In a recent NYTimes Magazine piece on whether cell-phones can end poverty in developing countries, we get introduced to Jan Chipchase, Nokia’s â€œhuman-behavior researcher”. His job is to be a “design and usability ethnographer“, to find out how users in different countries actually use their cell phones and help the designers back home figure out what features they need. He moves from a Vietnamese barbershop to a Mississippi bowling alley, from a Brazilian phone booth to the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.
This sort of on-the-ground intelligence-gathering is central to whatâ€™s known as human-centered design, a business-world niche that has become especially important to ultracompetitive high-tech companies trying to figure out how to write software, design laptops or build cellphones that people find useful and unintimidating and will thus spend money on.Several companies, including Intel, Motorola and Microsoft, employ trained anthropologists to study potential customers, while Nokiaâ€™s researchers, including Chipchase, more often have degrees in design. Rather than sending someone like Chipchase to Vietnam or India as an emissary for the company â€” loaded with products and pitch lines, as a marketer might be â€” the idea is to reverse it, to have Chipchase, a patently good listener, act as an emissary for people like the barber or the shoe-shop ownerâ€™s wife, enlightening the company through written reports and PowerPoint presentations on how they live and what theyâ€™re likely to need from a cellphone, allowing that to inform its design.
The premise of the work is simple â€” get to know your potential customers as well as possible before you make a product for them. But when those customers live, say, in a mud hut in Zambia or in a tin-roofed hutong dwelling in China, when you are trying â€” as Nokia and just about every one of its competitors is â€” to design a cellphone that will sell to essentially the only people left on earth who donâ€™t yet have one, which is to say people who are illiterate, making $4 per day or less and have no easy access to electricity, the challenges are considerable.
This tactic is likely part of why Nokia is doing so well in emerging markets.
[In January], Nokia announced that it had sold a record 133.5 million mobile phones during the fourth quarter of 2007. This figure was up by more than a quarter from the same period a year earlier, boosting its overall market share to 40 percent.
Meanwhile, Nokia rival Motorola reported Wednesday that shipments of its handsets had fallen 38 percent during the quarter, pushing its market share down yet again to 12 percent, the lowest level since 2001. But Motorola isn’t the only handset maker struggling; Sony Ericsson has also had trouble growing its market share. The company, which targets the high-end market in Europe, only grew its market share in 2007 by 2 points to 9 percent.
Nokia reported that it saw the strongest growth in sales in the Middle East and Africa. Shipments here were up 52.3 percent. Asia-Pacific and China also saw strong sales growth, while sales in mature markets like North America fell during the quarter.
For more of Jan’s work/though process, you can read his intriguing blog Future Perfect. A good story to start with: Recycled, Upcycled: Remade. “Is it possible to make an upcycled mobile phone entirely from recycled materials… that consumers will want to buy?”