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BANGALORE, India – It’s been a while since we last caught-up with Nokia’s Younghee Jung. For those unaware of her, Younghee is a designer at Nokia, but one with a twist, she’s the one that does a lot of the research behind the designs. One of her most recent projects was Nokia Open Studios. It’s a project that was conducted in three communities across the globe, in a bid to discover what people want when it comes to a mobile phone. But it’s not your typical research with a clipboard and a welcoming smile. Join us after the jump as we chat to Younghee about Nokia Open Studios, the challenges she faces and a glimpse into the world of mobile phone research.

Open Studios seems a new way to approach design, what was the ethos behind the project?

Before we go into Open Studios specifically, it’s important to understand the changes that have happened when it comes to design research. Traditionally, designers assume the knowledge about design is based on objects. More and more, especially when it comes to communications, it’s a question of why we are designing. It’s becoming much more about human behaviour and social relationships, and also their environment. Mobile phones have now been around for two decades. In the early days, it was very much about what was technically possible but now it’s becoming much more about lifestyle.

When we started the process in 2007 we wanted to look at people whose lifestyle is more or less emerging. When we started, we assumed that we didn’t know everything or even anything. The theme for the research was urban migration, or urbanisation, which is a trend whereby people are moving from rural to urban areas. We had to assume that they were going through a number of changes and were facing issues regarding identity, and we wanted to look at what role mobile technology could have in this.

Basically, we came up with it because we wanted a new approach to involve people in our research process. We needed a way that we don’t assume too much and we don’t miss out too much. Traditionally, if you only use ethnography, your designers are left with the complete responsibility of making the interpretation between how people relate to technology but forget that some don’t use technology. If you’re coming from an ideation approach, you’re putting your own ideas upon people by asking questions such as “what do you think of this”. We wanted to find a way that we would involve these urban migrants in a much more meaningful way. So, with Open Studios, we came up with a competition on what the ideal mobile phone would be and the format seemed to lend itself to the research quite well.

How did you go about selecting locations for Open Studios?

The three areas we chose were in India, Ghana and Brazil. It’s always a big dilemma when it comes to choosing a location. Brazil and India and Africa were obvious choices when it came to increased urban migration, but when it comes to the microscopic level of choices there are several factors to consider such as language and history, but also what kind of local contact we have.

The length of time a community has been established is also a factor. In Mumbai, the community we chose was established more than 100 years ago. The Brazilian favela in Rio was over 40 years old and the community in Ghana was 17 years old. In each and every place, we had a contact from an NGO or independent contributors who have worked in the community before. These communities are not very well-known outside and so without the human connection it’s quite difficult to get a meaningful network inside, which is quite important for us.

Were you surprised by any of the findings from Open Studios?

When we first chose this research method, the biggest risk we faced was that we couldn’t predict the level of elaboration people would bring because it was completely left to them. What was most surprising to me was how people personalised the topic and told their own stories through an object. People treated the opportunity as a way to tell their life story in a much more elaborate way than I would have imagined. A number of the stories are beyond mobile phones, but the project became a vehicle for them to express themselves, the problems they have in their lives, the hope they have and ways they would like their lives to change, in the future.

In a way, we could attribute these finding to two major reasons. The first would be that we gave them enough time to think about what technology really means to them. One particular episode was a lady who didn’t have electricity in the house, and would go out every evening under the streetlight to think about what she’d have and sketch under the light. This time to think wouldn’t have been possible in an interview situation. The other is that the project became social. Within the communities we would be chatting with people on the street and they would talk to us about what their plans for the project would be. As we engaged the whole community to a certain extent it became a topic of discussion. So when people got together, they would discuss ideas in their own private time.

A number of people who came to us weren’t intellectual workers and this was a new and unusual assignment. I remember quite a few participants saw this as a form of entertainment, especially when they were doing it together on a social level. The fact that this was the first time they had been involved in such a project also played a part. Members of the community wanted to show others what they could do.

The whole process was a rich learning experience. Why did we choose mobile phones? It wasn’t really about getting the final idea, it was the reasoning behind it. We learnt so much about communities, how word spread around and how gossip happened and what social relationships exist. Negative issues were also brought up by the research, for instance some of the ideas were about preventing people to lie. A number of them have no legal mediation as they are living illegally on that land. A number of them wanted the function to find out where that person was calling from, or who that person was with, or to take a picture of the scene to record a business transaction such as when they agreed to borrow money.

How did you get women involved in the project?

I think in all locations, except Rio, we had problems with getting women involved.  In both other communities there was a local taboo, whereby by unmarried women were not allowed to leave the house without a purpose. They could travel to temple or a local shop but nowhere else without a chaperone. Also, because population density is so high, your every move would be observed by your neighbour. I think in Mumbai, because it was a known community, it was a motivation for them to come and participate. We also arranged with the local team to conduct house visits to explain what the project was. In Ghana, it was the local team that came up with the slogan ‘women are motivated to participate” and printed this on the pre-research material handed out to the community. Having said that, female participants were much lower in all the communities.

What are the main hurdles when conducting a project such as Open Studios?

Setting-up and gaining trust within the community is the most important part. It’s not a hurdle per se, but it is a requirement. In terms of gaining trust, it’s quite important to balance and to respect participants’ intellect and avoid being patronising. Another challenge was the need to mediate expectation. We’re a big corporation and we’re there to ask their opinion. On the one hand, people are flattered. On the other hand, they would ask questions about when their idea would appear as a product. Looking back in retrospect, I also wonder how many times could we go back to a community. Once we’ve exposed them, do they lose their innocence when it comes to ideas? It’s a challenge that I’m yet to face, but it’s something we have to think about.

Have you noticed a shift in the impact technology has on people’s lives in developing countries?
I think the interesting part is when it comes to comparing rural and urban areas. The difference is quite significant. Although those living in the slums are from rural areas they’re quickly exposed to what’s available. The majority are aware about what is possible with technology and if they have a certain amount of knowledge and money they would have access to technology. They can almost set goals. Opinion-wise it’s a rich environment in the way that they know what technology can do for them. On the other hand, whether they are able to overcome the threshold that exists between now and their aspiration level is another issue. Even the notion of the Internet is not uncommon. These communities have internet cafes and with this information, they can form a clearer idea about what they would do if they had a mobile connection. One inspiring story from the favela in Rio was that someone used the Internet to search for a scholarship. It’s an example of how information technology can change their path of life rather than just making a bit more money.

What are the next steps after projects such as Open Studios?

Projects never really finish. We still use a number of the research methods we discovered here and it’s always ongoing. We learnt a lot about the dynamics of engaging communities and this will enrich our research in the future.

How did the exhibition in New York come about?

The curator for the ‘Prosperity’ section of Cooper Hewitt exhibition, Cynthia Smith was doing research on the topic of why design now. When you look at the exhibition catalogue it’s all about specific objects, our offering was completely different as it was design research work. It was the idea behind how we wanted to engage consumers that was interesting and caught her attention, as it was a different story to tell. It was good that everyone else in the exhibition showed the object and we showed the story.