Understanding how people around the world use their mobile phones and fit them into their lives is crucial to product development, Nokia’s Jan Chipchase tells Nic Howell

What do billionaires and illiterate people have in common when it comes to mobile phones? Delegation, says Jan Chipchase. “If you’re very rich, other people field your calls,” he says. But he has also observed how illiterate people around the world get friends and family to use phones for them in a similar way. “From a design point of view, it’s no different - someone performs the task for you.”

Using observations from the field to understand mobile phone cultures from around the world is central to Chipchase’s role at Nokia. His knowledge of illiterate phone users comes from extensive research in emerging markets, which has included monks Bluetoothing music files to one another in Mongolia and streetside repair booths and shared phone use in Africa.

If Nokia wants to design products that fit into people’s lives, then it has to understand how these lives are lived.

“Most people would describe what we do as ethnography, but I’m careful about that term because I’m not trained in that field,” says Chipchase. “I like the term ‘exploratory field research’. I’m incredibly inquisitive; I like talking to strangers. And I thought I could do a better usability job by getting out of the lab.”

Usually working three to 15 years ahead of the market, Chipchase’s research has been patented and feeds directly into handset design. Until the start of this year he was part of a team in the Mobile HCI Group within Nokia’s Research Center, but this month he moved to the Nokia Design, Insight and Innovation Studio to bring his observations closer to the product lifecycle.

Previously, Chipchase’s findings helped shape the design of Nokia’s 1100 and 1600 models, now selling well in India. For these handsets, animated icons and audio feedback were built in to take account of the needs of illiterate users. Nokia can’t afford to ignore the 799m illiterate people in the world, but Chipchase says the research has had spin-off benefits. “A lot of people like phones that are easy to use. I think the lessons that we’ve learned from research into illiterate people apply to everyone,” he says.

It may seem odd that a company currently producing ten handsets a second should be interested in what Chipchase has dubbed ‘informal repair cultures’ in emerging markets, where self-taught mechanics, often using their own tools, help owners of used phones keep their handsets up and running.

But Chipchase believes this work provides valuable direction when rethinking markets. Indeed, he sees connections that could feed into Nokia’s hardware development in ways that parallel open-source software.

“The thing I’m looking at and will continue to look at in 2007 is, given the range of skills that are available, what would it take to turn these cultures of repair into cultures of innovation? And to do it in ways that benefit the individuals, the communities in which they work and Nokia?

“So on the research side we’re thinking whether we can or should redesign our products in a way that reflects all these skills that are available. Does it change the way that we build? Does it change the way that we distribute?”

Building on this, some of Chipchase’s latest research looks at charging services provided by street vendors in Uganda - how they charge mobiles for the cost of phone calls and manage issues such as security, handset compatibility and customer trust.

These new services and markets fascinate Chipchase. He has researched ‘step messaging’ services in rural Africa, where calls to mobile phone kiosks are delivered as messages on foot. One of his favourites is ‘sente’, the informal practice of sending money as airtime, which effectively enables the owner of a mobile phone to offer basic ATM services.

These are examples of what Chipchase calls “innovation through necessity”, but his research is remarkably varied, taking in mobile TV consumption in Korea, living with families in Milan to learn their storage habits, and studying how female manual workers wear their phones in Ji Lin City, China. He once conducted a study of over 6,000 mobile phone covers, simply photographing every one to see what he could learn.

While his research takes him all over the world, he lives in Tokyo. “My background is user interface design,” he says, “and if you’re interested in UI there’s probably nowhere in the world that puts more experimental products on the market. Many of them are unusable products, but you’ll get to see them and appreciate why they’re unusable - although there are many products that are usable as well.”

His current fascination is with what the evolution of materials means for UI. His research has already established that the three objects which most adults take with them when they leave home are keys, money and, if they have one, a mobile phone. So he’s thinking about how these needs will be met as materials evolve.

“If you look at the trend of miniaturisation and flexible components, when you combine those two things, devices could be any shape or size,” he says. This fascinates him, especially when this hardware takes on uses such as banking or features to do with personal identity. “We’ve done a lot of base research around that, so when those technologies are ready we’re really going to understand what will work and what won’t, in different cultures,” he says.

For Chipchase, mobile phones are about survival and the ability to transcend time and space. It may sound grand, but he’s seen the effects of this around the world. “When people who aren’t currently connected become connected, it makes a huge difference to their lives,” he says. “That’s probably the biggest trend. It may not be a trend for you or me living in London or Tokyo, but for people who haven’t got it, it’s a big thing.”


Name Jan Chipchase
Title Senior specialist for user-centred design, Nokia Design, Insight & Innovation Studio
Age 38
1992: BA Hons Development Economics, London Guildhall University
1995: MSc User Interface Design, London Guildhall University
1992-99: User interface designer, Institute for Learning and Research Technology
1999-2003: Director, GomaGoma internet consultancy
2000-06: Principal researcher, Nokia Research Center
2007: Senior specialist for user-centred design, Nokia Design, Insight & Innovation Studio


Published 25 January, 2007 by NMA Staff

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