An article this weekend in the New York Times Magazine about global cellphone penetration focuses on the search to understand what individual people across the world look for in a mobile phone to meet their current and potential uses. It tracks Nokia’s Jan Chipchase through a lot of issues and places:
This sort of on-the-ground intelligence-gathering is central to whatâ€™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 Nokiaâ€™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 â€” loaded with products and pitch lines, as a marketer might be â€” 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 ownerâ€™s wife, enlightening the company through written reports and PowerPoint presentations on how they live and what theyâ€™re likely to need from a cellphone, allowing that to inform its design.