8 December 2007

User-centred design at France Telecom: Lipstick on a Pig?

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Lipstick on a Pig
The R&D labs of France Telecom and its commercial Orange brand cover a wide range of technological research but at first glance they also seem to be extensively involved in user research and experience design:

The UK research centre has a strong focus on user interface design and usability: “The UK R&D centre has undertaken design and development of many new user interfaces for Orange phones and web applications including being a major contributor to the development of a fully Orange specified user interface. Many other designs are in the process of introduction, including a new Mobile Search feature developed to better navigate through user content, services and applications”.

Whereas the East Coast R&D centre in Boston has a strong technology-driven approach, the San Francisco-based West Coast R&D centre focusses on “user-centered experience design“.

The mission of the research centre in China is “to create and develop innovation commercial offerings for customers of Orange”. Aside from technological exploration, it also covers “sociological aspects and new usage” patterns, more in particular “the study of usage linked to leading-edge domains specific to the region: future mobile phone generations, network co-operation, the Internet of the future (IPV6, etc.) and multimedia services”.

Also the brand new Cairo Orange Lab in Egypt has “research into local uses” listed as one of its core activities.

But it is nearly impossible to find out what these projects really entail. A rare exception is Clive Grinyer (blog), who is Orange France Telecom’s director of design and regularly covers the work he is doing at international conferences, like recently at Intersections (transcript and slides).

Clive puts quite a different angle on how things work at France Telecom:

“I work in an organisation that doesn’t understand anything I do, if it does understand it, it thinks it’s about putting the logo on at the end, and that it’s something you do right at the end of the process, when all the really important decisions have all been made, and people come in and say: ‘Hey, we’ve got two weeks left, would you please do the user interface thing? Make it Orange, make it the right font, you know, and then we’ll go.’ I said, you know, you mean a year and two weeks or do you really mean two weeks? And of course, if it’s late, it’s my fault, and the whole thing goes wrong. I give a big talk called Lipstick on a Pig, which is how I feel about that approach to design.”

Clive says more of course, and it’s not all that critical, but it leaves you hungry to find out more about what all these user researchers and experience designers are doing at Orange and why they don’t communicate a bit more.

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