User Research – Product and Service Innovation: An interview with Stefan Pannenbecker, Head of Nokia Design

The aim of User Research – Product and Service Innovation series of interviews is to act as a source of inspiration and information about the role of user research. We have just started working on the series of interviews and if you would like to be interviewed please do not hesitate to contact Richard Linington.

Hi Stefan, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Nokia?
Stefan_Pannenbecker2Sure! I’ve worked at Nokia since 2007. Just recently, on November 1, I started as the Head of Design, which means that I lead our global design team. Our team develops devices and experience s for Nokia’s Mobile Phones and Smart Devices businesses – home of the Asha and Lumia families of smartphones as well as tablets and accessories, for example. Before that, I was Nokia’s Head of Product Design.

I’m married, and have lived as a design professional in quite a few places: Denmark, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the U.S., the U.K. and Germany. I studied product design at Art Center College of Design (Europe).

Could you provide an overview of the design process Nokia uses to move from identifying and defining the opportunity (the ‘fuzzy front end’ of innovation/design) through to the development and testing of new services and products at Nokia?
Our starting point for our design strategy and the design of any device is to understand how people live, what their wants and needs are, how they communicate and how this will develop and change over the next few years. These topics together with our overall design approach become the basic inspiration for our products and our designs. As designers and product makers at Nokia we also have to consider that we are quite literally designing for the entire world.

Our designers work in several tightly interrelated areas of design like industrial design, color and material design, user interface design, packaging design, graphic design, sound design, design research and several stages of testing the designs with people and then refining them.

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Photo kindly supplied by Nokia

We also spend a lot of time on understanding what our key bets in terms of areas of innovation should be: material technologies, component technologies and so on – things that we call design enablers which allow us to create better devices, new form factors as well as better and more meaningful user experiences. The really exciting part is to understand how to anticipate people’s wants and needs, and to combine these insights with meaningful innovation. Here research and design, in the broadest sense, play a key role.

Our design approach and our view on the role of design within Nokia and for people plays a big role in this whole process as well. To us, what we leave out is as important as what we add. That results in devices and experiences that share these key qualities: pure, human and advanced. For us, design isn’t about style or fashion; it’s a fundamental approach to product making. As a matter of fact, we often talk more about product making than design and that is true for all our design disciplines. Some people think innovation is about very bold approaches to design, and of course that sometimes is true. But to us it’s very often about making those little things we do every day, simply better. Whether it’s listening to music, finding a place, taking pictures or setting an alarm – every interaction should be a joy. For example, we continually refine every aspect and smoothe every transition in the user interface so that each Nokia experience feels flawless.

Our design approach is very much based on tight teamwork both within the Design organization and with our partners within Nokia from research and pre-concepting all the way to implementation. This includes a lot of discussion throughout the process. Depending on the complexity of developing each phone, tablet or accessory, designing it from start to finish can take anything from nine months to two years, and it involves many different people and competencies. Ultimately teamwork is crucial to achieving the right design strategy as well as the right individual design solution.

What role has user research played in the design and development of new services and products at Nokia?
User research and design research in general plays an integral part in our design process. At Nokia, we have a team of researchers and anthropologists who are constantly working to help us understand consumer behavior, wants and needs. With this I mean both current behaviors which the customer clearly articulates, and emerging behaviors which may only be apparent in certain parts of certain markets or in particular contexts but that may become more widespread over time. Additionally we do user research from a very device-specific point of view – how people use a specific device, device usability in general, behaviors around imaging and so on. So, in a nutshell user research gives us a good understanding of new opportunities in terms of whole product categories as well as insights into potential improvements on a detailed level. Both aspects are very important to us.

Are there any particular user research tools that you use?
We use a variety of user research tools – both qualitative and quantitative. The main objective in choosing the right tool or method is to ensure that it provides us with relevant information, keeping the focus on how to improve our devices even further. I think it is very important to be quite clear about what types of insights to look for, and then really think about the right methodology for collecting data. Most importantly, however, we need to focus on how to create meaning from that data and how to apply that meaning – in other words, how to navigate from data to knowledge to wisdom in a coherent and creative manner.

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Photo kindly supplied by Nokia

Do you face any particular challenges when carrying out user research?
The biggest challenge but also the biggest opportunity we face is how to utilize the information we obtain. We get an enormous amount of data from around the globe, so we need to interpret it correctly and make sure we discern the important details. Also, we avoid doing research in silos but together with different parts of the organization. Sometimes tight schedules mean that we don’t always have the time to look into potentially useful new research methods as much as we would like.

Stefan, perhaps we could end on something about the future areas for innovation in the mobile sector?
One thing we find is that people across the world are very open-minded towards technology. There is a general willingness to experiment with meaningful technological innovation. At the same time technological progress is currently taking place with amazing momentum. We believe that this creates great conditions for devices to evolve and to become even smarter – we talk a lot about device and ecosystem intelligence in this context. A very practical example would be that your device would notice that you are running late for a meeting and promptly notify the meeting organizer automatically. Devices will start to add little details like this and make our everyday lives easier, but it takes a lot of simulation and testing to ensure that this type of functionality is meaningful.

I also believe we will see a wide array of different form factors and interaction methods in the coming years. Miniaturization, sensors, different touch technologies, voice interaction, cloud technology and so on are really creating opportunities for new ways of using and making products, and it is our job to create meaningful experiences from these opportunities. When done right this could easily result in a multi-device environment where you would have several different kinds of devices for different use – all synced between each other. We recently launched our first tablet, the Nokia Lumia 2520, so we have only scratched the surface in this regard. These types of developments influence our research methodologies and our overall design process, and that in itself is very exciting.

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