This week I had the pleasure to host Jan Chipchase, FuturePerfect, renowned Nokia research guru, at a frog and IxDA sponsored event in NY. I first met Jan at DUX in 2005 where he did a brilliant presentation on a research study around what people carry in their purse. His premise being that this is the ultimate value threshold that we should use to measure the success of a personal device like a mobile phone. What emerged were insights around how the phone could better integrate with the other things we carry (keys, wallet...). His talk was fun and fascinating. His style was very casual. what I didn't realize, and found out on Wednesday, was that this project launched his research practice over at Nokia, establishing the value of his methods as an efficient way to inform product design decisions.
I had a chance to grab dinner with Jan after the talk and we reflected a bit on the trajectory of that practice. It was very clear to me from that early experience that his goal back then was to effect product design decisions at the feature level – to help Nokia understand how to create products that were stickier, better suited to our personal needs and emerging social behaviors. I am sure that is still an essential part of his work but he has come along way (in no small part due to his personal influence). He is now finding that his most meaningful collaborations are with strategy groups within Nokia. He has been invited into much larger conversations about new markets and product strategies. Pretty cool, and no small feat in a company as large as Nokia. Particularly for an outsider like Jan (he is the only research / design employee based in Japan).
It is a perfect illustration of the rapid emergence of Design Research as a powerful business tool. And it was very interesting to chat with someone who seems to enjoy equally shooting pictures with his fish eye lens in a 6 foot square shack in Ghana or debating the value of market-changing strategies in a corporate setting. Why would conversations in a slum over two weeks with a few dozen impoverished people be welcome in a discussion of corporate strategy? We certainly have come a long way. The passion that comes from direct contact, true connection to specific social needs, has become an essential force in managing strategic decisions. With so many business options to evaluate - the power of a compelling story is only increasing. It is the paradox of choice on a global scale. Jan is doing a superb job of being the agent change for all of us.
The conversation also reminded me of stories I have heard from Hartmut Esslinger, our founder, about his early days with Sony, and his tremendous respect for Akio Morita. Morita really understood how products were made. And stayed very close to these processes even as he was running one of the largest CE manufacturers in the world. He maintained a personal sense of pride in the details of construction. He wasn't just looking at spreadsheets all day.
As we switch to the 21st century economy I believe that CEO's need to have that same sense of pride and appreciation of the specific behaviors they are trying to shape and influence - this is their brand and their product rolled into one. You can only see what you make through these direct encounters - not sales spreadsheets. Seems like a necessary point of view to stay relevant and maintain focus. Are there any CEO's that actually do this? Would Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, the CEO of Nokia (whose tagline is "Connecting People"), be willing to ride shotgun with Jan once a year through the urban slums of the world?
I don't know.