Design, Technology and Business

Incidental photo of a perfect sauna evening by Lake Saimaa in FinlandIn an article published in The Register (“Rescuing Nokia”), Andrew Orlowski interviews Juhani Risku, a former Nokia senior executive, and his views on what is wrong with Nokia, and his manifesto for how to put it right. It references Risku’s recent [Finnish] book “New Nokia – the manuscript“.

The article isn’t about the nitty-gritty of UI design, but more about the overall design ethic of the company as a whole, which is really interesting. This directly addresses user experience design in it’s broadest sense, instead of focusing on one of its many facets.

Contextual design

“There is a philosophy called Contextual Design […] The idea is that you ask the users what they are doing, then design something. If you think about Apple, they don’t ask anybody. The idea of users as designers is a catastrophe!

“It’s only relevant to evolutionary products, it’s not relevant to blue-sky products.When you have a blue-sky product, there are no users, and so there are no users’ opinions. We have to rely on what the desires of users are and trust the designers.”

Apple’s approach to design of new products is famously not market-lead, but instead relies on the vision (of Steve Jobs, mostly) and trusts its designers (Jonathan Ive, et al), as Juhani Risku remarks here. It’s a good point. Straying into the world of focus groups and (*shudder*) design-by-committee is not a fun experience.

As Steve Jobs has said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them“.

On designing bioinformatics services and tools

Is that true of new services and tools that we develop, though? It’s a pretty challenging concept. Product design is one thing; complex scientific applications are another.

I think it is in some ways easier for Apple design teams to think “like the man in the street”, since they are dealing with consumer products. Then they really can ask “What do I want from a phone? How do I want to use maps? What would I like to be able to do with augmented reality?”

But for expert services and tools, which require quite a lot of domain knowledge from their users, we as developers and designers need to know more about those users, because we are not them. That’s why user research is still so important… activities and requirements are complex, and we don’t want to end up with any Ford Edsels, thanks very much! For us, understanding the context of use is really important.

Having said that, it is good to have this “blue-sky” thinking and innovation, of course. Simply by brainstorming ideas without constraints, especially, I feel, across teams, we may be able to find ways to do things that we would never otherwise have thought of.

Hat-tip to Matthew Solle and Harry Brignull for highlighting the Register article


One thought on “Design, Technology and Business

  1. If Risku thinks Contextual Design is about asking users what they are doing, then he doesn’t understand the process. It’s about observing real work practice and then talking with users to clarify goals and strategies. Any process can be poorly implemented and then blamed for whatever failures emerge. And any process can be nullified by misguided management habits, the innovator’s dilemma, or other threats.

    Your point is a good one: there’s a difference between designing products consumer products we all use and designing for domain expertise who we are not.

    And while Contextual Design certainly isn’t the only way to innovate, it can be quite helpful, particular in delivering innovative products in specialized domains. Again, like any process, it also depends on the expertise of the people executing it.

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