All of these actors may be interpreters for Artimede’s research. Although many of them may not be designers, and although none of them may be interested in lamps, they all contribute to the production of knowledge about how people give meanings to things in their homes. Interpreters are therefore people working on industries different from the one being investigated, but that target the same life context. In fact, the more different interpreter’s perspectives are, the more effective the conceptualization of new meanings will be. Breakthrough proposals emerge from the connection between worlds that are relevant to the user but often unfamiliar to competitors.

The literature explains the advantages and disadvantages of the external acquisition of knowledge in the product development process (Bidault & Cummings, 1994; Chatterji, 1996; de Brentani, 1995; Hargadon & Sutton, 1997; Kessler, Bierly, & Gopalakrishnan, 2000) and proposes different typologies of co-operation with external sources of knowledge (Brockhoff, 1991; Chiesa & Manzini, 1998; Kotabe & Swan, 1995; Millson, Raj, & Wilemon, 1996). Most of these studies however, investigate collaboration only from a technological point of view and not from a socio-cultural one. Verganti, on the other hand, argues that external collaboration is to be sought for the investigation of languages and meanings too. Introducing DDI implies that companies try to sense the dynamics of socio-cultural models and explore new visions of languages and meanings through the interpreter’s contribution (Dell'Era & Verganti, 2009).

Another consideration that is worth mentioning that the debate not only revolves around including users or interpreters in the design process, but it also expands to whether to include anybody in the design process. A study investigating whether designers use focus groups in their design process, shows that designers are reluctant to include users in the idea generation phase of the design process because they worry users are not intuitive enough to contribute to new concepts (Bruseberg & McDonagh-Philp, 2001). Quoting one of the designers interviewed, Bruseberg and McDonagh-Philp report: “you end up doing what other people have in their imagination... it’s up to the designer to push it a bit further” (Bruseberg & McDonagh-Philp, 2001, p. 4). The first part of this sentence could summarize Verganti’s motivation towards not using users in DDI, but the last part of the sentence directs the designer’s concern to her own role in the design process; there seems to be some kind of pride attached to the role of the designer and her, and only her, knowledge and abilities. Bruseberg and McDonagh-Philp’s (2001) investigation also rises an important issue: in a scenario where designers co-design with users, or even just conduct research on users, some think that the figure of the designer, her knowledge and expertise, are in a way diminished. Designers in fact do refer to their own experience and knowledge to interpret users’ needs and to predict their behaviour and preferences (Lorenz, 1990; Rassam, 1995). Bruseberg and McDonagh-Philp also report that designers believe users cannot be expected to look into the future, because customers usually focus on the artefact, and do not go beyond their interaction with it. This conclusion, besides aligning with Verganti’s argument on users not being able to foresee future scenarios and languages, shows that many designers are reluctant to abandon a design-led approach for user-centred design or co-design.

On the other hand, studies point out that design errors arise from the difference between the designer’s and the user’s concept of a product (D. Norman, 1988). It has in fact been demonstrated that including others in the research and design process, is necessary to the development of better products. Visser in fact say that

research with real users serves to provide a richer, more dependable view on situations in which products are or will be used. Studying the context of product’s use helps designers to gain empathy with users, to avoid fixation on present assumptions about the user or the product, and to create innovative concepts on how a product can be experienced. (Visser, Stappers, & van der Lugt, 2005, p. 121)

To those who think that the designer might disappear in the future, Sanders and Stappers (Sanders & Stappers, 2008) explain that in the co-design process designers, as well as researchers, become essential in the creation and exploration of new tools and methods for generative design research. Moreover designers are essential in co-design because of their expert knowledge and skills, which users do not have. Design should therefore be the collaboration of designers, researchers and users: designers because of the skills and expertise they have in product development; researchers because of the skills and knowledge they have in creating and choosing the appropriate methods for the different steps of the design process, and for their skills and expertise in analysing raw data and producing results the team can work on; and users because of the insights on human experiences they bring.

But in the very first phase of a design process, where exploration on a certain topic is pursued, and when the aim is radical innovation of meanings instead of incremental innovation, then the third protagonist, besides designer and researcher, should not be users but should be interpreters, because of their ability to bring very different expertise and experiences. It is important to remember that a DDI approach does not exclude users completely from the process, but just from the initial phase of the process. Users’ input is still used, but simply at a later stage in the process: concept generation and product development.

Even though DDI is not user-centred (but rather interpreter-centred), it still is participatory. Verganti does in fact consider DDI as a research process, where designers, interpreters and researchers work together. Moreover, DDI is not openly co-design, but the authors of the book Design Driven Toolbox do think that it is possible for interpreters to contribute to the entire design process (Jegou, Verganti, Marchesi, Simonelli, & Dell'Era, 2006, p. 43). When discussing the Design Direction Workshop (the third method of DDI that they propose, where themes are transformed into design ideas) and the Knowledge Repository Process (the second method of DDI that they propose, and in which interpreters have the most important role), the authors suggest that “[t]he team involved may be the same, but the project team could be partly or completely different: good interpreters are not necessarily suitable project developers!” (Jegou, Verganti, Marchesi, Simonelli, & Dell'Era, 2006, p. 43). The authors here argue that interpreters may or may not be suitable project developers but they acknowledge the possibility for them to participate in the phase of the process where data are transformed into design ideas, and therefore imply the possibility for DDI to be a participatory phase.

It is important at this point to discuss the reason why interpreters are fundamentally different from users. Besides ‘users’ intended in the general definition, the design literature presents specific types of users: for example lead users and lead customers. Eric von Hippel (2005) for example works with lead users in co-creative activities. The author defines lead users as people having real-life experience with novel products or concepts of interest; they are essential to the marketing research because ordinary users’ real world experiences are usually obsolete by the time a product is developed. The author also specifies that lead users are familiar with conditions that for most lie in the future; moreover lead users are people who, because of their position, benefit by the solution of those needs that they face before other people. The concept of lead users is very similar to that of interpreters. Interpreters too are in fact more familiar than users to novel products, and they are familiar with conditions that may emerge in future scenarios. Moreover interpreters too benefit from the solutions produced; interpreters from companies investigating the same life context benefit in particular form the same research produced by the design process they are part of. The difference between lead users and interpreters is that the latter are members of industries focusing on scenarios that are complementary to the one being investigated.

Seybold (2006) instead works with lead customers who are part of the small percentage of customers who are ‘truly’ creative, or ‘the most visionary’. This characteristic too can be ex- tended to users and interpreters, because “everyone is born with tremendous capacities for creativity” (Robinson, 2010, p. 56) and because the correct tools can help anybody to work creatively (Sanders, 1999).

Sanders and Stappers raise an interesting point in relation to these two approaches to users: they argue that “it is not yet clear whether these elite groups of people can represent and speak for the majority of people who will actually use the goods and services that are being designed and developed” (Sanders & Stappers, 2008, p. 8). It could be argued that researchers who include ‘lead users’, ‘lead customers’ or ‘interpreters’ instead of users are choosing this type of participants because they do not want them to represent or speak for the majority of people; on the contrary these participants represent and speak for a category of people that is able to see things differently, and contribute to the project at a deeper level.

Finally, it is important to remember that DDI does not want to replace user-centred; DDI is proposed as an additional phase at the beginning of the design process. Including users during the final, solution-finding phase of the design process is not denied or questioned. DDI is proposing a different approach to be taken at the very beginning of the process, when the designer is investigating the world that the product to be designed will enter.

So, users-centred or design-driven?

DDI focuses on the initial phase of the innovation process, “where firms sense the dynamics of sociocultural models and think of new languages and visions with an exploratory aim” (Verganti, 2008, p. 450). DDI is a research project that aims at investigating the life context (Verganti, 2009, p. 143) that the project wants to address, and defining new radical meanings. In other words, DDI is the phase that Sanders (Sanders & Stappers, 2008) calls the fuzzy front end, and the phase that Jones (1970) calls divergence, where to “extend[...] the boundaries of a design situation” (Jones, 1970, p. 64).

The difference between the way other authors like Sanders and Jones, see the first phase of a design process, and the way Verganti sees it, is that DDI implies a radical innovation of meaning: DDI does not aim at understanding what people like and do. DDI is not user-centred as design is for Sanders (2002) for example; DDI does not aim at understanding what meanings people attach to things, but instead it aims at generating the possibility for new meanings.

Some researchers agree with Verganti’s approach and pursue the goals of Design-Driven Innovation (Bucolo & Matthews, 2011) [Note: Note that in this paper authors talk about Design Led Innovation. I believe they could instead be referring to Design-Driven Innovation, as they extensively cite Verganti’s contribution when referring to Design Led Innovation. I consider Design Led as the perspective that “uses design thinking and has the potential for significant innovation but […] does not value the input of potential end-users as being participants in the early front end of the process” (Liem & Sanders, 2011, p. 113)], whereas others are sceptical about it. Liem and Sanders (2011) in fact argue:

One explanation for why Design-Driven Innovation has largely remained unexplored is that its pro- cesses are hard to detect when one applies the typical methods of scientific investigation in product development, such as analysis of phases, organizational structures, or problem-solving tools [...]. Unlike user-centred processes, Design-Driven Innovation is hardly based on formal roles and methods such as ethnographic research. (Liem & Sanders, 2011, p. 112)

There could be three reasons why Design-Driven Innovation has not yet had a large influence in design research. First of all this contribution is relatively new; Verganti published the first article on the subject in 2003 (Verganti, 2003), and he published his book Design-Driven Innovation. Changing the rules of competition by radically innovating what things mean in 2009. The second reason is that this research was first published within the management field (Verganti, 2003) and has just started spreading within the design discipline. The third reason is that the Design-Driven Innovation proposes is new and revolutionary: “forget user-centred design” and design for radical innovation of meanings. After decades of reasoning in terms of ‘user-centeredness’, and within a design culture in which design research (and user-centred design as well) is still difficult to integrate in the design process, it is understandable researchers and designers are still processing and trying to make sense of it.

What I disagree with, is Liem and Sanders’ (2011) point of view with regard to DDI methods: “[Design-Driven Innovation’s] processes are hard to detect when one applies the typical methods of scientific investigation in product development, such as analysis of phases, organizational structures, or problem-solving tools” (Liem & Sanders, 2011, p. 112). In fact, understanding how DDI works was Verganti’s own challenge. Verganti in fact, when approaching this subject and starting his research into companies such as Artemide, Nintendo, Apple, Whole Foods Market and Alessi, explains:

we know little about how Design-Driven Innovation occurs. Years of research have yielded sever- al compelling explanations for technological breakthrough, but no theory about how to manage radical innovation when it comes to meanings. It’s a conundrum enshrouded in mystery [...] The innovation process of these firms was tacit, invisible – no methods, no tools, no steps. (Verganti, 2009, pp. 7-9)

His contribution was in fact to present those methods and steps that can allow others to conduct DDI. There is also an entire book explaining the different methods that can be adopted during Design-Driven Innovation (Jegou et al., 2006), even though the book does not describe a scientific approach (it does not for example suggest or describe a scientific method of qualitative data analysis). Secondly and most importantly, DDI is not a process for the investigation in product development (as stated in Liem and Sanders’ sentence above). Verganti clearly specifies that DDI is a phase of the design process that not only comes before product development, but also before concept generation (as explained above and with Figure 1).

Moreover, I disagree with the following sentence: “unlike user-centred processes, Design-Driven Innovation is hardly based on formal roles and methods such as ethnographic research” (Liem & Sanders, 2011, p. 112). As user-centred design and participatory design use a variety of methods of data collection and analysis, so does DDI. Jegou et al. (2006) for example propose some methods of data collection (which aim at creating of new languages and opening up opportunities), and other studies propose new methods of data collection to be used in the very first phase of a design process aiming at designing for meanings (Author, 2013). This suggests that there is scope for research producing countless design methods to be applied DDI, exactly like Sanders herself is doing within participatory design and co-design (Sanders & Stappers, 2012). Moreover I believe that many of Sanders’ methods would actually be perfect for DDI too, as they are designed to reach latent knowledge and trigger users’ (but it could as well be the interpreter’s) creativity.

Listening to Verganti himself talking about Design-Driven Innovation triggered my interest with this approach. Then reading about it and comparing it to other approaches has reinforced my personal alignment with it. Probably the most important aspect for understanding the similarity between user-centred design and Design-Driven Innovation is the fact that one of the founders of user-centred design itself agrees with Verganti’s view.

In fact, once Donald Norman and Roberto Verganti discovered each other’s work, they collaborated on a talk for the Designing Pleasurable Products and Interactions conference in Milan, 2011, and wrote a paper together (D. A. Norman & Verganti, 2012). In this paper it is explained that Norman thought how user-centred design could only produce incremental innovation and not radical, and that he was unable to find an example of radical innovation that resulted from the user-centred design process. The authors in fact write:

Norman realized that this continual process of checking with the intended users would indeed lead to incremental enhancements of the product, but that it actually was a form of hill-climbing [...] Al- though the hill-climbing procedure guarantees continual improvement with eventual termination at the peak of the hill, it has a well-known limit: there is no way to know whether there might be even higher hills in some other part of the design space. Hill-climbing methods get trapped in local maxima. Incremental innovation attempts to reach the highest point on the current hill. Radical Innovation seeks the highest hill. The implication for design is clear: because human-centered de- sign is a form of hill climbing, it is only suited for incremental innovation. (D. A. Norman & Verganti, 2012, p. 3)

Both authors agree that user-centred design is not capable of producing radical innovation, because it focuses on things people already know about. The authors’ contribution is the identification of the four types of design research: Basic Design Research, which aims at exploring new meanings but does not consider the use of products; Design-Driven Research, which aims at exploring new meanings intended to be applied in products; Human-Centred Research, which explores current meanings of products; and Tinkering, the playing with a product or a technology with no specific goal. For the authors, Design-Driven Research can lead to radical innovation of meanings, directing the research towards new interpretations of what could be meaningful for people.

In conclusion, User-Centred Design and Design-Driven Innovation are not two opposing approaches to design; they can be considered not as a choice that eliminates the other, but, with regards to their methodologies in particular, as two subsequent phases of the same process: Design-Driven Innovation investigating possibilities for new messages, languages and meanings, and User-Centred Design aligning those new messages, languages and meanings with user needs. Both these approaches have therefore great validity in the design discipline. The bigger difference seems to be their different goals: the former aims at understanding meanings attributed to products, the latter aims at exploring possibilities for new meanings, as identified by Norman and Verganti (2012). The choice of either one or the other approach is therefore reduced to simple choice: do we want to design what people think they need, or do we want to invest our resources to design products, services and systems that propose a radical innovation in technology and meaning?


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