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July 2, 2008

Meet the mobile anthropologist

GLOBAL – You’ve seen some of his research, you’ve heard a bit about how we works and what he does. Now though you can find out everything you’d ever want to know (almost) about Nokia’s Jan Chipcase. His work takes him around the world observing and understanding how mobile design fits into and affects lives, societies and cultures. But don’t call him an anthropologist; because he’s not fully qualified he
much prefers ‘design research’ to describe his job.

If you want to get a more accurate insight in Jan’s job, findings and views on mobile phones then pop over to the New Scientist website. Jason Palmer managed to catch up with Jan in Japan, where he currently lives works, and interviewed him for the website, revealing some very interesting in the process.

With the mobile handset at the centre of his research the obvious question is where the phone, on a basic level fits into our everyday lives. Jan’s take on it being a tool for survival is an interesting and, perhaps for some of us, surprising notion:

“The common denominator between cultures, regardless of age, gender or context is: keys, money and, if you own one, a mobile phone. Why those three objects? Without wanting to sound hyperbolic, essentially it boils down to survival. Keys provide access to warmth and shelter, money is a very versatile tool that can buy food, transport and so on. A mobile phone, people soon realise, is a great tool for recovering from emergency situations, especially if the first two fail.”

Jan’s recent research projects have centred on the emerging and rural markets around the globe and he believes a lot has been learnt from this mobile sector, especially understanding future trends. He expands

“We do research in such communities because these are the places in which we can best learn about the kinds of mobile use that will become mainstream in other parts of the world. We find these communities to be incredibly innovative in the way they use their mobile phones.”

Interestingly, areas such as Uganda and Ghana also harboured an emergence of repair and customising sub cultures and money saving tricks born out of necessity.

“In some countries people are incredibly price-conscious and measure costs in seconds and cents. In Ghana we saw that people tend to buy two or more SIM cards, one for each network provider. When they’re calling a number belonging to a particular network, they’d use that company’s SIM. Some guys have a small metal sleeve that has a little bit of circuitry in. They can take your SIM cards, strip away the plastic, squeeze two of the SIM circuit boards into one and fit that new dual card into a phone.”

Jan also points out that the results of his research, if at all, don’t come to fruition via the production line over night. Although there are, as he explains, some exceptions

“We did a study on phone sharing in Uganda and Indonesia, and within a year – which is really quick when you’re talking about hardware changes – we had two products out which support multiple address books, allowing people to share a device within a family or a company while giving them a degree of privacy.”

As you can see, Jan’s job takes him far and wide, experiencing varied cultures along the way but his work is clearly integral to Nokia’s handset development in different world markets. You can read the full New Scientist interview in full here.

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