Asking the Right Questions

Chipchase
At the beginning of this month, PSFK invited Nokia researcher Jan Chipchase to present some of his research at their Good Ideas Salon.

For anyone not familiar, Jan is a cultural ethnographer and designer for Nokia.  According to The New York Times, “His mission, broadly defined, is to peer into the lives of other people, accumulating as much knowledge as possible about human behavior so that he can feed helpful bits of information back to the company.”  That’s a pretty tall order.

His presentation consisted of a series of photographs and short stories of observations he had made during several of his research outings.  Each vignette was explained and analyzed, revealing a deeper level of social motivation and cultural idiosyncrasy.  Though the presentation was not designed to draw a specific conclusion, it was clear that there was an implicit lesson involved.

As the presentation progressed, it became clear that Jan’s strength as a researcher did not stem from impeccable organization (though he clearly possesses a knack for it) or access to superior resources, but rather his ability to question basic assumptions we make from our own experiences;  To analyze what emotional, social, and logistical needs drive cultural and situational behaviors.

To that end, the lesson here is learning to ask the right questions.  Here are some of the questions I started asking myself during the presentation that feel pretty relevant to what we, as a digital agency, do on a daily basis.  (Note:  These pictures are from Jan Chipchase’s blog, Future Perfect, at www.janchipchase.com.  Jan and Nokia, are very generous to share this research with the world, so if you use it, please make sure to attribute him and provide a link!)

How simple can things be and still achieve their purpose?

What seems essential that could be left out?

Brazil: A photobooth lacks the most obvious component -- a camera.  This frees up the valuable and expensive camera for use in other applications without compromising the functionality of the booth.

Brazil: A photobooth lacks the most obvious component -- a camera. This frees up the valuable and expensive camera for use in other applications without compromising the functionality of the booth.

Gas Station

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: A gas station reduced to its essential components: elevation, gas, tube, and cashier. Take anything away and it fails to function as a gas station.

What do you need to show your consumer to earn their trust?

How much transparency is necessary to convince someone that you are legit?

Chongqing , China: Taxicab seat covers prominently display the day of the week to assure consumers they are cleaned daily.

Chongqing, China: Taxicab seat covers prominently display the day of the week to assure consumers they are cleaned daily.

Top - Kampala, Uganda: In a region where most households lack access to mains power, a street vendor sells mobile charging servicesBottom - Kabul, Afghanistan: A street charging vendor assures consumers of the quality of his service.  The light bulbs prove he has access to power and isn't running a scam.

Top - Kampala, Uganda: In a region where most households lack access to mains power, a street vendor sells mobile charging services.
Bottom - Kabul, Afghanistan: A street charging vendor assures consumers of the quality of his service. The light bulbs prove he has access to power and isn't a scam.

What underlying psychological or social needs might drive a user’s actions?

At the end of the day, we’re only human.

Bangkok, Thailand: A street vendor sells fake braces for young girls.  A not-so-subtle way of announcing that "my parents have money for dental care (and yours don't.)"

Bangkok, Thailand: A street vendor sells fake braces for young girls. A not-so-subtle way of announcing that "my parents have money for dental care (and yours don't.)"

Cairo, Egypt: A mobile application that displays the times of the adhān, the Muslim call to prayer.  Essentially useless in a society that revolves around the call of the muezzin, the app still provides a nice excuse to take out a fancy (and very expensive) phone.

Cairo, Egypt: A mobile application that displays the times of the adhān, the Muslim call to prayer. Essentially useless in a society that revolves around the call of the muezzin, the app still provides a nice excuse to take out a fancy (and very expensive) phone.

People are already solving their problems in creative ways… can you solve them better?

Can you identify the problems they are struggling with?

<strong>Tokyo, Japan:</strong> A fence in a busy nightlife district is painted with the symbol for "shrine."  It's not a shrine, but respect for symbols of spiritual signifiance keeps late night drunkards from urinating on the fence.

Tokyo, Japan: A fence in a busy nightlife district is painted with the symbol for "shrine." It's not a shrine, but respect for symbols of spiritual significance keeps late night drunkards from urinating on the fence.

pee tires

Beijing, China: Different city, same problem. Wood blocks on the tires keep neighborhood dogs from doing their business on the tires. Could a tire manufacturer create a product that repelled dogs? What about a spray that attracted them? That'd be an effective way to keep people from parking in front of your house or store.

This last one did not come from Jan, but was rather inspired by his analysis on my walk home.

What information is critical for the user to know?

What’s the quickest way to deliver it?

<strong>New York, NY:</strong> A traditional subway marker indicates it's origin, the destination, the line and its route.

New York, NY: A traditional subway marker indicates its origin, the destination, the line and its route.

subway2

New York, NY: The redesigned sign is lit by LEDs, making it easier to read while in motion. But less information can be displayed at one time. It is also still difficult to read at extreme angles (if one were standing near the door looking to grab a seat).

subway3

New York, NY: The 7 train uses a retrofitted sign. The LED symbols allow a rider to quickly determine the direction the train is traveling. I find it to be the most usable of the signs, personally. (A clear read of the line is not necessary because the 7 does not usually share tracks.)

What other questions should we ask to inform our ideas and designs?