How do I reach Jan Chipchase @ Nokia and why is Apple so bad?

April 14th, 2008

If you need to reach Jan Chipchase, the best, and sometimes only, way to get him is on his cellphone. The first time I spoke to him last fall, he was at home in his apartment in Tokyo. The next time, he was in Accra, the capital of Ghana, in West Africa. Several weeks after that, he was in Uzbekistan, by way of Tajikistan and China, and in short order he and his phone visited Helsinki, London and Los Angeles. If you decide not to call Jan Chipchase but rather to send e-mail, the odds are fairly good that you?ll get an ?out of office? reply redirecting you back to his cellphone, with a notation about his current time zone ? ?GMT +9? or ?GMT -8?


Writes the New York Times

We need to understand that space and time have been subverted by the digital revolution

The comedian Bill Bailey describes reading Stephen Hawkings? A Brief History of Time. In it Hawking suggests the universe could be 3 possible shapes. These are:

1). Long and thin like a piece of tagliatelle
2). Round like a marble
3). Saddle shaped

Bailey finds it hard to deal with the notion that our universe could be saddle shaped In fact he says that Hawkings should say that the universe is saddle shaped that is strapped t a giant donkey being led up and down an intergalactic beach by God.

The point is that our once familiar analogue world, which we understood no longer exists in our digital universe. As Bailey observed, in the days of Christopher Columbus it was easier to buy a ‘To the edge and back ticket.”

My point is, we don?t know what shape our new digital universe is. We have to learn to navigate and describe it. And that is exactly what Chipchase is doing..

Chipchase has worked for the Finnish cellphone company Nokia as a “human-behavior researcher.” He?s also sometimes referred to as a ?user anthropologist.? To an outsider, the job can seem decidedly oblique. His mission, broadly defined, is to peer into the lives of other people, accumulating as much knowledge as possible about human behavior so that he can feed helpful bits of information back to the company ? to the squads of designers and technologists and marketing people who may never have set foot in a Vietnamese barbershop but who would appreciate it greatly if that barber someday were to buy a Nokia.

Identity and community

A Mississippi bowling alley, he will say, is a social hub, a place rife with nuggets of information about how people communicate. ( here 2 ) A photograph of the contents of a woman?s handbag is more than that; it?s a window on her identity, what she considers essential, the weight she is willing to bear. The prostitute ads in the Brazilian phone booth? Those are just names, probably fake names, coupled with real cellphone numbers ? lending to Chipchase?s theory that in an increasingly transitory world, the cellphone is becoming the one fixed piece of our identity.

Start with a laugh and work backwards
Bil Bailey is a comedian and he is asked how he comes up with his jokes. Bill says

I start with a laugh and works backwards. What do I need to do to create that about of laughter!! What is the higher order currency we are creating for our endusers?

If that is lost in translation, this means, what is the greatest customer experience you can create and do that in such a way that they want to come back and do it gain and again and again?

And this is what Chipchase is looking for

This sort of on-the-ground intelligence-gathering is central to what?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 Nokia?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 ? loaded with products and pitch lines, as a marketer might be ? 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 owner?s wife, enlightening the company through written reports and PowerPoint presentations on how they live and what they?re likely to need from a cellphone, allowing that to inform its design.

However it still took a PC company to turn out one of the most disruptive pieces of handset design and wake up the entire industry. And of course that company was Apple. In How Apple Got Everything Right By Doing Everything Wrong Is the complete antithesis of Chips work and process. Wired explains….

But by deliberately flouting the Google mantra (don’t do evil – sic), Apple has thrived. When Jobs retook the helm in 1997, the company was struggling to survive. Today it has a market cap of $105 billion, placing it ahead of Dell and behind Intel. Its iPod commands 70 percent of the MP3 player market. Four billion songs have been purchased from iTunes. The iPhone is reshaping the entire wireless industry. Even the underdog Mac operating system has begun to nibble into Windows’ once-unassailable dominance; last year, its share of the US market topped 6 percent, more than double its portion in 2003.

It’s hard to see how any of this would have happened had Jobs hewed to the standard touchy-feely philosophies of Silicon Valley. Apple creates must-have products the old-fashioned way: by locking the doors and sweating and bleeding until something emerges perfectly formed. It’s hard to see the Mac OS and the iPhone coming out of the same design-by-committee process that produced Microsoft Vista or Dell’s Pocket DJ music player. Likewise, had Apple opened its iTunes-iPod juggernaut to outside developers, the company would have risked turning its uniquely integrated service into a hodgepodge of independent applications ? kind of like the rest of the Internet, come to think of it.

And now observers, academics, and even some other companies are taking notes. Because while Apple’s tactics may seem like Industrial Revolution relics, they’ve helped the company position itself ahead of its competitors and at the forefront of the tech industry. Sometimes, evil works.

It’s an interesting dilemma – an open and consultative approach to learning and design or one that is more, shall we say – insular. Yet I believe its not one nor the other. Personally coming from a design background – one can identify with a singular vision, and an uncompromising approach to design. Marc Newson is another good example of visionary design brought to the public fore by an individual. SMLXL‘s work with Masterfoods and The Coca Cola Company was delivered by having a very singular idea of making breakthrough products and the brands that wrapped themselves around those propositions. This was the first asymetric designed botle in the entire history of the CocaCola Company. Everyone said including the leading lights in R&D said it could not be done. I begged to differ as I argued it was a fundamental part of the experience and the communication. Had we left it to committee we would have ended up with something a little more prosaic.


An Apple vs. a Nokia approach are a different form of leadership and investigation into technology, products and how that benefits society.

My one beef perhaps is with the Nokia N80. A great little device, which has one flaw – its rubbish at taking pictures in poor and ambient lighting. This is because as I understand it, the Nokia designers wanted a certain kind of design effect which superceded certain issues around optimal photographic performance. Now that is unforgivable. This issue came up whilst I was in Japan recently.

So Apple and Marc Newson give us their unadulterated vision of design. Its uncompromising and its all very very beautiful – Me I worship at the alter of Apple – Nokia well as The New York Times explains…

…the possibilities afforded by a proliferation of cellphones are potentially revolutionary. Today, there are more than 3.3 billion mobile-phone subscriptions worldwide, which means that there are at least three billion people who don?t own cellphones, the bulk of them to be found in Africa and Asia. Even the smallest improvements in efficiency, amplified across those additional three billion people, could reshape the global economy in ways that we are just beginning to understand.

And that is also a very worthy cause and one I also subscribe to. Equally both Newson and Apple appeal not to Nokia’s vision of connecting everyone, or indeed, to better enable people to connect. Scale in terms of Newson and Apple are debatable here. Because It will be a while before we get iPhones being the mainstay of Africa or even people driving around in 021C Cars.

And “The mobile phone is the cheapest object of personal aspiration.”

  1. 4 Responses to “How do I reach Jan Chipchase @ Nokia and why is Apple so bad?”

  2. By David Clark on Apr 16, 2008

    Its important to note that Apple doesn’t shun user research or even contextual inquiry/user ethnography. Its just that they do it in secret. The Wired article is correct in asserting that Apple does not open up its process to the world, but good design is good design and these days that can only be done by really understanding your users and what they are trying to do.

  3. By Alan Moore on Apr 16, 2008

    Dear David,

    Thank you for your comment – and I could not agree more. For example with the iPsei bottle we wanted something that would fit in a users hand and be designed for the hand not the production process.

    Your comment also points to an inaccuracy through bias in the Wired article by the the subtlety of omission. That you correct.

    Thanks for posting.


  4. By Richard Watkinson on Apr 18, 2008

    It is all about ideas. Jan Chipchase is more about his own personal discovery of cultural interaction and discovering what is in a womans handbag in Bombay amongst many many other things. This learning is quite interesting – could be a nice book – but this information can become confusing for creative designers to work off because there is no true focus or idea.

    The reality is that inspired design works off what people desire… Co Creation is key – bringing insights from your consumer to develop tight ideas – then your design team going back and making sure it feels right. This is simply what Apple do and succeed at.

    It is so simple. Small design groups and consumers delivering inspired design ideas.

    So why can’t Nokia get it right? They are the Titanic when it comes to design – too many layers of designers, researchers, management and unfortunately they all have their own opinion. True insights and ideas get compromised along the development path.

    Co Creation insights from consumers can be understood as potential ideas. As an example from say a fashion trendsetter – insight under retro styling from 1960′s car – I’d love a phone that feels and looks like a 1960′s Rolex diving watch. That is an idea – develop it in a brief, develop mood boards – design team develop – back to trendsetters – does it feel right? look right ? materials right?

    That is Co Creation. All it needs is someone to recognise which insights are potential design ideas, usually a smart designer or creative planner.

    Personally Jan Chipchase can keep his airmiles and confusion because inspired design comes through Co Creation within a SMALL unit. Consumers, designers, idea. Deliver! No secret there. Well done Apple. Bring it on.

  5. By Alan Moore on Apr 18, 2008

    Thanks Richard for your frank comment.

    I wonder if others out there have a point of view on this?

    Thanks for posting


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