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Posts in category 'Mark Vanderbeeken'

19 April 2007

Torino 2008 World Design Capital launches Torino GEODESIGN

Torino 2008 World Design Capital
Yesterday I went to a press conference by Torino 2008 World Design Capital at the Milan Design Fair which presented TORINO GEODESIGN.

TORINO GEODESIGN (described in more detail in this Core77 article) is an international competition which will bring designers from all over the world to collaborate with communities and businesses in Piedmont. It will be one of the major events of the Torino 2008 programme.

It is based on the concept of “self-organised” design, that is energetic and highly experimental. The project is generated by a community of consumers, living in large metropolises undergoing change and in cosmopolitan European cities, who transform themselves into suppliers of services.

Speakers were Sergio Chiamparino (Mayor of Torino), Stefano Boeri (project leader of Geodesign competition), Fernando and Humberto Campana (designers), Guta Moura Guedes (President ExperimentaDesign Biennial, Lisbon), and John Thackara (director of Doors of Perception and Dott07). Zaha Hadid was caught ill in New York but contributed via a written statement.

After Stefano Boeri’s presentation of the project, Guta Moura Guedes underlined how design is more and more an issue of people, and therefore increasingly democratic. Cities, she said, are becoming places for bottom-up experimentation in the design field aimed at improving the quality of life for and by those who live within those cities. Design is becoming flexible, hence the overall theme of Torino 2008 (“flexibility”), adapting to different circumstances and issues such as social change, political change and climate change.

Torino’s Mayor Sergio Chiamparino said that three elements in the project were important to him: the in-depth creation of knowledge about the city, the concrete collaboration with citizens and with the topics that matter to them, and the development of a future vision for the city.

Working with local communities is something that the Campana brothers have been doing for quite some time now and they presented several examples of how they work with the rich tradition of handicraft in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

John Thackara finally endorsed the GEODESIGN idea but connected it with the topic of sustainability. We would need, he said, 100 design cities to make a fundamental impact and the radical transformation that is needed. 80% of the environmental impact of the products in our world are the result of design decisions. A large part of the answers can come from other cultures or from other times, where people learned to live sustainability. How can we learn from them?

As described on the new website (and previously illustrated in my interview with Torino 2008 director Paola Zini), the year has been divided into four phases — Public Design, Economy and Design, Education and Design, and Design Policies — each aimed at four specific target groups: the citizens, businesses, the world of education and the institutions.

“Each of these groups represents a cardinal point in the life cycle of contemporary design. Each phase studies, develops and promotes the relationship between design and the urban fabric. This cross section involves the various actors who interrelate within the city and help delineate its aspect.”

Experientia contributes to Torino 2008 website

The editorial section of the new Torino 2008 website, i.e. the part that changes all the time, is curated by me (Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken).

Every month the site will feature an interview, an essay, a profile of a foreign design centre, and a short reflection on the international press. The first interview is with Ranjit Makkuni of the Sacred World Foundation and the first essay is by myself on people-centred design as a means to affect cultural and social change.

4 April 2007

Experientia interviews Paola Zini, director of Torino 2008 World Design Capital

Paola Zini
Core77, the online design magazine, published today an interview with Paola Zini, the director of Torino 2008 World Design Capital, conducted by Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken.

The interview is the first of many as Mark is pleased to announce that he will be editing the monthly online magazine of Torino 2008.

In the interview, the young Torino 2008 director talks about why Turin was chosen for this initiative and how she wants to use the opportunity to broaden the concept of design: “We want to focus on design as a process that can be applied to products, communication, public policy, education and services. Torino World Design Capital wants to broaden the concept of design as much as possible, emphasising innovation that starts from our society’s needs.”

She presents the overall theme of flexibility and the year’s four thematic phases.

Zini is convinced that the initiative can strengthen the position of Turin and Piedmont on the international map of design, and spread a design culture with our citizens and within companies, within schools and institutions.

Yet the organisers also think further and want to start creating a debate on what a national strategic design policy in Italy could be like.

The interview features some highlights of the programme, which will be announced in more detail on 18 April.

Questions were also contributed by Régine Debatty of we-make-money-not-art and Chiara Somajni of Il Sole 24 Ore/Ventiquattro – (Many thanks to both of course!).

An Italian article based on the interview was recently published in the cultural supplement of Italian business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.

A copy of the (English) interview can also be found below, without however all the photos that liven up the Core77 version.


Paola Zini is the face of a new and dynamic Italy. Driven, warm, reflective, convincing and humble enough to admit every so often that she has no answer to a particular question. It took the popular Mayor of Turin, Sergio Chiamparino, quite some convincing to get her to take on the job of leading Torino 2008 World Design Capital, but in the end he prevailed and I am more than happy he did. With Paola new ideas will be nourished and old ideas will be renewed.

The interview took place in February 2007, and was conducted by Mark Vanderbeeken, senior partner of the Turin-based international user experience design consultancy Experientia, and author of the people-focused innovation blog Putting People First, with valuable support from both Régine Debatty (famous arts and technology blogger at, and former Turin resident) and Chiara Somajni (a journalist of the Italian business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore and its associated magazine Ventiquattro

Core77, the online design magazine, published this interview as an article on its website. This is a copy of the interview as it was published by Core77.

* * * * *

You are a new face for many people, so let’s start with you introducing yourself and telling us how you became the director of this initiative.

I am Paola Zini, 32 years old and for the past five months have been the director of Torino 2008 World Design Capital. I actually have an economics background, and worked before mainly on the topic of urban economic development–particularly Turin’s development. Up till recently, I was involved with the implementation of the first strategic plan of the city, which by the way was the first strategic plan of any Italian city, and this has definitely been a crucial factor in me now being able to coordinate this design year.

You worked for an organisation called Torino Internazionale.

Yes, it is a mixed public-private agency that is in charge of the city’s strategic plan. Working on economic development also meant promoting design in Turin and in Piedmont, and that was the origin of what I am doing now. So the relationship with ICSID–the international design organisation–grew out of our activities within Torino Internazionale. It was a gradual process that eventually lead to the nomination of Turin as the first World Design Capital, with its own organisational committee.

* * * * *


Why did ICSID choose Turin?

ICSID was looking for a city to host its headquarters, and Turin was one of the candidate cities. (The organisation ultimately took up residence in Montreal.) We participated because we thought it would be good for Turin to host another international organisation [in addition to several United Nations offices], and in particular one that dealt with the topic of design. Our proposal was more than a mere political one: we had the support of important foundations and of ADI, the Italian Association of Industrial Design. With our proposal we created strong international relationships, got to know players in the field of design worldwide, and were able to share the history of our city that is now reinventing itself. We just had the Winter Olympics, one of the events in this carefully prepared transformation trajectory. All this provoked a process whereby ICSID started focusing not just on the move of its headquarters, but also on its communication strategy. So our proposal and our changing city became a very interesting European reference point for ICSID. That’s why our city has been chosen as World Design Capital.

You then became the director of this initiative, which is not an obvious choice in this country where power positions are often in the hands of older, well-connected men. You are instead a young woman who is not originally from this city. Why did they choose you?

I think the organisers wanted to give a strong signal by making an unconventional choice. I have to thank the Mayor, Sergio Chiamparino, and the people of our Board for insisting on me accepting this offer.

* * * * *


The project has very high-level support and comes after a series of major events, including the Winter Olympics, through which Turin is trying to reposition itself on the global map. What is the impact you are trying to achieve?

There are many events now–not just in Turin, but also in the wider region–that aim to reposition this territory. The Winter Olympics were of course crucial in making people understand how committed the city administration was to the development of its future. The Games were not a goal in itself, but a first step in a process. The design year will be very different from the Winter Olympics; we want to stimulate a large number of activities all over the region. It will not be a curated festival, but a collective one, made by all those who live here, by our citizens and by students, but also by those who come to visit us professionally or as tourists.

What image do you want to leave behind? How would you like Turin to be perceived in 2009?

We would like to position Turin throughout Europe and throughout the world as a city that is renewing itself, as a city in transformation. Turin has always been seen as the city of FIAT, maybe also as the city of Juventus, but there are other and newer facets of the city that we cherish and are now being embraced by the citizens. We would like to share these concepts with all those who don’t know Turin yet.

How does Turin want to use design in its transformation and what is the role of Torino 2008 in that?

The title of World Design Capital is not awarded to cities that are already design capitals and that are already known as such, but to those places where design is used for the social, cultural and economic transformation of the city. Turin has already made big steps forward in its transformation process. Ten years ago, Turin was a very different city from what it is now. Its economic make-up has changed fundamentally. The cultural industries have diversified our region and there is now a strong service sector. So a lot of transformation has actually taken place already. I think that the title of World Design Capital can help people realise that design, as a process of qualitative change, can further improve many things.

So are these the main goals: change the image of the city and change the mindset of the people?

Those are indeed two important goals: strengthen the position of Turin and Piedmont on the international map of design, and spread a design culture with our citizens and within companies, within schools and institutions. We also want to leave some legacy behind. This year should be more than a thought-through, qualitative event, but the start of a wider change process. Everything we do should have an effect after 2008, and all activities should leave something behind, physically or culturally.

* * * * *


What issues are you trying to address?

Cities today are in constant change, and these changes affect all aspects of the social, cultural and economic life of a city. Think about the radically changing composition of the population, and what that means for social integration and our public services. Think about our changing living habits and what that means for mobility and our transport infrastructure. Think about how the concept of work is changing and what that means for companies. These are just a few examples. We citizens are changing our own behaviour constantly to adapt to these changes. Our design and research activities have to take on a flexible approach as well to adapt to the changing nature of things. Design can be a very valid tool in continually confronting these changes.

Flexibility is the “fil rouge” of the year.

The theme builds upon the very idea of what a World Design Capital means for ICSID. What can design do to help a city in transformation? We think that flexibility is the answer. To be “adaptive” or “responsive” means finding answers to the many changes. Because these changes often happen very fast, it is crucial to be able to adapt to this evolving context with appropriate tools, and design is one of them.

The year is divided in four thematic phases.

Yes there are four phases, each of roughly three months, and each phase has a focus. The first one is called public design, so it is about making people aware of the power of design, of the value it can have in improving our daily lives. The second phase is more connected to the business world and the focus is here on understanding how design can transform the economy of our region and of our planet. Then there is the phase dedicated to education and design. This third phase will also overlap with the time when Turin will host the World Congress of Architecture, so there will be many young people in town. The last phase is a crucial one because it closes and summarises the year, and is about design policy. We want to invite national design institutes from all over the world: centres that are responsible for policy development, for making their countries more competitive, and for raising the level of quality.

* * * * *


Let’s discuss some of these four focus areas a bit more in depth. First, what do you mean by “design”? What are its boundaries? What do you want to focus on? Do you consider the redesign of work flows and social relationships within the public administration or the industry to be part of your focus?

Many still think of design as styling. We want to focus instead on design as a process that can be applied to products, communication, public policy, education and services. Torino World Design Capital wants to broaden the concept of design as much as possible, emphasising innovation that starts from our society’s needs. Conveying this contemporary interpretation of the word “design” implies a cultural challenge that will require extensive communication and education.

Indeed, many still see a designer as somebody who creates shapes and forms. How will you change that way of thinking?

This is one of the missions of Torino World Design Capital. Nowadays, it is impossible to speak about form as a goal in itself, disconnected from its function and its economic repercussions. That’s why the first part of the year is aimed at the general public, not at a professional audience, because we want to reach out broadly about what design can be and how it can affect our daily lives. Norman Potter wrote in his seminal 1968 book “What is a designer” that all people are in fact designers, because we all create something. I think it is very important to focus on our basic education: we are setting up an initiative aimed at primary schools, to share with children what a design project is and what the word designer means.

* * * * *


You spoke about innovation earlier on. “Design” and “innovation” are on everybody’s lips. Design is seen as a tool for business innovation and this thinking is getting a hold in Italy too. Do you think Italy is indeed going through a cultural shift? If so, how is this happening? How will Turin 2008 contribute to it? What, for instance, can companies expect from you in this sense? What is your vision on design and innovation?

Innovation is still often seen as something that happens in research centres. Obviously this is part of the story, but there is more. Design can act as an innovation tool as well, and we need to support that. To stimulate this type of innovation, the Regional Government of Piedmont will soon launch an initiative to create better synergies between designers and companies–not just companies that are already using designers, but also those that are not yet convinced of the benefits of a design approach, or those that need to become more acquainted with the design process.

How else do you plan to structure the collaboration with companies?

Most of that planning is now in the making. There is great interest from companies, and also from abroad. I think it is because we are the first World Design Capital, because Italy is seen as an interesting design context, and because we recently hosted the Winter Olympics. Not just local, but also foreign companies are now planning to be present here in 2008.

* * * * *


Italy has played a leading role in design in the past. Today all eyes are turned towards the more edgy and innovative British and Dutch designers. Who do you think is showing the most stunning creativity in Italian design? Or do you think that these geographical boundaries are no longer relevant today?

Geographic boundaries are not so relevant anymore; innovation can be Italian, British, German or Dutch. I don’t believe that Italy or any other country possesses a magical creative or design formula. What matters is dialogue and where that dialogue takes place. Next year one of the meeting points will be here in Turin, so it will be about Italian culture dialoguing with other design cultures. The last part of the year, which is devoted to design policy, is all about that dialogue. We will invite Design Centres from all over the world and give them their own spaces, much like the national pavilions during the Olympic Games. The goal is to have each of them share their design culture with us and with each other. At the end of the year, Turin will then inaugurate its own Design Centre.

Are you thinking about a national design policy for Italy?

There is no national public entity in Italy that implements and promotes a strategic design policy. There is however ADI, the Italian Association of Industrial Design, that has been promoting the Italian design culture for over fifty years, with internationally known initiatives such as the “Compasso d’Oro” award.

Which countries are you planning to involve?

During the last part of the year, we want to focus with these international design centres on exchanging international experiences, creating a network of relationships, and starting a debate on best practices in national design policies worldwide. We have already initiated relations with Hong Kong, Montreal, Nagoya, Taipei, Budapest, Copenhagen and Singapore.

* * * * *


It is however the city of Milan which is seen as Italy’s design capital. How do you plan to articulate the relationship with Milan during (and possibly after) 2008?

When you read about cities and regions nowadays, you hear a lot about competition, but also about exchange. Turin has looked at Barcelona a lot to compare its own development over the last ten years. It is of fundamental importance for us to collaborate with Milan. We cannot be in competition. Turin is working hard to become a design capital but it is not yet one. It still has a lot to learn from Milan. Having more than one design-oriented city can only be an advantage for our country. If ten Italian cities would be known internationally as design cities, it would only increase the international credibility of Italian design and of the role of design in our culture. I view our relationship with Milan as one of mutual exchange, rather than one of competition.

* * * * *


I heard that you are eager to have many young creative people from all over Italy and all over the world come visit Turin during 2008. What can they expect? Why should they come?

We would really like to involve creative and young designers, as visitors, as a critical audience, as contributors in the events, or as active participants that help to shape this event. Hence the relevance of the initiative of the Piedmont regional administration that I told you earlier about: foreign design students working with local companies will provide the former with new professional experiences and the latter with fresh and creative design ideas, developed by people who come from very different contexts. The World Congress of Architecture provides us with another opportunity to bring together the worlds of education and design straining with the international stars of design and architecture.

So the summer is the liveliest period of the year?

For sure it will be the time when we organise many activities for students, and will involve design schools from all over the world.

How can people participate?

The wider public will be immersed in a city that will host a large number of initiatives: exhibitions, conferences and events that are conceived with the aim of connecting ordinary citizens with design. There will also be a number of installations that will be set up in very popular squares and locations. People who are professionally involved with design will be treated to many debates, meetings and discussions. But they will also be involved in actual creation: at New Year’s Eve for example, when Torino 2008 will be inaugurated, we will invite some designers to dress up the city with ad hoc projects to provide visibility to the event and to strengthen its identity. In the summer we will focus on students who can join training projects specifically created for 2008: summer schools, workshops, and the World Congress of Architects are some of the key events for them.

What are some of the highlights of the year?

We cannot disclose everything yet, but definitely New Year’s Eve which will be the event that will launch the entire year: we are working on a big celebration that will involve the entire city, with specific events in the various historical squares of Turin. In May we will host some major activities devoted to graphic design, publishing and advertising. The Design Houses, which will host the world’s main Design Centres, will provide an opportunity for learning and sharing, but also for involving all the citizens.

Thank you.

30 March 2007

Living Labs conference in Belgium

i-City PDA
This week Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken was in Belgium to attend a conference where a Living Lab project in the cities of Hasselt and Leuven was presented.

“Living Labs” is a new concept for R&D and innovation to boost the Lisbon strategy for jobs and growth in Europe. There are big differences between running Living Labs but they share a vision of human-centric involvement and its potential for development of new ICT-based services and products. It is all done by bringing different stakeholders together in a co-creative way, and by involving people in the streets and the users and user communities as contributors and co-creators of new innovations. In short, they are people-centred technology testing grounds in real-life situations.

The initiative is sponsored by the EU (wiki), but funding comes mostly from national and regional governments and private companies.

The Belgian Living Lab in the small city of Hasselt focuses on wireless technology and location-based services that run on WiFi-enabled PDA’s. About 750 people currently take part in this pilot study. According to Belgian Living Lab coordinator Guido van der Mullen, the process runs like this: (1) thematic working groups (e.g. on healthcare, mobility or culture and tourism) come together to develop ideas for possible applications or industry partners deliver these ideas directly; (2) a team of software developers then develop an alpha version of the application software; (3) this gets tested with all or a section of the users in the Living Lab; (4) input from the user testing is fed into the development of the beta version of the software; (5) this gets tested again; (6) after which the final version of the software gets developed.

Most of the current Living Labs, including the Belgian project, only involve the participating inhabitants in assessing how they react to applications, i.e. as testers, but not in the application ideation stage, which follows a more traditional top-down model still: experts who have ideas about possible applications.

As stated by Olavi Luotonen, the EU’s Living Lab portfolio coordinator, the European Commission hopes that the second wave participants will expand the human-centred approach also to application ideation and not just to application testing. In fact, some of the first wave project are already experimenting with this approach, including the Testbed Botnia project in Northern Sweden. The Botnia project is managed by Mikael Börjeson, who also runs the curiously named “Centre for Distance-spanning Technology” located above the arctic circle, he told me, and CoreLabs, which acts as an operational arm of the European Commission to insure coordination between all the Living Labs.

Fientje Moerman, the Vice-Minister President of the Flemish Goverment and Flemish Minister for Economy, Enterprise, Science, Innovation and Foreign Trade (a mouthful), was particularly pleased with the work done in Hasselt so far. She provided an additional 4 million euro contribution for the project’s 2007 budget and is now exploring how to expand the concept to all bigger cities in Flanders, and turn the Hasselt project into an i-Flanders project.

This is all part of a larger strategy of the energetic Belgian minister to make design and creativity core pillars of her innovation strategy, as demonstrated by the recent founding of such initiatives as Design Flanders and Flanders District of Creativity.

The Hasselt team meanwile has spun off a for-profit company called “City Live” which aims to commercialise its “Community Services Platform”, i.e. the central software that runs all the i-City applications.

The applications we got to see during an interactive tour of the city were as such not that revolutionary and reminded me of many mobile 2.0 applications that have been launched recently, but the nice thing is of course that they are highly location specific and entirely free for the end-user (as the signal comes from a series of wifi hotspots): an application to locate your friends in real time on a map, a tool to upload news items on a local citizen-generated news service, an application to alert the city government via a photo tool about possible problems with roads, rubbish or public furniture, etcetera.

The interface itself was interesting, and – this is nice – the result of a people-centred design approach. The standard issue (HP) PDA (see photo) is divided in four rows: the top one features common applications such as calling, texting, emailing, etc. The second row features people’s favourite applications. The third row is for location-specific applications, e.g. if you were standing next to the station the mobile website of the bus company and the railway company showed up, and maybe also some descriptions of nearby bars. The bottom row finally is for navigation. Each row could be scrolled by a stylus or by touch-sensitive browsing very similar to what you can find on the Apple iPhone.

(Anyone interested in starting a Living Lab should submit an Expression of Interest before 30 April.)

12 March 2007

Experientia started blogging on Core77

Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken started blogging for Core77, the USA-based online design magazine.

Eventually he wants to bring a bit of an Italian angle to things, as he is also going to do quite some writing for Torino 2008 World Design Capital. An interview with the 32-year old Torino 2008 director will also soon be published on “Core”.

1 March 2007

A participatory conference model at NESTA, London

Two days ago Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken was at the NESTA Uploading…Innovation event in London.

NESTA, which stands for National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, has beautiful well-equipped offices in the centre of London (no wonder, given their £ 350 million lottery-funded endowment), and is increasingly becoming a strategic player in informing the UK innovation policy, in part also due to the new leadership of Jonathan Kestenbaum (who was appointed chief executive of NESTA last November).

The event itself brought about a whole range of ideas (that you can read about here, here, here, here and here – and these are just a few). What I think was also really unique was the process itself.

NESTA organised this event “to learn from those people who have been at the forefront of the development of new participatory ways of working, those who have harnessed the network effects of emerging technologies of collaboration to create new business models, new products and services, to bring about culture change within organisations and disruptive innovation to their sectors.”

So they brought about 150 people together for an afternoon. How do you manage a participatory conference? How do you get 150 people to exchange their ideas and learn from it in the process?

The solution they came up with involved the collaboration of Steve Moore of Policy Unplugged, who created a bottom-up process. Simply said, the afternoon was divided in two blocks, with six to seven people making a 3 minute pitch for a particular topic and then breaking out into discussion groups to deepen it. Both the pitches and the discussion groups were open: if you felt like it you could make your own pitch, you joined the discussion group that you liked, and in the discussion group you contributed or listened as you felt like.

This approach was based on the premise that 5% of the people speaking 90% of the time is not the best way to stimulate knowledge sharing and that we are in many ways all experts. In other words, it functioned like a live version of a web forum.

Mark’s own group discussed the lack of a Europe-wide discourse on people-focused innovation (e.g. on experience design & innovation; sustainable & innovation; participation & innovation), with most of the discourse either being American or country-specific, and what can be done about it. Some good ideas came up and we are exploring a new online magazine on some best practices that he hopes to tell you more about soon. Any ideas and input are of course welcome.

17 February 2007

Uploading innovation, a NESTA event

Steve Moore, founder and director of Policy Unplugged (a “social conference provider”), has invited me to be one of a few foreign guests at an event called Uploading Innovation hosted by NESTA in London on 27 February.

I am very much looking forward to contribute our thoughts on user-centred approaches to innovation, and to learn more about what people in the UK are doing in this regard.

I also hope we can establish some connections and exchanges, in view of Experientia’s upcoming involvement in Torino 2008, World Design Capital which is all about design for transformation, and with a Piedmont regional innovation policy (see also here) anchored in “demand-driven” approaches — i.e. user needs (which is, by the way, a topic that I am now also addressing in Flanders, Belgium.)

NESTA (blog) is the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. It is the largest single endowment devoted exclusively to supporting talent, innovation and creativity in the UK. It is their mission to transform the UK’s capacity for business, social and public policy innovation. They invest in early stage companies, inform innovation policy and encourage a culture that helps innovation to flourish.

To help cultivate a new national conversation about innovation NESTA recently established NESTA Connect to explore how innovation can be stimulated through networks and collaborative working between different disciplines, organisations and places (see also this article).

The Uploading…Innovation conference has been convened to help NESTA learn from those people who have been at the forefront of the development of new participatory ways of working, those who have harnessed the network effects of emerging technologies of collaboration to create new business models, new products and services, to bring about culture change within organisations and disruptive innovation to their sectors.

NESTA and Policy Unplugged identified and invited 100 of the leading collaboratives in the UK into a conversation about how NESTA can formulate innovation policy and create programmes to ensure that they optimise the potential of the social, viral and community hallmarks of the Web.

17 December 2006

Dutch heritage conference highlights lack of audience understanding

Dutch heritage conference
Last week Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken spoke at a cultural heritage conference in the Netherlands on audience research and playful interfaces. It was a revealing experience.

Current practices in people-centred design, user research and participatory processes have barely affected Dutch cultural institutions.

Culture and heritage institutions have a supply driven approach, and this applies also to their digital and online services. They do a lot, but know virtually nothing about the demand: their (potential) audience’s size, composition, habits, values, needs and expectations, and on what that might mean for the online offerings and the relation between online and offline. They have no empirical tools to gain such understandings and often see demand driven approaches as a threat to their core mission.

Visit our site

This is confirmed by the report “Visit our site” (“Bezoek onze site”) published last week by the social and cultural planning office of the Dutch Government (available as pdf in Dutch only). The report provides an overview of the current state of digitisation of the cultural “supply” (i.e. the enormous amount of materials that together constitute the Dutch cultural heritage), in order to make it “available” to a wider audience.

The introduction already reveals the main issue: “Given the amount of materials, not everything can be digitised”, and therefore “experts set priorities based on the demand of the audience — the presumed demand that is, because information on audience demand is scarce.” [My translation]

“A main reason for digitisation is the wish to make cultural contents available to a wider audience. However most institutions know little about the demand, i.e. the needs and expectations of their visitors, and therefore have no idea to what extent the information they supply addresses a demand.”

The report shows quite clearly that web statistics and a few occasional surveys are about the only information that Dutch cultural institutions have about their online audiences. The various chapters have long sections describing the information that institutions supply and short ones on what they know about their audiences, and this applies across the board: theatre, visual arts and architecture, music, cinema, multimedia, museums, archives, monuments, archeology, and public broadcasting, with libraries perhaps being somewhat of an exception.

The lack of insight in current people research practices is also revealed by the report itself. In a final chapter it addresses the “three methods to understand how cultural information is used on the internet”, which turn out to be web statistics, audience questionnaires and interviews, and general opinion polls. The report doesn’t acknowledge the qualitative research methods that provide an insight in what people actually do rather than what they say they do, such as contextual inquiries, ethnography, task and flow analysis, shadowing, card storing, etc.

Click to the past

“Click to the past” (“Klik naar het verleden”) is the title of a 2006 report (also available as pdf) published by the same Dutch government office. It provides probably the best available insight on the users of digital heritage information online. It is based on a doctoral dissertation by Henrieke Wubs, one of the report authors.

A statistical (cluster) analysis of a national survey of the Dutch population (2003) identified a number of user types, depending on their interest and participation in cultural heritage. The survey, which was wide-ranging and covered many aspects of social and cultural involvement, assessed both physical and virtual visits to cultural institutions.

The clusters are: all rounders (4% of the population), which are very active lovers of the cultural heritage, art lovers (8%), members of cultural heritage organisations (5.6%), collectors (8%), browsers (9%), family visitors (16%), day tourists (11%), passive readers (8%), and the non-active population (30%).

The cluster analysis was then refined through focus group conversations, with the participants representing each of the clusters that were identified. The rich qualitative data provide probably the best available insight into habits, values, needs and expectations of the (potential) Dutch cultural audience.

Museum examples

Revealing were a series of conference presentations on the latest tools developed by top Dutch museums. The world-renowned Rijksmuseum for instance experiments a lot with new online tools, including AJAX applications, rss feeds, widgets and educational games. But they just push things online, based on a hit-and-miss approach, hoping that people will like it.

Villa Koopzicht

One welcome exception was the presentation by serial entrepreneur Jeroen Loeffen of Villa Koopzicht.

Loeffen is a serial entrepreneur. His latest venture is based on a very simple platform to create user- or community-generated web journals. He has been implementing this bottom-up communications approach first in schools and in networks of children and youngsters, learning a great deal about these digital natives in the process.

But he has also convinced the Dutch Postal Services (KPN) and a major insurance company to apply the same system for their own internal communications.

Interestingly, Loeffen confirms that these user-generated journals in a very short time become the dominant communications channels of the organisations involved, who are usually not prepared for this. Senior management are having the most problems with these channels they do not control and see them often as threats. Loeffen’s key task at the moment is consulting management in making a major cultural leap.

His main recommendation to the cultural heritage sector: if you really want to go for participatory processes and give your audience a say, be prepared to fundamentally change your institutions.

4 December 2006

Dreaming of people-centred RSS feeds

To write a professional blog like Putting People First, one needs to scan a lot of material. In fact, Putting People First would be impossible to compile without the help of RSS. I am subscribed to a great many of them. 331 at the moment. You can see them here.

RSS helps me a lot of course. With one click, I can see what has been updated on 331 websites without having to go any of the 331 websites involved, or without having to scan through material that I have scanned or read already before.

But RSS is not yet a mature technology. Much could be improved to make it more helpful, more practical and more pleasurable to use. In fact, if an innovative tech company were to embark on a qualitative, ethnographic study of 10-12 people who use RSS regularly (with both more and less intensity than I do), I am sure that a great many design opportunities would arise. When carefully implemented, prototyped and tested, this could quickly position the company as the leading innovator in this very handy and practical technology.

In its current incarnation, RSS is a simple and blind technology. Through a feed reader (or “aggregator”), I can check a list of feeds (which are basically XML-versions of a blog or website) and display any new or updated articles on these feeds directly in my feed reader.

RSS is not “Web 2.0″ in and by itself. There is nothing particularly social in the experience of using it. RSS feeds do not become better because more people read them.

So let me set out five areas for improvement, which are based on using Bloglines but also largely apply to other online readers such as Rojo and NewsGator:

Feeds are dumb
Most news websites provide thematic RSS feeds. For instance BBC News has a feed on technology-related articles that I am subscribed to. I now receive all the BBC News articles on technology, including many that I am not at all interested in. I cannot refine my feed through the BBC, nor can I benefit from the shared intelligence of the many others who are also subscribed to the same BBC technology feed and have similar interests as I do. We all have to keep on going through the same weeding process and we cannot benefit from each other’s weeding. Yes, there are services as Digg, and others, but nothing that allows me to fine-tune my various feed subscriptions. I am stuck with having to read large amounts of material that I am not at all interested in.

Aggregators are dumb
I have my particular RSS behaviour: I click on certain titles to read the full post or go to the original site that it was posted on. So I portray a certain behaviour through my choices and selections. But this behavioural pattern is not registered and cleverly used to fine-tune my RSS feeds and to gradually supply me with more articles that are relevant for me and weed out the ones that are not.

The way feeds are displayed is too standard and too rigid
The way a reader shows the RSS feeds s not very sophisticated: I get to see the title, an excerpt, the first 50 words or so, or the full post, and it is often not even I who decides on that. When people publish full posts via their RSS feeds (as I do), some things tend not to show up, e.g. YouTube video links. I also loose any graphic sense of the originating blog or site, even though that is sometimes relevant. For instance, BBC News (again) has leading features and smaller stories. In RSS this qualitative difference disappears. I cannot see when a blog undergoes a graphic redesign, unless the author writes about it. I don’t even know when a feed is no longer working, unless I go through convoluted steps, like opening folders, scrolling a lot, and looking at tiny exclamation points. The graphic style of my feed reader is not customisable. I can make the text bigger or smaller, nothing else. Flexible use is also not supported: I cannot choose to be selectively updated on the comments of one particular blog entry, without having to read all comments on all other blog entries of that feed as well. I cannot sort my feeds or my feed results in some meaningful way. I cannot create hierarchies within my feeds: as I may want to read all posts from some blogs but only some from others.

Who are my RSS feed readers?
I have no idea. I know a great deal less about them than I know of the people who access the blog directly. Any free web analytics programme (e.g. Statcounter, Google Analytics, Logdy, MeasureMap, etc.) provides me with much richer insight on my regular blog readers, than dedicated services such as FeedBurner provide me on my RSS readers. I have no insight at all. I only know how many there are and which aggregators they use. Luckily about 10% my RSS readers read the RSS updates every morning via e-mail, so I know those people’s email addresses. I review them sometimes, and it is nice to recognise a company name, a country code, or even a person’s name. It makes it all a lot more human. But I know nothing about the other 90%.

Restricted RSS
RSS is limited to public blogs and websites. We at Experientia use a lot of password protected blogs to manage projects and share their results but these protected blogs don’t provide functioning RSS feeds. I can also not subscribe via RSS to password protected Yahoo! Groups. There is no real clever integration yet between email and RSS, which might be nice given the amount of email spam these days, redirecting POP3 emails to RSS is just for geeks, and sending an email directly from RSS is still impossible.

There is a lot to be done. I didn’t even talk about the process of subscribing itself, which has its own set of problems.

Note that this article is but the point of view of one person, and other people will have other issues and other needs. Yet it’s worth understanding them.

It may also be that some of these functions already exist, that some companies are working on them. I hope they do. But I have not yet heard about them. And this is the problem. After all, I am a heavy user and write every day about people-centred use of technologies. So mine is still the mainstream experience of using RSS.

And frankly, it is just not good enough.

21 November 2006

Encouraging participatory democracy

UX Magazine
The current issue of User Experience, the membership magazine of the Usability Professionals’ Association, just published an article by Experientia partners Michele Visciola and Mark Vanderbeeken, entitled “Encouraging Participatory Democracy: A Study of 30 Government Websites”.


For the first time in history, a wide distribution of technology allows citizens to get involved in public governance and participate in institutional life on a very regular basis. Yet websites of public authorities are barely taking advantage of the power of the participatory citizen.

Two factors play a key role in this gap. First, the average citizen is not well informed about how basic democratic institutions function, which dramatically reduces the citizen’s capacity to influence the democratic process. Websites can help reduce the complexity of public institutions and get people to understand the way institutions and public administrations function and behave. Second, access to public services online is increasingly separated from institutional information. While online service sites are popular, the role of the institutional sites is not clear. The authors argue that these sites can and should take on the role of a two-way communications tool on topics of policy and politics, support knowledge sharing on areas covered by the authority, and create maximum transparency on what the public administration actually does.

To better understand the opportunities, challenges and evolutions that are affecting public institution websites, the authors studied the main sites of 30 public authorities and identified several innovative approaches. A first analysis shows that a lot remains to be improved. Almost all the sites analysed share three characteristics: (1) policy priorities are not concisely communicated and easy to understand, (2) there is only limited innovation in how regional or municipal institutions present themselves; and (3) there are no tools for active participation.

However, some of the studied sites provide elements of innovation that can be used as models and inspirations. The authors conclude that to improve information access, better communication strategies are needed and to increase participation, better usability is of crucial importance.

The magazine also contains Michele Visciola’s review of the book Ambient Findability by Peter Morville.

The peer-reviewed content of User Experience is not available online but printed copies of the magazine can be bought in the UPA Store.

17 November 2006

European Market Research Event – Day 2, afternoon

European Market Research Event
Mike Spang, Kodak

Mike Spang has the long job title: “Business Research Director, Document Imaging, Corporate Business Research, Eastman Kodak Company”. He spoke about how Kodak went about creating a satisfying global corporate web experience.

To put it in somewhat of a context, about five years ago Kodak had to rapidly reinvent itself as a digital camera company, and so the website had to also change from a portal for photography to a portal for digital imaging, with 80 percent of the web visitors being regular consumers.

The website also had to provide people with an experience beyond just camera purchasing. As one can read in an article in Business Week that was just published, CEO Antonio M. Perez “aims to make Kodak do for photos what Apple does for music: help people to organise and manage their personal libraries of images. He’s developing a slew of new digital photo services for consumers that he expects to yield higher returns.”

Spang described how Kodak through a clever use of user-centred design and a wide range of usability methods, was able to reinvent its web site, make it truly global and incorporate input from users worldwide.

The techniques used included open ended site surveys, heuristic evaluation, focus groups, cognitive walkthroughs, card sorting, usability testing (in lab, remote, web-based), visitor satisfaction assessments, multivariate design testing, and web traffic analysis.

Since there are more than 50 different national versions of the site, the research took place in the UK, Germany, France, China, South Korea and the United States.

Download presentation (pdf, 2.8 mb, 44 slides)

Emmi Kuussikko, Sulake Corporation

Emmi Kuussikko is a research manager with particular responsibilities for market and user insight at the Sulake Corporation, an interactive entertainment company based in Finland. Sulake is responsible for Habbo Hotel.

Habbo is one of the largest teen online communities in 29 different countries. It is a virtual world for young people, a massively multiplayer online game where teenagers create their own personalised virtual characters and interact with other characters in the community. It has 7 million unique users monthly, mainly in the 13 to 16 year old age range, and over 60 million characters have been created globally.

Since it is the community that creates a truly unique gaming environment and a great deal of the changing content is created by the users themselves, they strongly feel they own the brand and the Sulake Corporation just manages it with them.

Research in this online environment is of course also done online. The user base is very loyal and they are very eager to participate in surveys. So actual data collection is very fast. A survey can collect over 40,000 answers in just a few days.

Here are some of the results from a recent survey done globally.

Most teens spend more time on the internet (>90%) than TV (~60 %). Mobile usage is mainly used for text messages, followed by camera use and game playing. One third listen to music on the mobile phone, especially in the UK and Italy. Teens mostly use the web to stay in contact with their friends: IM and email. Then come games. The research provides also a more detailed insight into youth characteristics regarding life style and values:

  • No 1 value: having warm social relationships with friends and family; no 2 value was having fun, and no 3 was security
  • Many are rather conservative in their values
  • Fame, wealth and influence are important to about half
  • They generally have a very positive self-image
  • They endorse a socially responsible world-view
  • Even thought most claim to be tolerant, many have negative attitudes toward minorities. But they would like to have friends from other countries.

Kuusikko’s presentation started to become really interesting when she presented user segments, and the spread of these segments by country.

The user segmentation was based on a cluster-factor analysis. Trying to create maximum divergence between groups and minimum within, provided an accurate and reliable method for identifying groups with similar characteristics. The variables examined were personality, values, attitudes, subculture membership, areas of interest.

Five user types were found: achievers, traditionals, creatives, rebels and loners.

Sulake also uses a more selective community of 200 users to generate, co-create and test new ideas in a continuous and open dialogue.

I hope to be able to add a download to Kuusikko’s presentation shortly.

Mehmood Khan, Unilever

Mehmood Khan is the eccentric thinker who is the Global Leader of Innovation Process Development at Unilever.

Unilever‘s mission is to “add vitality to life”. It manages 400 brands spanning 14 categories of home, personal care and foods products “that help people look good, feel good and get more out of life”.

Khan has been with Unilever since 1982 and has worked in wide areas of the business: marketing, exports, procurement, business development and innovation. He has been pioneering new business for Unilever in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia and North Korea, along with developing new portfolios in China and other countries in East Asia.

In his presentation, entitled “A holistic approach to innovation”, Khan described the key features of Unilever innovation.

According to Khan, innovation is about turning creativity in a successful enterprise. At Unilever innovation is customer-focused which allows the company to keep its brands connected to people’s lives. The innovation learnings and in particular the customer focus have also shaped the vitality brand strategy.

Download presentation (pdf, 136 kb, 17 slides)

17 November 2006

European Market Research Event – Day 2, morning

European Market Research Event
Due to travelling, it took me a few days to write up my summary of the Tuesday presentations at the European Market Research Event, but here we are. In this write-up I will concentrate on five speakers: James Surowiecki, Roula Nasser in the morning session, Mike Spang and Emmi Kuusikko and Mehmood Khan in the afternoon.

James Surowiecki, author of “The Wisdom of Crowds”

James Surowiecki is an extremely well-skilled public speaker. He managed to give a detailed and well-structured 45 minute presentation on his book “The Wisdom of Crowds” with many examples, without notes and without slides.

His argument is that crowds are often smarter collectively than even the smartest individuals it contains. He claims that “If you can figure out ways to tap into the collective intelligence of your organisation and the collective intelligence of your consumers, you can radically change your capability to resolve problems and to forecast the future.”

Surowiecki gave many examples of how that is being done:

  • NASA using volunteers to classify Martian craters in a programme called Clickworkers,
  • Iowa Electronic Markets: the use of markets to predict elections. People buy and sell shares to predict the outcome of US Presidential elections. They were more accurate 3/4 of the time than any Gallup poll.
  • Hollywood Stock Exchange. People buy and sell shares in how well movie releases will do. They give a better answer than any other method. They also picked 7 out of 8 of the major Oscar winners.
  • Other examples include HP where employees could buy or sell shares in how well printer sales were going to do, and it outperformed internal forecasts. Siemens also used this technique to predict how long a particular software product development is going to take. Microsoft has also done something similar, and Google has launched PROPHET, which predicts 200 events of all kinds and they have been almost perfectly correct.

But crowds only act intelligent under three conditions:

  1. Aggregation. It is about the aggregate judgment of lots of individuals, not about consensus.
  2. Diversity. The crowd, the group is cognitively diverse with differences of perspective and differences of heuristics. Homogeneous groups tend to reinforce their own thinking. Diversity mitigates this effects of peer pressure, which can be very powerful.
  3. Independence. The people within the crowd act independently. They think for themselves and rely on their own information, own ideas. Our natural tendency to imitate and protect our reputation can move us away from this independence.

According to Surowiecki, one of the implications for market research is that you want to ask people not what they think of a product, but instead you want to ask the question: “how successful do you think this product is going to be” or “how many people do you think will buy this product by February”.

Roula Nasser, P&G

Roula Nasser is Director of Customer and Market Knowledge of the Global P&G Beauty.

Her talk, entitled “Driving Consumer & Market Understanding to New Heights: A Roadmap for Success” set out a market strategy and vision, but was unfortunately a bit weak on examples.

P&G has put a lot of emphasis on focusing on the future, or in their own jargon: from hindsight, to insight, to foresight. To do that, they have been investing a lot on new capabilities to get at consumer attitudes; on understanding the changing dynamics of the marketplace, particularly the differences between the developed and the developing world; and on making research and researchers strategic.

Nasser then went on to say how important it is to have visible support from company leaders, and went into a long and elaborate praise of A.G. Lafley who is P&G’s chairman, president and CEO.

Lastly, she stressed how important it is to think about consumers in new ways, by seeing them as people and developing a more personal relationship, and to use more involved shadowing techniques, which they call “Walk with Me”: go and visit people in their homes; live on the budget of a low-income consumer for a week; shop with consumer’s grocery list, budget and children; serve in jobs where P&G products are used.

The examples, from China and South Africa, illustrated how such an approach can lead to real benefits for advertising. There were however no examples of what this deeper people-centred approach might mean for P&G’s product innovation.

13 November 2006

European Market Research Event – Day 1, afternoon

European Market Research Event
During the afternoon sessions of the European Market Research Event, I attended presentations by Clive Grinyer of France Telecom Orange, Sarah Pearson of ACB/University of Sussex and Francesco Cara of Nokia. There is also a short write-up of a talk by Valérie Bauwens of Swisscom.

Clive Grinyer, France Telecom Orange

In his highly entertaining presentation, thought-provokingly called “lipstick on a pig”, Clive Grinyer reflected on the relation between usability and design.

Grinyer once worked with Jonathan Ive in a company called “Tangerine”. After some time at Samsung and the Design Council, he joined the legendary Orange mobile brand where he is the head of design and usability and develops user interfaces on handsets, mobile portals and web services, thus helping to create the next generation of communication services.

During his talk, Grinyer spent a lot of time reflecting on the perceived and actual role of design.

Design is more than just the work of a magician designer, a decorator or an innovative engineer. It is more than fashion or product design (with all respect for Jonathan Ive).

Design is really about creating a complete service experience, an approach which has been pioneered by Steve Jobs.

But quite often companies still have the tendency to put lipstick on a pig, to render something attractive that is underneath unattractive.

Grinyer in other words is upset by the superficiality of design and advocates a people-centred approach. People, he says, are old and young, have different values and different levels of comfort with technology. They are not just between 16 and 25.

Because many people have different views of what simplicity is, also designers do, and Grinyer provides us with some funny examples of ‘simple solutions’ designers have come up with.

He says that we often end up with a situation where:

  • Technology rarely works
  • Usability is poor and uncovered too late in the process to correct
  • Customer uptake is slow or doesn’t happen
  • Revenue is reduced
  • Customer experience is random and brand delivery is inconsistent
  • In short, technology rarely just works

Did you ever try to set up email on a phone?

Orange tries to design the full experience across many touchpoints.

To do that well, you need to find out who your customer really is, what they really do, what they want to do, and somebody needs to show them what is possible, what is next, and make them want to do it!

Companies and designers also need to be aware that customers always tell the truth, but not always the way you think.

Experimentation is therefore important, designers have to come up with more than one idea, and you have to test things with real people.

In the end, Grinyer says, design has both a scientific and emotional side. Usability and ergonomics provide the physical and cognitive knowledge but design also delivers attraction, delight, comfort, safety, enjoyment, pride, clarity, wow and awe.

Designers in other words need to design the full experience.

Download presentation (zipped PowerPoint, 6.2 mb, 64 slides)

Valérie Bauwens, Swisscom

Another excellent talk took place while Clive was speaking, so I could not attend it. It was by my Belgian compatriot Valérie Bauwens, who is a senior user researcher at Swisscom’s Customer Observatory and who works closely with Stefana Broadbent.

Valérie was kind enough to guide me briefly through her talk afterwards.

Swisscom’s User Adoption Lab has been looking specifically at how people use technology in their daily lives, by doing in-context interviews and observing people in their homes.

A key result of the research is that each communication tool is specialised in its use, depending on its functionalities.

Download presentation (pdf, 875 kb, 29 slides)

Sarah Pearson, ACB/University of Sussex

Sarah Pearson, who is a managing partner of ACB at the Sussex Innovation Centre of the University of Sussex, presented the results of an elaborate ethnographic study on “the impact of personal video recorders on television audience behaviour during commercial breaks using video ethnography”.

In short, PVR’s (which are TiVo-like devices) allow you to fast forward advertisements and are perceived to be a massive threat to the advertising model.

Research done in focus groups and in labs confirmed the perception of this threat.

During initial research Pearson found however that there was an amazing difference between what people perceive of the technology, and what people actually do.

Pearson today presented a more elaborate piece of ethnographic research, which was funded by a (very worried) consortium of Ofcom, Channel 4, Channel Five, iTV and Initiative.

The research wanted to go beyond claimed behaviour and to get a deeper understanding of people’s actual behaviours.

It turned out that there was a somewhat surprising tendency among the majority of participants to initially watch live TV and only revert to the PVR as a kind of back-up. Not surprisingly, of the 3480 opportunities to see adverts, 70% were live and only 30% were time-shifted. And only two-thirds of the time-shifted ones were actually skipped. So 80% of adverts were still viewed entirely, which means that PVR’s are not going to have such an impact as once feared.

I was hoping for some more insight on the fast-forwarding behaviour. It seemed to me that ads were browsed and skimmed like pages in a magazine and some of them merited more in-depth investigation. However, Pearson didn’t provide much insight into this, in part because of NDA restrictions.”

Download presentation summary (pdf, 20 kb, 2 pages)

Francesco Cara, Nokia

Francesco Cara, who is the director of Nokia Design, Insight and Innovation, provided the last talk I attended during the day.

Cara, who has a cognitive science background, provided a talk on organic innovation, where innovation is created in dialogue with the end-user, in an open, interactive way.

Nokia, argues Cara, advocates a human approach to technology, with a strong emphasis on dialogue. Fast prototyping and ethnography are crucial, with the latter assuming a strategic role.

Cara provided the case study example of Skype, which is a typical example of convergence, bringing together voice telephony, instant messaging and broadband access.

The ethnographic and contextual interview study, which took place in Germany and Brazil, explored who the Skype users really were and how they used the service.

Some of the learnings showed that Skype should not be seen as a replacement but as an additional that has a number of quite distinct features: such as openness (the channel remains open), targeted and intimate, low virality and enriched communication.

13 November 2006

European Market Research Event – Day 1, morning

European Market Research Event
The European Market Research Event that I am attending today and tomorrow started off with three parallel sessions: usability, online research, and best practices in research techniques (tomorrow there are four).

My selection of talks is purely based on personal preferences and obviously only a snapshot of about a third of the event.

I have the conference CD’s with most of the presentation files and have uploaded some of those that I attended on this blog (with approval of the authors involved). If you are interested in the presentation files of one of the other talks, just let me know.

Flemming Ostergaard, LEGO

I started off the day with Flemming Ostergaard, Marketing Innovation Director at Lego, whose talk “Leveraging Ethnography and Anthropological Research to Innovate” describes how LEGO works on understanding kids and kids play and how to translate these insights into new products and play innovation.

LEGO as a company is facing some major challenges, e.g. the huge pressure from tech toys, the fact that kids are getting older younger, and the shortened production cycle, that have made innovation crucial for the company.

To innovate they need a much sharper understanding of the needs of kids. To achieve this, LEGO uses a variety of user research techniques, including:

  1. Be the Kid – participatory observation where adults became kids;
  2. Know the Shopper – observation & desk research, particularly looking at the interaction between children and parents and at how children shop;
  3. Find the Forces – context and trends research;
  4. Find the Fun – ethnographic research (15 days of hanging out with kids);
  5. Map the Industry – innovation diagnostics with a focus of trying to understand the ingredients of successful innovation;
  6. Find the Stories – context research through talking to authors and scriptwriters.

This research brought about an insight into some of the core values that are crucial now, such as complexity, new playing fields and the need for privacy.

LEGO uses a six pillar approach to turn these values into patterns and “innovation vectors”, and looked for instance at a privacy-inspired solution, called “Mutants by Mail” that covers all the needs of the parents, but also of the child, through a clever use of the mobile phone.

In addition to straightforward user research, LEGO also builds on the power of user communities, through its use of ‘Adult Fans Of Lego’ (the so-called AFOL’s) in the development of the second version of MindStorm, and in user co-creation, through its already well-known LEGO Factory.

A big issue is still the ‘creative leap’: how to take the insights that were gained from understanding and make these into relevant new products concepts. Ostergaard had to admit that the company is are not fully there yet. But one of the ways to make sure user research and creativity are well integrated is by involving creative people part of the full research process, not just the design process.

Tony Linford, Hi-Tec Sports

Tony Linford, the marketing director of Hi-Tec Sports, took a much more intuitive and much less formalised approach to user understanding.

Hi-Tec is an English manufacturer of sports footwear, founded in the 70’s by Dutch entrepreneur Frank Van Wezel.

The key to innovation, according to Linford, is a mixture of being very close to the end users, emotional and intuitive understanding of their needs, a highly scientific, problem-solving approach which leads to a series of steadily improving prototypes, and simple entrepreneurial guts to go for something that you think makes sense.

Hi-Tec works a lot with individual lead users, such as professional golfer Padraig Harrington, for whom they developed a set of new high-performance golf shoes.

The company’s latest concept is 4:SYS (pronounced “Forces”). It analyses the different forces applied by the barefoot during the running gait and came up with a sole that mimicked and helps this natural pressure.

Download presentation (pdf, 264 kb, 20 slides)

Anat Amir, O2

Anat Amir, who is the head of product experience and research at O2, a UK telecom provider, gave the last talk I attended in the morning.

Amir was one of the people in charge of a 6 month pilot study or user trial with 375 participants in Oxford, UK of Digital Video Broadcast (DVB-H), which is multi-channel TV broadcast directly to mobiles.

Although the pilot study had mostly a technical aim, and the results were quite positive, Amir hinted at a number of usability, context of use and user experience issues that I would have loved to hear more about, but that were difficult to discuss at this stage because of NDA.

More information about the project can be found on the Arqiva website.

13 November 2006

Experientia interviews Anne Kirah, senior design anthropologist at Microsoft

Anne Kirah
Anne Kirah (bio) is senior design anthropologist at Microsoft’s MSN Customer Design Centre. In this interview, she talks on the importance of taking off your blinders and focusing on the real lives of real people. She discusses her work at Microsoft and her latest challenges.

She highlights that “it is just as important understanding people who are not using technology as it is to understand people who are using technology” and describes what the challenges were in changing Microsoft from a tech-centred company to a people-centred one.

She reflects on how companies can change to have a people-centred focus no matter what their products and services are, on the new 180º Academy where she is directing the programming, and on her new consulting activities.

The interview, which was conducted in October, is published as a prelude to the European Market Research Event that Anne co-chairs and Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken will attend and blog about.


Anne Kirah (bio) is senior design anthropologist at Microsoft’s MSN Customer Design Centre. In this interview, she talks on the importance of taking off your blinders and focusing on the real lives of real people. She discusses her work at Microsoft and her latest challenges.

The interview was conducted by Mark Vanderbeeken and took place in October 2006.

* * * * *


How did you start your work as an anthropologist for Microsoft?

When they hired me eight years ago as the first official anthropologist, they weren’t sure what to do with me, so they had me design my own job. I soon realised that Microsoft had until then the tendency to come up with feature and product designs within the confines of its own walls. Microsoftees just didn’t have much of an idea what real people in their everyday and not so everyday lives were doing. After all, I think it is just as important to understand people who are not using technology as it is to understand people who are using technology when you are meant to be building products or services that are meaningful, relevant and useful to people in their everyday and not so everyday lives. What went on in the minds of Microsoft’s brilliant software engineers and of people outside the walls of Microsoft, was not always very congruent. So I created the Real People Real Data (RPRD) programme for Windows XP’s development cycle.

Tell me more about how you started out with the RPRD programme.

At first I went to meetings and listened to people (employees at Microsoft) talking. They were just on another planet for me. It was like going to another country where I didn’t speak the language. Then there was the disconnect with what was going on outside Microsoft. For example I was asked to go out and watch people purchase computers, and set up an internet connection. In the usability lab it took on average 3 hours (three hours!) to set up computer and internet. But outside the lab none of the 40 families I studied were able to set up the internet. Those 40 families by the way were randomly chosen families from all over the United States (not just Redmond, my first big win). Later on I would also get them to realise the importance of research outside the United States. So none of the 40 families were able to do it by themselves without serious technical support, and even then they took much longer than the average usability lab time of 3 hours. This told us that people who signed up for usability lab assessment were not average people, but rather techno hobbyists who knew something about usability.

So Windows XP was changed to accommodate those insights.

Not immediately. Microsoft first launched the beta of XP and the same thing happened. We had 1000 beta testing consumers and I had my 40 families also setting up the beta. My families were plaguing the tech support guys assigned to the beta. At first my boss was furious and asked me what was wrong with my people. Later on we found out that the 1000 beta users were again IT-pros who enjoy taking software home, while my 40 families were more representative of everyday people. I had made a video of the first field study, which showed a very angry customer who couldn’t manage to set up his computer. I was called in by the Vice-President of Windows who asked me what I needed to stop humiliating him. That is when Real People Real Data got a budget and it became possible for us to impact not only the future design of XP and other products, but to change the company culture to focus on people. It didn’t hurt either that during my first year at Microsoft, I had the intense surprise of going to our company meeting with 40,000 other people and have Steve Ballmer name the Real People Real Data programme as a symbol for what we were going after.

That must have been very moving.

It was. But most moving were the comments from the families. The families are those who really inspired me by giving me the opportunity to see into their lives and letting me understand their aspirations and motivations. This allowed me to transform these data into meaningful and relevant information for software engineers, so that they could make changes to the designs of our products and services in order to meet those people’s aspirations and motivations. A couple aged 78 came to the “release to manufacture” of Windows XP. They had written a letter to me, which was read out by the VP. It said they couldn’t believe that Microsoft would be interested in them and that they were stunned to see their thoughts and ideas incorporated in to the design of Windows XP. Afterwards tons of software engineers were in tears to meet them saying that they finally understood whom they were building for. Honestly I cried too! The moments I have truly loved at work are the moments when the deepest cynics got a twinkle in their eye and I could see change, change from tech-driven to people-driven. That is what I am most proud of, not the features and services that have come out of it.

[Anne adds after the interview that Howard, who was the husband of the 78 year old couple died recently at 85. “I found out that tech support for Windows VISTA had a corner of their office called: “Howard’s corner” dedicated to making the product acceptable to Howard as a symbol for everyday people in their everyday lives. I went to Howard’s funeral and delivered a speech for the family. It was very moving and most importantly of all, I realised that Howard was a symbol for so much and he will live on in the hearts of many people in my company.”]


Changing a culture…

My work on the RPRD programme was in fact the start of a revolution within Microsoft, and helped the company change from techno-driven to people-driven design. I did of course have some impact on Windows XP but I am much prouder being part of the cultural change at Microsoft than I am of the products and features that have been impacted by Microsoft’s anthropological research. Today, I firmly believe that products and services that are not grounded in understanding the people they are being made for, will result in failure.

What came after your Windows XP experience?

I worked on a product that failed. We predicted it, the group went ahead anyway and it failed. This failure gave me credibility since we had predicted it. I since worked with mobile applications and Messenger, both MSN in general (in Europe people often think it is only Messenger), as well as individual apps such as Hotmail, communications, MSN Spaces, etc.

You worked mainly on mass-market consumer applications?

People are not just consumer or enterprise or whatever. We switch roles all during the day and when we have data relevant to an area within Microsoft, we give them to that area.

Fair enough. But these are all apps that are also consumer apps.

No, XP is also enterprise. There is a Messenger that is for enterprise. There are calendar issues that are not consumer. And when we have relevant data for these areas, they go to the enterprise people.

Microsoft makes quite some applications that are only for business.

The problem is that you are thinking within a mental model of business vs. consumer. In the course of any given day, real people are in both spheres and they overlap! I even worked sometimes in the small biz space when I had relevant data. In fact they are integrated. I have a big issue with how we are taught to think. It is as if we have to unlearn to get to what I think is fairly obvious. I believe strongly that if you want to innovate, you must take off your blinders built through your education and your work experience. As long as you are blinded by these two things, you can not see the world and the potential around you. You can only make changes incrementally based on the lack of understanding of what is really happening around you.

So you don’t focus on particular types of applications?

The data my team collects are holistic. It is not for any one product, be it service enterprise related or consumer related. It is related to the real lives of real people, not to market segmentation. I can easily get annoyed with market segmentation that is purely built on averages and superficial field research. There are plenty of people out there calling themselves ethnographers who do work that is of dangerously poor quality. Of course, we can argue the same for nearly all disciplines. But I am obviously only one person and therefore tend to focus on areas that can have impact for as many people as possible.

How has the user-focused process evolved since?

Let me first say that I never speak about users. Did you wake up this morning defining yourself as a user? No. Maybe you woke up with an alarm clock, so you are an employee. Maybe you woke up with a baby, so you are a father. Maybe you woke up with your wife or lover, which makes you a spouse or a lover. But you sure as hell didn’t wake up and say: good morning world, I am a USER. If we create jargon to deal with our research, then we are no better than the engineers and anyone else who doesn’t speak the language of everyday people in their everyday lives and not so everyday people in their not so everyday lives or any combination thereof. The kind of innovation I am involved with means changing the cultures at work by speaking the same language and culture as the people the company is innovating for.


Describe me Microsoft’s people-centred development approach then.

We do both exploratory and reactive research. Exploratory research means taking off the Microsoft hat and studying life stages and life events associated with a life stage. This means looking at people who are at a basic level focused on everyday aspirations and motivations. For instance, a new mother needing support or trying to figure out the best diaper to buy, or a lonely single person looking for someone to love. We look for patterns across life stages, within life stages, across cultures, and within cultures, and we make design recommendations based on the themes that emerge.

How does that then lead to new applications?

From the exploratory research, we get data that are being condensed into themes. We then have these very cool ideation sessions — brainstorming, story boarding, rapid prototyping, dream ideas based in the motivations and aspirations of people — with the programme and product managers (the PM’s). We create lists of concept ideas, which we prioritise based on market research and design research, and then develop into new features, products and services. Even when a programme manager comes up with an idea for an app on their own, they first of all ask if we have data to support the concept and we work with them to be sure the idea is relevant, meaningful and useful.

Where do Microsoft’s user experience designers fit into this process?

They are part of the link between our data and the coders. For example on my old team the user experience designers worked with the data from the field and the PM’s, and bridged the link through design. I am not a designer… I can’t design anything. I can come up with ideas, concepts that need to be transformed.

How would you describe this transformation process?

It’s like an illustrator, an interpreter. You have to read the book first to be able to illustrate. In fact, they are the most important part of the process because they breathe life into the concepts. But in the end, we are a team. Let me give you an example. One day not so long ago a designer, a PM and myself brainstormed on a certain topic. By listening to the two others, and thinking through the themes, I came up with a patentable idea. They immediately told me that I should patent it. I said no, WE patent it. Nobody and I mean nobody comes up with an idea alone. I just don’t buy that. We might feel we do at times, but we forget the experiences and people behind these experiences that are inherent to our ability to come up with ideas. I would never have come up with that idea if I hadn’t been sitting and discussing a topic with people of a different mindset than my own, each representing different styles and different parts of the process. So they deserve as much credit as I do. I came up with the concept idea with them, not alone. WE came up with the design together. All of this is teamwork and this is vitally important to me.

You also mentioned reactive research.

Reactive research is when you study a particular product or product area. For example when Messenger was not succeeding in Japan, my team was sent there to figure out why and to come up with solutions that would be meaningful and relevant to the Japanese. It turned out that in Japan synchronous communication is considered the rudest form of communication possible. So we made Messenger asynchronous, which means that you can send a message even if the other person is not online. However in doing this, we realised that this intervention, which originated from a culturally specific need, was also meaningful for the rest of the world. In the end we changed the platform globally.


Do you also do reactive research on Windows, for example, to help prepare a new release?

Yes, we do and have done. For Vista there have been six real people feedback programmes that are directly related to what you ask: Windows Vista user experience, customer love, living with Windows Vista, working with Windows Vista, living with Windows Vista global, and Windows desirability. In short, they addressed living with Vista at home, at work, in different countries and in different contexts. But all this is done as a team: usability, design research, coders, programme managers, software engineers and anthropologists. I am proud of my team, of the other teams that I worked with. They are amazing people. Success is built upon working together as a team.

I am asking this question about Vista for three reasons: it is a major release, it is the Microsoft programme that most people will use in a few years and it is promoted with a strong emphasis on the user experience. So I am trying to better understand what is behind that claim, and how you have helped in making that happen?

Well, I am the founder of the Real People programme and worked on Vista at its earliest stages. I left Windows 3-4 years ago though I since still had meetings with the people over there. I started the Internet version of the Real People programme and our data often overlaps. In fact, we became now completely integrated after a recent reorganisation. But Vista is not really my baby.

Fair enough. You started out by talking about the change from a tech-centred to a people-centred company. Is Microsoft now a people-centred company?

Parts of it are, parts of it are not. But that is the direction they are going and it warms my heart.


Where are the biggest obstacles still?

Well, you can change people by giving them experiences that change them. It starts with the education models that do not take into account people-centred design enough, that are not equipped to address the rapid changes that come with the technological revolution (as opposed to the incremental changes of the industrial world), and that do not yet see the world as a global world, though it IS.

You told me that you are involved with some new initiatives, in part dealing with education, which are not immediately connected to Microsoft…

I am very loyal to Microsoft which has given me amazing opportunities. But yes, I am now on a 50% leave from Microsoft, working as a corporate consultant and helping set up an academy.

Let’s talk about the academy first. How will it change education?

In fact there are two academies. The first one (see also article on Putting People First) is a 9-module course for people in the workforce now. It will start off next year. It’s called 180° Academy, based on the concept that we want to turn people 180° around. The other provides a fulltime Masters and PhD. It is not ready for a few years and is only in the concept stages. Both were formed with a focus on front end research before concept making and the commercialisation of concepts.

The 180° Academy was started by some top Danish business…

Yes, companies such as Bang & Olufsen, Lego, Novo Nordisk, Gumlink, Middelfart Sparekasse, Nokia, and Danfoss. I was hired to create the curriculum and hire the faculty. I am just so passionately involved with it. It has given my life new meaning because all I really want to do is save the world and to be able to touch the lives of powerful people (me not being powerful), I have a chance at it. I truly believe that the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. It is the most exciting thing I have ever done.

What makes you so excited?

My passion for working at the academy and in educational world in general is based on my deep belief that we need to change the educational system to be successful in any industry. I work on change management in my consulting work for the same reasons because companies just can’t afford to wait for the educational revolution to take place. They really want to turn things upside down a bit. This all goes back to people-centred design. How can companies change to have a people-centred focus no matter what their services and products are? How can education change to create people who can adapt to this rapidly moving world and focus on the matters of the heart? This is where my passion is and where I will continue to work for the rest of my working years.

You are advocating a new educational approach…

Education has to stop creating models and start giving people tools that help them adapt to rapid change, that allow them to take “context” into account. Each situation is different and you need to have a new tool kit each time. Education should stop creating a one-directional model. The world is not linear. Production and design is not linear. Even the word iterative can be annoying because then it just becomes one linear process on top of another – the same old thing over and over again. I know I am being provocative, so I apologise but if I could stand on top of the Eiffel tower and be heard. Here are some of my core ideas on this:

  • Values from connecting the heart and mind
  • We work too much with our blinders on
  • Innovation comes from learning to see people and things through new lenses
  • Observing the lives and the environment of people
  • A willingness to build with the people we observe
  • Allowing for values of the heart and mind to be embraced
  • Being humble and practicing humility
  • and taking risks!

There are still too many top-down models in just about everything. In education. In politics and governance. In urban planning. Etc. We have to find more creative ways to work bottom-up, to let people co-create.

That is my mission in life. We are on the edge of a revolution and I think we will see a paradigm shift in the next five to ten years when we will get the people with blinders on either to see the light or to move on.


You are also getting involved in corporate consulting…

Yes, it’s currently called the Kirah Group, although we keep changing the name of it. We are focused on the stage before they realise they need companies like yours [i.e. Experientia, an experience design consultancy]. We run workshops with the top management of companies to help them see that by understanding people, environment, context, you can actually open your minds and see the vast areas of innovation. If you ask the wrong questions you get the wrong answers. I set them up to hire people like your company to help them.

The name sounds a bit like a family consultancy. The Kirah’s.

LOL. There are four of us. We are in a sense a family, very close-knit people whom I love dearly: my partner Stefano, my colleague Soren and his wife Vivi. We are very diverse and supplement each other very, very well.

You are basically working on a strategic level rather than doing actual on-the-ground research?

Yes, we focus on strategy, vision and change management.


And now you are co-chairing the European Market Research Event.

I participated in the Market Research Event in San Francisco last year. It provides an opportunity for those working in market research to link better to product development and to learn about different methods and practices in the industry. I got involved more intensely when I sent them some reflections on the San Francisco event. I also adore the other co-chair of the European event, Christian Madsbjerg of RED Associates, a great company.

Anne, thank you so much.

My pleasure.

* * * * *


Anne Kirah serves as a senior design anthropologist for Microsoft’s MSN Customer Design Center and is responsible for global field research and participatory design. Her primary focus is on future product innovation and people centred research for MSN. Kirah recently won the award for MSN Contributor of the Year (2004).

Kirah is currently working with a consortium of Danish industry leaders to create a curriculum and hire faculty for a new global innovation school called 180º Academy, and is also a partner in the Kirah Group which does consulting work.

Kirah, who joined Microsoft in 1999, previously worked as a research associate for Boeing, the world’s leading aircraft manufacturer. She helped conceive quantitative research surveys for use onboard lengthy international flights and led a team of field researchers seeking input from passengers and crew to improve customer and employee satisfaction of aircraft design.

Kirah has lived and worked extensively in Europe and Asia and is fluent in English and Norwegian. She also has some knowledge of French, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. Kirah has written award-winning newspaper articles in Japan, edited and written books about contemporary Norwegian society and won several research grants, fellowships and scholarships.

She holds an upper level graduate degree in social and cultural anthropology from the University of Oslo, Norway; a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Washington and an undergraduate degree in social and cultural anthropology, with minors in the sociology of education and developmental psychology from the University of Oslo, Norway.

Kirah has two children, Aase and Miriam, and lives in Paris, France. Away from work, Kirah is involved in her children’s activities, cooking, writing, rock climbing and running.

Download interview (pdf, 188 kb, 8 pages)

13 October 2006

Slow+Design: experience design, the Slow Food way

Slow Food logo
I have to admit: I am a fan of Slow Food. I am also one of its 80,000 members. It is an international ethical movement about good, clean and fair food. They “believe that everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible.” They organise lots of events, give quality labels to restaurants, have their own publishing house and university, and are branching out into new fields such as urban planning (“Slow City“).

Slow Food is the most clever conceptual innovation that I have seen coming out of Italy in the last decade. Through its emphasis on local produce and local production, Slow Food pulled it off to globalise the local, not an easy task in a world where the opposite prevails. In a few weeks they will organise the sixth edition of Salone del Gusto, their international fair, this year concurrently with Terra Madre, Slow Food’s colourful international food communities meeting. Slow Food also has by far the best looking members magazine of ANY movement I know of, printed of course on recycled paper, with a photo selection that is just stunning. Slow Food is seriously cool, Nussbaum might say.

Now Slow Food is getting into design.

On 6 October Slow Food Italy and three Italian educational institutions organised a one-day Slow+Design seminar on the “slow approach to distributed economy and sustainable sensoriality” in Milan (Italian press release).

The event sought an answer to two clear, concrete and complementary questions: what can design learn from the Slow Model? How can design contribute to the success of the Slow Model (both inside and outside the field of food)?

The Slow Food head office, located in a town just south of Torino, just sent me several English-language documents that provide some background on this new initiative, which is still in an embryonic phase. However, if you read them carefully, you realise that it is all about experience design, the Slow Food way. They even talk about co-creation, which they call “de-intermediation”. I quote:

“Our departure point is the Slow Food experience. Slow Food has met with great and growing international success which, contrary to dominant trends, has demonstrated the real possibility of linking food quality research to the safeguarding of typical local products and to the sustainable valorisation of the skills, expertise and organisational models from which such products originate. In so doing it has played an important role on two complementary fronts: firstly, in regenerating such a precious collective good as the biological and cultural diversity of local food production and secondly, in proposing and initially setting up new food networks.”

“However, though the specific scope of Slow Food lies in these new food networks, its experience is of more general value and is significant for those working in other fields and addressing other problems. Its experience is encapsulated in the new meanings that, thanks to its activities, have been attributed to the adjective “slow” and that we can refer to as the “slow approach”.”

“Above all, the slow approach means the simple, but in current times revolutionary, affirmation that it is not possible to produce and appreciate quality if we do not allow ourselves the time to do so, in other words, if we do not activate some kind of slowdown. However, slow does not only mean this. It also means a concrete way of actually putting this idea into practice. It means cultivating quality: linking products and their producers to their places of production and to their end-users who, by taking part in the production chain in different ways, become themselves co-producers.”

Download Slow+Design backgrounder (pdf, 2 mb, 27 pages)

22 September 2006

Mark Vanderbeeken interviewed on engageID

Today engageID, the student newsletter of the highly acclaimed Chicago-based Institute of Design (part of the Illinois Institute of Technology), published a rather lengthy interview with Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken on experience design and some of the differences between the European and American praxis.

Mark is quite proud that his interview also launched a new interview section in the newsletter, that sets out to know more about how design is understood and practiced in different cultures and markets.

The interviewer was Enric Gili Fort, who was particularly sharp in the framing of his questions, in part also due to the fact that he is originally from Barcelona and worked in the Netherlands, so he knows the European context rather well. Thank you Enric!


On 22 September engageID, the student newsletter of the highly acclaimed Chicago-based Institute of Design (part of the Illinois Institute of Technology), published a rather lengthy interview with Mark Vanderbeeken, senior partner of Experientia, on experience design and some of the differences between the European and American praxis.

The interview launched a new interview section in the newsletter, that sets out to know more about how design is understood and practiced in different cultures and markets. The interviewer was Enric Gili Fort.

The interview was originally published on the engageID website of the Institute of Design, and has been reproduced here under a Creative Commons arrangement.

* * * * *

Enric Gili Fort: Thanks for agreeing to participate in this interview. As the author of the popular Putting People First blog and as a partner of a firm that is based in Italy, we thought you would be a great person to talk about experience design and innovation outside of the US.

Just to get us started, could you talk a bit about your background, what has been your career path and how being Belgian have you ended up being partner of a design consulting firm in Italy?

Mark Vanderbeeken: First of all, thank you for the invitation to this interview.

To answer your question, I have always been interested in human behavior and in communications. In fact, I am trained as a cognitive psychologist (with degrees both from Belgium and from Columbia University, New York). I then started working in the broad field of communications and marketing, in Belgium, in New York and in Copenhagen, gradually taking on more strategic roles and challenges. In 2001 I was asked to work on the communications for the meanwhile no longer existing Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (in Italy), where I came to realize that my interests in human psychology, communications, innovation, and strategic visioning could be integrated within the nascent discipline of people-centered experience design.

So after Ivrea, I decided that I liked Italy enough to stay here longer. I knew Jan-Christoph Zoels from Ivrea and met some good Italian people (Michele Visciola, who actually also has a psychology background, and Pierpaolo Perotto), and together we started a company. We are all in our forties, have all lived in the United States, and have quite a bit of experience behind us, It is a good fit, since our skills are complementary. It allowed us to create the company with exactly the right mix that we wanted: user research, design prototyping and business strategy consulting, all combined into one.

EGF: You (and your company) have extensive experience working with both European and American companies that are looking to grow through innovation. From your perspective, what are the similarities and the differences between those companies at the time they are looking for innovation consulting services?

MV: First, I would say that the broader economic context is somewhat different in Europe, with a much more important public sector here. This also means that many European companies do work for these public institutions. This translates into a slightly different role for experience design. I would say that in Europe (and to some extent also Canada) you hear a lot more about design for social innovation, about service design, and about the role of experience design in healthcare, education, tourism, local or regional economic development, and public services. This even affects Europe-based multinational companies who work in consumer products like Nokia and Philips, as I tried to illustrate in my blog.

Experience design is based on the idea of giving people a role in the design of the products and services that matter to them. Both in the US and in Europe, it is believed that this approach will lead to better products and services and therefore to better economic returns. However, in Europe there is perhaps a more explicit social or ethical drive: by giving people this co-creative role we can establish to a more socially inclusive society. A lot of innovation in Europe comes from public institutions, from the European Commission on down.

Another difference between Europe and the US is the role of the mobile phone in society. Michael Mace of Rubicon Consulting recently wrote that the mobile phone is a tool in the US, a lifestyle in Europe (and Asia). The US has a more PC-centric innovation culture, i.e. a culture of innovation focused on the workplace, whereas in Europe and in Asia people expect more innovation on mobile devices and in their social environments. Perhaps it is because people in Europe spend more time outside the workplace or use more public transportation.


EGF: Why do you think big European companies like Nokia or Philips get involved in projects with public institutions? Is it simply because a) public institutions have bigger budgets and better business, b) they have organizational goals of corporate social responsibility or c) just because of the management’s ethics and the opportunity to give back to society by having a positive impact?

MV: This is a difficult question for me to answer, since I have never worked for such companies and can only second-guess their strategies. Private companies work within a broader social, political and economic context both in Europe and the US. Aside from the fact that public institutions are often important clients for them, they also want to be perceived as good corporate citizens, as this will help them in the long run. There are definitely also ethical and CSR reasons, but I am not close enough to the companies to assess their importance of these reasons.

EGF: Since you intensively collect examples of innovation in the public sector in your blog, could you highlight an example of one successful initiative and a failing one?

MV: I think the exemplary work at the UK Design Council, which is a public body funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, is a great example of how a public institution can generate innovative modes of thinking, prototype them on the ground, promote them widely, and then influence a much wider area of society, both within the UK and outside.

Many regional design-driven development projects, and I highlight a few of them on my blog including the Belgian C-Mine, the German Zollverein and the British DOTT07, could not exist without strategic government leaders and policy makers driving them. These projects come about as public-private partnerships, with win-win results for both of them.

What drives these projects is that they look at innovation beyond technology and allow substantial space for user research, citizen participation and a people-centered design methodology. A pure technological approach to innovation does have its merits for sure, but is not the only way to go about it.

EGF: Design and the way it is perceived are changing. More and more companies are looking at design/innovation consultancies expecting to gain advantage and grow.
What are the current challenges that design consultancies have when dealing with new clients (both public and private) that never before considered design?

MV: Challenges are always opportunities. The question is how to make them work for you, how to define yourself within the context of these challenges. Let me describe a few we have come across.

First of all, people still often think of design as an aesthetic activity that makes a good product look great. Italians for instance have a very important tradition in that and are known for it globally. The experience design approach is of course much more about a way of thinking a problem, doing research and then solving it, rather than about making something look good. The "design as a methodology" approach is still fairly new here, but also quite logical, once you explain it to it. But the leap is not so big either. Many product designers have architectural training, especially in Italy. Architects are trained in a methodological approach. Many younger firms are now actively engaged in participatory design.

A second challenge we are facing with some companies, but definitely not all, is a short-term financial logic, where usability can be perceived as an added cost, rather than an investment into a strong product. This is changing though.

A third challenge is the structure of European companies, who are not always used to combine their R&D work with their marketing activities. Experience design addresses both, or better transforms both. Unlike the typical R&D department, experience design is not technology driven, but people driven, and unlike the typical marketing department, it is based on what people actually do, rather than what they say they do. Sometimes we work with the top management.

Fourth, technology is often seen as the territory of engineers, and this is not just the case in Europe. There are many excellent engineers but they do not always have a people-centered or design minded professional methodology. Companies and public institutions can sometimes spend much energy on technologically splendid projects that people for some reason do not want to use. The step to a more people-centered approach might seem obvious, but is not always straightforward. If we want to change that, we need to know how to best talk with engineers, we have to understand the ‘engineer’ way of thinking, but also not be afraid of setting out a human-centered vision.

In fact, all these challenges are cultural challenges. Part of our role as experience designers is therefore helping to bring about a new culture of innovation, not just through our work but also through our public engagement in the social role of design. At Experientia we communicate a lot, run seminars, and organize lectures. We organized last year the first World Usability Day event in Italy (, which was very well attended, and we are doing it again this year. And we are editing an entire issue of UX Magazine (the members publication of the Usability Professionals’ Association) on usability and governance.

Our main challenge as experience designers is how to define our new role within the society we are part of. I think we should not shy away from the larger discourse on regional innovation. We are working within a social and economic context and we have to take on our responsibility of helping to change some of that context through a more human-centered approach.

But every statement about challenges is also relative. We have recently worked with major Italian companies and several regional authorities here, and they were mostly delightful in their flexibility and their openness.


EGF: If we put together the fact that design can be an economical growth enabler for a region and the fact that designing for public institutions can have a greater impact on society, it makes the designer enter in political waters that designers haven’t usually navigated before. How easily can a designer do his job in the public sector while remaining neutral and politically agnostic, and how influenced by politics is this area?

MV: As I said before, experience design is based upon the premise of giving people a say in the design of products and services that matter to them. It naturally requires participation and co-creation. Giving people a say is a political, democratic act in the true sense of the word democracy: let the people rule. I think it is exciting to think about experience design in this broader socio-political way. This is not party politics of course but it is social and moral choice that we strongly believe in.

Neutrality and agnosticism are difficult words in this arena. We want to give people more of a say, which is a choice and therefore not ‘neutral’, but we want to create tools that give everybody that say, which again is ‘neutral’.

Within any political context you have to position yourself well. We position ourselves as solid professionals, and have never been hired for political reasons. We want to keep it that way.

EGF: A few months ago you launched the e-democracy blog exclusively dedicated to "citizen participation and web 2.0 in public authority websites." What triggered this fervent interest in this topic? Who are you targeting this blog to?

MV: I actually changed the subtitle because web 2.0 is just a tool and therefore not so relevant in what I wanted the blog to be about. The blog, which you can find at, is now subtitled "creative ways to increase citizen participation in online public services". We are currently working with two regional government structures in Italy and it is inspiring to see how young people there are bringing in a very strong people-centered innovation approach.

They ask questions like: how can we create online services that work for our citizens? How can we make them usable and friendly? How can we have people participate more actively? How can we best manage this involvement of people without being overwhelmed by thousands of messages? How can we be a responsive government service and how can the web help us with that?

Our Experientia blogs usually start out as a way to structure our thoughts and our research. In fact, Putting People First originated that way as well: as a permanent home for the many emails with article links I was sending out before. The E-Democracy blog is for those interested in innovation in participatory public services on the web, and this includes our public sector clients of course. Bob Jacobson, one of the most thoughtful voices on experiences calls it a "necessary new venture aimed at exploring the interface between more representative forms of governance, technology, and social innovation."

What you call my "fervent interest" probably stems from a deeper empathy for the social role of design.

EGF: What are the reasons behind this people-centered sensitivity among young people? Does it have anything to do with lack of paths for youth, especially in Southern Europe, to become economically independent from their parents and a strong will to do something to address the problem?

MV: I can only speak for the people I dealt with and these are very well educated, well traveled and well read individuals who are working with passion for a public institution. They do not have high salaries, so they get their personal satisfaction out of the drive to deliver a high level service and to do something meaningful for society and the country they live in. They are interested in people-centered design because it resonates with their ethical drive as a committed employee within a public institution. So yes, there is a strong will to try to help address the problems they see around themselves.

EGF: You have blogged extensively on governmental initiatives promoted by small regions to revitalize their socio-economic area. Some have set up long-term and heavily funded programs as it is in the case of North East England’s DOTT07, others even have started design Schools with a business twist from scratch like the Zollverein School in Germany, etc..

MV: I am interested in how a visionary approach that is focused on creativity, design and participatory co-creation can become a tool to change an entire region.

Though related to the creative industries thinking of Richard Florida, these approaches go further and are based on creating synergies: between business and education, between public and private, between culture and tourism, between vision and reality, and between people and structures. They are about creating critical mass and about excitement. They usually take place in deprived areas, which for years have been lingering, and had big brain drain problems. They also often have spectacular sites full of old industrial buildings. And they have young and energetic public authorities that are trying to change the dynamic through visioning and systematic and sustainable planning.

I am currently working with some people in the East of Belgium, not far from where I grew up. I always knew it as a former coalmining area in decline and they are totally turning that around now. It is amazing how fast they are: two years ago they were still doing the master plan, yet most of the site will be ready in 2008. And we are talking about a huge endeavor.

Design and participatory co-creation for social renewal is a complex challenge, but one that fits very well with the European way of doing things.

EGF: What do you think has changed in the last years in Europe to make these regions so hopeful and willing to invest in these, for some, ambitious enterprises? Do you know about similar initiatives outside Europe? Do you think this would be possible in countries where public sector and progressive policies are not so common?

MV: Europe is changing fast. First of all, people travel more. The EU has this wonderful university student exchange program, called Erasmus, and many people in their early twenties spend 6 months to a year in another European country. Through traveling, the internet and good education systems, people in more remote areas of Europe are just as educated and knowledgeable as anybody else. Yet, there are in a sense more opportunities for them there, not necessarily more jobs, but definitely more interesting challenges.

Second, globalization is making us change. I just posted an article about the small Italian city of Prato. It is a textile town of 180,000 inhabitants. 25,000 of them are Chinese and there are 2,000 Chinese entrepreneurs who own one quarter of the town’s textile businesses. Doing nothing is not an option. We have to change.

The reason why regional authorities invest in such projects, often with the active help of their national governments and EU programs, is because they realize that these initiatives can become engines for renewal. Often such regions suffer from brain drain to the bigger cities and lack of investment. A major project with a clear and sustainable vision can help change that, create enthusiasm and put the place back on the map as an interesting destination, a valuable place to invest time, money and resources in. Regions are aware that they can change themselves and are working at the right level of action: beyond the city, but not as big as a country.

This is of course not just happening in Europe. Take a look at what the Michigan Governor is doing on design and how she emphasizes quite similar policies in quite a different economic context. Look at how American cities are investing in libraries and museums. The approach is slightly different perhaps, but not fundamentally.

I am not really sure about the situation outside of Europe and the USA but would love to learn more. I hear about more top-down approaches to regional innovation in Korea and Singapore but I am not a specialist. I invite people to comment on my blog with their own experiences.

EGF: I have recently read your post about Prato, and it is indeed a totally fascinating issue. From your multiple interactions with regional authorities across Europe, how do you perceive the adaptation gap between political leaders that are committed to help their regions make a transition to new social models, and big parts of the population that are still very conservative and very resistant to change? Are these leaders doing their job at educating and helping people understand that these changes are inevitable and that the solution is to be more flexible and adapt? If so, what strategies are following?

MV:Leaders are not always that visionary and people not always that conservative. For some issues it is actually quite the opposite. I can only suggest that more participation and co-creation in democracy is one of the ways to reduce the gap between the citizens and their representatives. And that’s what we are trying to work on.

EGF: With the introduction Central and Eastern European countries to the EU there is still a clear imbalance between western European countries and the newly added members. What are these regions’ governments doing to catch up in terms of development?

MV: I love working in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) because of the dynamic, eager, and innovative young people there. They are now part of the EU and their hands-on, curious mindset is influencing the rest of Europe.

I am not a specialist in CEE government policy, but I notice two developments.

Although the last fifteen years has mainly been a time of catching up, and trying to address the most urgent and immediate needs, CEE countries and people were quick to learn and were less stuck in existing structures and modes of thinking than some in Western Europe were (and still are). They were often free enough to choose better.

Second, they invested a lot in educating their people and people invested a lot in educating themselves. I met many hard workers and hard learners with entrepreneurial mindsets. I am really optimistic about these countries.

But it will take a little while still before we see experience design companies there. Or perhaps not even that long …

EGF: As a final question I would like to ask you about the current role of the designer in society. It seems that its practice has been getting more and more abstract in the last years and it has reached a higher meta-level. As someone that has personally committed to attempt to tackle more complex and systemic problems in design, how have you seen this evolution and why do you think this change has happened?

MV: I don’t think the practice has become more abstract. We do a lot of very concrete work through contextual observation, user testing and prototyping. I think that over time we have become aware that a designer needs to take the role of the needs and the context of people more into account, because only then can we design something meaningful and relevant. This approach can be applied to car design and mobile phones, but also to hospitals, schools and public services. Yes, it is systemic, holistic and complex, but not necessarily abstract, and definitely not removed from the concrete needs of people. I would rather argue the opposite: only by being holistic, we can really have an impact.

EGF: Mark, I want to thank for your patience and time answering our questions around design, education, politics and society. I do really appreciate your thoughtful comments and I want to highlight how enlightening and enriching it has been to have your perspective in the state of design in Europe.

MV: You are welcome and thank you as well for this opportunity to set out and share my ideas.

Original site

15 September 2006

Belgian experience design lab getting off the ground

Media & Design Academy - Experience Design Lab
One of the exciting initiaves within the Belgian C-Mine project is a new Experience Design Lab within the Media & Design Academy, a platform with the double function of integrating and transforming the various disciplines of the academy, and enabling the school to reach out to and collaborate with the social and economic tissue of the region they are in, through a new and engaging vision.

To better define the vision and the concept of the lab, the academy has invited some authorities in the field for a one day conference on Friday 29 September. Nathan Shedroff will deliver the keynote address. Other speakers include:

Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken myself will moderate one of the sessions. The project is guided by academy director Henk Heuts, project manager Jan Louis De Bruyn and programme manager Virginia Tassinari. Virginia, who only last year moved to Belgium from Italy, coordinates the content development of the lab and is one of the driving forces behind its visioning.

The event, which will be held in English, is open to an interested public, so if you are near that area, do register on their website.

The Experience Design Lab and the C-Mine project in general are endeavours close to our heart, since they are sited in an area Mark grew up in, embody a social and engaged vision of design, and are driven by a dynamic group of young people.

18 August 2006

Two new thematic Experientia blogs

Experientia, the international experience design consultancy, launches today two new thematic blogs:

E-Democracy is aimed at public authorities. It gathers information on citizen participation and the use of web 2.0 technologies in the websites of public authorities, public administrations and local governments. Although it has some overlap with Putting People First, it has a lot of original material and I will maintain it regularly.

Playful & Tangible is about playful learning with new interfaces, particulary in museums and entertainment environments. It documents many inspirations and examples of playful and tangible interactions and interfaces, and has a strong interaction design focus. Initially developed as an internal working blog to document some interesting museum and entertainment interfaces, we decided to make the blog public. As an internal blog, it quotes richly from other sources and we are very grateful to our main inspirations: Régine Debatty of we-make-money-not-art, Chris O’Shea of Pixelsumo and Ruairi Glynn of Interactive Architecture. We have added the original source links throughout the blog. The blog is currently maintained by Mark Vanderbeeken of the Italy-based experience design company Experientia, though most of the content was selected by Héctor Ouilhet and Alexander Wiethoff, who worked as Experientia interns during the summer of 2006.

Each blog has about 50 posts at the moment.

2 August 2006

Putting People First official blogger of the European Market Research Event 2006

European Market Research Event 2006
A few days ago, we were contacted by the Institute for International Research (IIR) in New York about the first European Market Research Event, taking place in London from 13 to 16 November this year. Today, we are proud to announce that we agreed that Putting People First will be the “official blogger” of this impressive event.

The European Market Research Event positions itself as the “only practitioner led event focused on the business value of market research and consumer insights”. It was designed to join market researchers, directors of insights and marketers, to discuss the business value of market research.

The speaker line up is impressive and features such companies as Barclays Bank, CNBC Europe, EMI Music, Eastman Kodak, IBM, Intel, LEGO, Lufthansa, Microsoft, Nokia, Pepsico, Price Waterhouse Cooper, Procter and Gamble, Orange, Steelcase, Swisscom Innovations, Unilever and Vodafone. Anne Kirah, Microsoft’s senior design anthropologist, is the event’s co-chair.

The event, which coincides with the UPA’s 2006 World Usability Day, is organised in various thematic “special interest groups”. Themes are Ethnography, Segmentation, Online Research, Global Research, Media, and Usability.

The main conference days (Monday to Wednesday) feature keynote sessions from leading practitioners from Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and authors including James Surowiecki, “Wisdom of Crowds”, and Peter Fisk, “Marketing Intelligence”. Academics from the London Business School, Northwestern University and other institutions also contribute keynote speeches. The afternoons of the main conference days are devoted to in-depth case-studies on Trends, Product Development, Shopper Insights, Return on Investment, Social Research, Branding, Business to Business, and Best Practices in Applying Market Research.

In the months leading up to the event, Putting People First will post several interviews with the organisers and some of the key speakers. During the event we will provide live blogging, including some short interviews with key participants. All posts are accessible from a special page, accessible from the European Market Research Event logo in the left sidebar.

In addition, two of our Experientia partners, Michele Visciola and Jan-Christoph Zoels, will present a 45 min. thematic session on usability as a tool for innovation, and on the importance of empathic market sensing, user experience modelling and design prototyping.

23 June 2006

Putting People First favourite blog of P&G’s head of innovation

Claudia Kotchka's favourites
I only discovered now, thanks to the help of no less than Joe Pine, that Claudia Kotchka, P&G‘s vice-president for design innovation and strategy, listed Putting People First as one of her three favourite blogs in a feature story on her in the recently launched IN: Inside Innovation insert of Business Week.

Thank you Claudia for the endorsement. We feel really honoured. If there is anything we at Experientia might be able to do for P&G, let us know. We would be very eager.