Presentation extract – Some thoughts on user experience in corporate research

This blog post is a summary of a 20 minute presentation covering some thoughts on user experience within the context of corporate research given at the 2012 Software Development Day (http://www.lindholmen.se/sv/presentation-2012). The following is an extract of some of the things that I talked about, consisting of the slides as well as (slightly edited) presentation notes. Please note that the presentation was made in a very fluent manner (I clicked frantically!), hence some of the seemingly ridiculously short paragraphs.


“My name is Cristian Norlin and I work at the User Experience Lab at Ericsson Research. This presentation is divided into two parts. The first part is about setting the stage a bit, and in order to do so I will address the interrelations between some of the changes the telecom industry is facing, and how corporate research and innovation relate to these. In the second part I will illustrate how we at Ericsson Research recon that user experience plays a role in all of this.”


“Ericsson is (as some of you already know) a multi national company present in over 180 countries and with a 109 000 employees. Communication technology has been at the core of this company, from the early days of wired telephony…”


“…to today’s wireless broadband world. For a long time, communication in all shapes and forms has played an extremely important role in the world, and the telecom industry has been a key driver in this development. However, today we can at the same time see that there are rather dramatic changes going on in the marketplace that affect Ericsson and our customers in various ways.”


“Let me give you an example. Over the past few years the traffic patterns in the mobile networks have dramatically changed from previously being dominated by voice and sms/mms traffic, to today’s total dominance of data traffic. From a financial point of view (and very simplified) it is rather easy to see that even tough the need for communication is still high, the margins for many established actors are rather static, if not slightly shrinking. Partly this has to do with the maturity of the telecom sector, with a natural fierce competition among the established telecom players.”


“However, there is also this shift in what the market values. The transformation from voice and sms to data traffic means that the telecom players all of a sudden are facing a totally new approach to their business models. Where previously the most valuable product was the magic of enabling people to communicate with each other without being tied down to a desk…”


“…the telecom players all of a sudden had to start to figure out how to make technology and business models that allowed them to make money on transmitting data.

This might sound like a dead simple task – just look at how the fixed data communication providers have solved this – but it has turned out to be a rather complex transformation.”


“Another example, and strongly related to what I have just talked about, of the fundamental changes within the telecom world is the rise of a new market driven by over the top players (i.e. non telco players, such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, anyone making apps, and/or connectivity dependant services). This market emerged as a result of the smart phone success story, which in turn was the result of the internet and wireless communication development for the past 30 years.

Starting with the iPhone in 2007 and now driven forward by many other players as well…”


“…a whole new eco system of handsets, applications, and services are now the drivers of a new kind of mobile (or connected) economy.

An interesting aspect of this new market is that connectivity – and the need for more and better connectivity – is at the very heart of it, yet the value of connectivity does not seem to be reflected within the telecom domain anymore.”



Photo from Futurepedia/Riffsyphon1024
(http://backtothefuture.wikia.com/wiki/File:WhatdidItellyou-HQ.jpg#filelinks)

“As many of you probably have guessed, it is rather desirable for companies to be able to understand shifts like these, in order to be able to quickly adapt or take precaution, rather than being caught by surprise and merely being able to react.

This is of course a task that is at the top of the agenda for a company’s strategy department, but quite a few companies (Ericsson is one of these) also rely on their research departments to address these issues.

However, looking into the future is not as easy at it might seem, and partly this has to do with issues such as corporate research strategies and so called ripple effects.”


“If a company such as Ericsson has reached success over a long time, there are strong affiliations with the strategies that have led to this success, and with these of course also to the technology that has been developed and to the customers with which the company has done business. So for natural reasons many companies focus their research in such a way that it builds upon and strengthens these strategies and technologies.”


“There is nothing wrong with this approach, in many cases it actually makes quite a lot of sense since it is easy to associate (and motivate) the research activities if they have clear connections to the business side of the company.

However, the big risk with this in-line-with-business approach is that it might end up focusing more on incremental improvements and that your perspective is literarily like this.

The obvious consequence that this will make it almost impossible to discover disruptive changes – such as the ones within the telecom world that I talked about a while ago – that might occur outside the company’s field of view.”



Photo from alastc
( http://www.flickr.com/photos/alastc/)

“These disruptive changes are often the result of what the British broadcaster, science historian, and author James Burke calls the Ripple Effect.

Burke argues (for instance at the dConstruct conference earlier this year) that a lot of unforeseen changes happen as a result of the combination of several seemingly disparate (yet undoubtedly linked) factors and events.”



Photo from Wikipedia
(http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/54/MechaDuck.png)

“The problem according to Burke and many others, is that the way that many corporate research initiatives have been organised is the result of a tradition of reductionism, which – simply described – looks at the understanding of complex things by simply reducing them to the interactions of their parts or to simpler or more fundamental things. (Illustrated here as a postulated interior of the Duck of Vaucanson.)”



Photo from twob
(http://www.flickr.com/photos/twob/8741933/)

“Translated in to corporate research strategies (and in the words of Burke): We are often encouraged to become experts in very small sealed of silos of knowledge. The question is if this approach is enough for great and/or disruptive innovations to take place? I think not.”



Photo from Core77
(http://www.core77.com/blog/business/design_thinking_by_ideo_thoughts_by_tim_brown_11130.asp)

“Luckily, there are other, more exploratory, ways of looking at innovation. For example, in his book “Change by Design”, Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO, blogs here) argues that “What we need is an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective, and broadly accessible, that can be integrated into all aspects of business and society, and that individuals and teams can use to generate breakthrough ideas that are implemented and therefore have an impact.” Brown says that this approach is at the heart of what he calls design thinking and continues: “By integrating what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable, designers have have been able to create the products we enjoy today. Design thinking takes the next step, which is to put these tools into the hands of people who may have never thought of themselves as designers and apply them to vastly greater range of problems.”

This way of looking at research and innovation is by no means the norm within the telecom industry. However, for the past ten years things have started to change…”


“… and at Ericsson this is where we at the UX Lab play a rather interesting role.”


“The UX Lab that I work in is a rather small group, we’re seven people, but with quite a lot of responsibilities. What really make us stand out within the context of Ericsson is that very few of us has an engineering degree! However, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t tech savvy, quite the opposite. Everyone in our group has a strong understanding and lots of experience of developing solutions for information and communication technologies – the thing is that we have always approached this from the perspective of users and by using design as our main method.”


“Our assignment can basically be described like this. Our role is to look at technology from an outside in perspective by investigating things from angles that usually are not at the core of a technical research organisation. This activity is not done in isolation, we do interact with all other groups within Ericsson here, though the terms of our collaboration are rather loosely defined, and we at the UX lab are usually driving these activities.

The idea with this set up is that we then are supposed to bring our findings and insights into more formalised forms of collaborations with other domains such as business and technology. These collaborations are sometimes driven by us from an UX perspective, and sometimes by groups from the other disciplines. However, it is important to emphasise that the stated goal with this arrangement is to stimulate new ideas and innovations by bringing different perspectives together. As you probably could have guessed, these collaborations can be anything from high level, as described here, but also as projects with specific processes and deliverables.


Almost everything that we do is influenced by three basic principles:

The first principle is that we always try to engage with the real world – that is the world where the technology that we are to design or investigate is to be used.”


“The second principle is that we must understand the technology in question, but that we are not constrained by it.”


“The third principle is that we always aim to express our work as designs that can be experienced (though we make exceptions for studies of more formal kinds).”


“In terms of actual work, this is some examples of outcomes from projects that we have been working on during the past years, some of which I will talk about in more detail a bit later. As you can see, our deliverables range from user research studies, to design concepts and advanced prototypes.”


“In order to give you a better understanding of how all of this fits together I am going to talk briefly about a the project Social Web of Things that exemplifies how a UX driven approach can contribute to technical research.”


At this point I presented the Social Web of Things project – a project that is already described in this blog in a previous blog post.

Unfortunately, a 20 minutes presentation ends way to quickly, leaving a lot more to be discussed, such as how we at the UX Lab work, and on how user experience can be utilized in the context of corporate research. Hence, please don’t hesitate to ask questions or share your opinions or experiences in the comments below.

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