British interface designer and user anthropologist Jan Chipchase spent several months last year thinking about how the human race shares things. He's an exploratory human behavioral field researcher at the Nokia (NOK) Research Center based in Tokyo. Chipchase tries to help multidisciplinary researchers understand how the world will be in the future. On Mar. 9, he spoke at the TED conference in Monterey.
His talk, which he called "Always On: An Introduction to Design Research for Everyone," quickly became a hot topic of discussion among conference goers. BusinessWeek.com Innovation Editor Jessi Hempel sat down with him there to discuss what an anthropologist is doing working for a cell-phone company. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:
What exactly do you do, Jan?
I work for Nokia Design. It's a group of 250 people worldwide in Nokia that includes psychologists, industrial designers, materials experts, and people like me, anthropologists. We use human-behavioral research to think about how the future might turn out.
Help me understand better.
At Nokia, we have an internal market for ideas. There could be someone in Nokia who wants research, and they will come to us. You might have people in the company who want questions answered. A simple example would be: How are early adopters of mobile TV using mobile TV? That's about current behaviors. We would go to the place where the technology is being rolled out, South Korea, and we would look at that. We would take the core lessons of that and think about the further, future place.
Then there are areas where growth is likely in five years because of demographics or price points but we don't fundamentally know too much about this area beyond analyst reports and the research.
Can you give me an example of some work you've done?
Let's talk about a study we did last year on how people share objects. You can relate this to mobile phones. They're basically designed as personal objects. But if you look at usage in Africa, increasingly the phone is shared. A family might have one. A village might have one, or someone who runs a phone kiosk in a village might have one. We're thinking about how we could redesign the mobile phone and the communication experience to be more suitable for sharing.
We picked two cultures, Indonesia and Uganda. Cultural comparisons are good because they can tell you about what's similar, but also sometimes they make it easier to see obvious differences. We need a month's lead time to plan for a study. I prefer something like three or four months, but we can move quite swiftly if we need to.
So in this instance, you sent a team to Uganda. What did you do to prepare?
Before we arrive, we plan the project to death. We determined where we wanted to be, and then we connected with the people in the community who could help us to arrange this. We wanted to spend time in Kampala, in a fishing village that was remote, and in villages that had no mobile connectivity.
In a 12 day study, we might have eight to 10 participants. A fairly typical group will include two or three Nokia people, one or two good local guides, plus up to six students from local universities. Ideally, when we get somewhere, we like to be in a space where everyone can come together. Ideally, it means renting a house, having a living room space, having stuff in a fridge.
Everyone in Nokia is coming from a different location. We spend something like 10 to 12 days in a culture. Every single second and every single thing that we do should be something we can learn from. We usually end up engaging with around 30 local people on an ad hoc basis.
Do you ever stay with your subjects?
Very occasionally we live with people. I know anthropologists have been doing this for years, but in the modern corporate sense, it's quite difficult to do. There are legal obligations when you think about all the various risks. The liabilities can be huge.
So what happens when you get there?
As soon as we arrive, the rules change. Maybe there's no electricity, or the guy who really absolutely said he wanted to be a part of the study won't do it. There are so many different variables. If we just go by the book when we're there, we would miss all these different opportunities for stuff that presents itself. We really try to see how people fit together and adapt.
How do you approach your research?
We have maybe a dozen techniques for engaging with people from the local culture. We do street surveys which typically involve 100-plus people. Typically, I buy a bicycle and cycle around the city with a translator. If we see something interesting, we get off and we engage. It's a breadth and depth approach to understanding the culture. Last year, I think I bought 10 bicycles. At the end of the study we give them away to people.
What did you learn about how humans share things?
When we're there, the fact is there are 101 things we would have never considered when we were planning. Some stuff is loosely related to what we're interested in, and some is just a total tangent, but we make sure we document it all.
When we went to Uganda and Indonesia to deliver one report, we actually came back with five or six reports. We did one big one, but we delivered all these other very visual reports that we knew would interest different people in the company. I posted a few of them online.
It was things like: If you don't have access to power, how do you keep electrical objects in your home charged? They had incredibly simple yet sophisticated ways of doing this.
It's innovation through necessity. For example, if there's one person in the village that has a mobile phone, it's possible to send money to any person in the village. It works like this: I'm in Kampala, an urban location. You're my cousin, and you're in a village somewhere in a rural location. This is really an example of street innovation. You don't have a mobile phone, but there's a phone in the village. I buy a prepaid phone card in Kampala, and instead of using it to top up my own phone, I call the local village kiosk operator and I read out the number, and they use that number to top up their phone. Or I could text message it. Some of the carriers have caught on to this and worked out a way of systematically sending air time.
So then the kiosk operator pays the cousin the cost of the minutes?
There's this thing called "sente." It's the word for money in Uganda, and it's got a second meaning, which is to send money as air time. It works in the same way, except the kiosk operator then takes a commission of 10% to 20%—basically extending banking services to people who have no banking infrastructure.
If they wanted to do this before the mobile phone, they would have to spend a day traveling to the nearest village. They would have to wait at a bank for many hours. And even then, the bank probably wouldn't be able to do the money transfer because they wouldn't have a bank account because they're not rich enough.
Basically, this turns anyone who has a mobile phone into an ATM machine on an abstract level.
What does this mean to Nokia?
There are actually things that come out of this that help us frame other things directly related to our business. But the other side of it is simply using it to inspire us to think more broadly.
One example: Within six months of completing that study in Uganda, one of our business units had filed a patent not directly relating to something like "sente," but using the material from the entire study as an inspiration to [investigate] how people manage the expenses related to their calls. It was being offered as a financial service by our business unit.