He's constantly researching to push technology to new frontiers but Frog Design's Jan Chipchase is no techno-utopian. He questions the ethical dimensions of technological creativity.
“A research superstar”
“One of the smartest people in tech today”
Jan Chipchase, Frog Design's Executive Creative Director for Global Insights, has earned many such tags.
So you meet him with some trepidation, expecting to hear a geeky view of how the answers to the world's problems can be solved by the device in your palm. After all, this “usability researcher” was one of Nokia's most high-profile creative strategists before he joined Frog.
But Chipchase, with his unassuming ways and evident passion for his work, talks a language you can understand. He declares that he is no “techno-utopian”. “Our moral character dwindles as our instruments get smaller,” he says, quoting a photographer who talked about it in the context of cameras.
What held for cameras holds for our communication devices too, he says. “What happens when you take all the connectivity out there and put it in a device small enough to fit into your ear - a hidden device?” he questions, pointing out that “there is an incredibly strong ethical question we face in our research”.
Though officially stationed in Frog's Shanghai Studio, the half-German, half-British nomadic researcher travels around the world studying whatever engages his interest (often it's obscure stuff), and documenting it all in his hardy old camera – I take 15,000 images in two weeks, he says. Sometimes he's accompanied by a team of ethnographers and psychologists, but often it's locally hired researchers (yes, they all play a part in product design).
At the moment it's Gujarat where he's off to check out Sarvajal, a company that sells water filtration machines. “These machines are connected and constantly feeding information in real time to the company on how much water is being accessed, and by whom,” says Chipchase, his curiosity clearly piqued.
Chipchase, who failed a university entrance exam and so packed his bags and travelled, has really been around. At Nokia, he was stationed for a while in the US and then in Japan (his wife is a Japanese). At Frog, he chose to be in Shanghai (20 years later if you want to understand the planet, you have to be in China or India, he says).
But he's constantly roaming the world in search of “meaningful data”. So he's traversed South Korea, Kenya, Uganda, Afghanistan, India - all to find out find out what people need, their motivations, how they bank, how they use their money, how they share information, how they use social media. It's all grist for the Frog research mill.
Excerpts from a conversation:
What is the starting point of product or services design? How do you do it at Frog?
A lot of companies come to us because they know in-house they cannot deliver. Sometimes they have a clear idea of what they want. Sometimes they only have a foggy idea.
Increasingly, people coming to us at Frog tell us they are not sure exactly what they should go after. So we do the research, give them direction – be it in the healthcare space, the rural space, the mobile space. A lot of work we do in research is extraordinary. We spend time understanding where the opportunities are – and this could be in Dharavi in Mumbai, here in Delhi, in Kabul, in Tokyo. The best place to research is in the spaces where people spend a lot of time.
But in today's fast-changing world, do you have the luxury to spend so much time in research? The Chinese mobile makers do not seem to spend as much time as a Nokia in turning out cell phones.
Many of our clients understand the value of research. But then again, sometimes, here, I could get just two weeks.
Yes, sometimes an MNC could announce a product in the market and by the time they launch, the Shanzai guys (this is the equivalent of Indian jugaad) in China have already brought out a product. They are wonderful at reverse engineering. I have looked at Shanzai products and real products and it's taken me 15 minutes to figure out which is the real one. They can be that good. And their ecosystem is good at spotting the gaps.
But the starting point of research is to find out why people use things. For instance, Frog has done a lot of research on the mobile money space. What are the portfolios of the poor? People's motivation to use mobile money is often super-basic – in places where the nearest bank is 20 km away, it functions as an ATM machine.
But how democratic is design? Not all companies can afford this cost of design.
I would answer that by asking you to think about the cost of not designing. How many products that are put on the market succeed and how many fail? What role does design play in achieving that position? I would argue that with the right amount of design thinking and taking a design-led approach for strategic thinking in the organisation, products would have a better chance of success.
What's the next frontier?
What do you think is the world's most recognisable container of information? It's the human face. We are constantly reading each other and responding.
One of the interesting trajectories of design is that facial recognition technologies are becoming mainstream. If you go through an airport, you are being read by a face reader, if you enter a stadium, if you go to a retail store, there are such devices. Many retail stores have consumer trackers that study how long your eyes linger on one product, whether you follow it through by touch, and things that you buy. You can redesign things on a shelf, all by tracking such information.
But the question is whose face does it belong to? This is the most personal thing, it's so wrapped up in our identity, the haircut you have, the earring you wear. What happens when in many places you give away what you own?
The possibilities are endless – by the time you walk from here to the counter there to meet someone, the person could have taken your picture on a mobile device, and the device could have gleaned information about you and in five seconds, he could have checked you out.
So are you saying it is not ethical?
I am not a techno-utopian. Everything that is introduced that is new changes the social dynamics. Indeed, there is an incredibly strong ethical question we face in our research. For, when we introduce a new piece of technology that nobody has ever seen it upsets the social balance.
We are constantly questioning our responsibilities as creators of this service or product. Google is constantly pushing the barrier.
Technology, we find, amplifies behaviours. If you want to be anti-social, technology allows you to be. And vice versa.
It's a super interesting trajectory that many of our clients are facing today – trying to understand these connected devices, how they integrate it all together.