Nokia: Culture Will Out

Before starting Urbanscale, his own design firm, Adam Greenfield spent two years as Nokia's head of design direction for user interfaces and services. Here, he explains how Nokia's focus on commodity over user experience led to the company's precipitous decline.

OK, you got me.

You knew I couldn't go for very long without having some kind of outlet for random thoughts and personal opinions. To paraphrase Forest Whitaker in The Crying Game - and boy, does that date me - expressing same is in my nature.

So forgive me if I go back on my word a little, and use this space to comment briefly on the contrast between what have already become the daily and weekly rhythms of work in my own practice, and what I saw during two years at Nokia. I guess I'm moved to do this both because writing helps me organize my own complicated thoughts on the situation that company finds itself in, and ideally because it might help clarify things for others. My hope is that everything that follows will prove especially useful to you if you're on the verge of joining a large, global organization - or leaving one.

Executive summary: Despite the omnipresent burden of responsibility, and the inherent risk of failure, there's an excitement and pleasure in working on one's own behalf that was for the most part missing entirely from my Nokian experience. The word I keep coming back to, in my head, is "unbound," and it's an unbelievably lovely and liberating sensation.

My experience with a project we're working on, even at this very early stage, might serve as a small illustration of why the entrepreneurial life has already been so rewarding, and incidentally, why I wouldn't look for innovation from large organizations. At any rate, it's as good a way as any to comment, hopefully constructively, on Nokia's recent and ongoing troubles.

Most obviously: our size lets us move fast. We've taken this from first notion to Illustrator sketch to technical validation to "Patent Pending" in mere weeks, and not very many of them. This is in distinct contrast to my experience in Espoo, where anybody wanting to launch anything at all had to secure layers (upon layers) of buy-in from people who - in many but certainly not all cases, and with all due respect - are not properly equipped to evaluate the merits of the propositions they're being presented with. I'm hesitant to generalize. Honestly, I am. But my personal experience suggests that rather than acting as the incubator/force multiplier/accelerator it ought to have, Nokia's corporate culture served as a brake on all kinds of innovative thought.

We're better-equipped to detect and respond to actual user needs. Nokia's problem is not, and has never been, that it lacks for creative, thoughtful, talented people, or the resources to turn their ideas into shipping product. It's that the company is fundamentally, and has always been, organized to trade in commodities. Whether those commodities were stands of timber, reams of paper, reels of cable, pairs of boots, or cheap televisions for deployment in hotel chains, much the same basic logic applied: acquire, or manufacture, great quantities of a physical product for the lowest achievable cost, and sell for whatever the market will bear.

Nokia's engineers were and are brilliant at this. I am so far from an expert on the topic it's not even funny, but I'd feel comfortable wagering that there is still no organization on the planet more capable at designing the guts of a phone, the various antennae and radios-on-a-chip that allow a handset to communicate with a network. Nor are there many who can compete with Nokia on the ability to optimize a supply chain and bring in a given bill of materials at a given (and generally astonishingly low) cost.

These are precisely the skills you need if you're interested in dominating a global market in commodity communication devices, as Nokia did for the fourteen years of the Jorma Ollila era. But the company utterly failed to anticipate, understand or organize itself to deal with the critical thing that happened at the cusp of the Ollila-Kalasvuo transition. This was that you could no longer think of mobile phones as communication devices. You had to conceive of them as interface objects through which users would experience content and command functionality that ultimately lived on the network. (That grandeur and disproprotionate benefit would accrue to those who did understand this shift was underlined by Apple's launch of its astonishingly successful iPhone in late June of 2007, just over a year after Kallasvuo ascended to the CEOship.)

Individuals at Nokia, of course, did understand this - many of them. Indeed, the entire Insight & Foresight unit produced material throughout the immediate pre-iPhone period that was as visionary with respect to the emerging paradigm as anything I've seen, just as, throughout my tenure, the Design Strategic Projects team under Phil Lindberg continued to generate ideas that for the most part took the full measure of so-called 4G/LTE networks and cloud-based interaction.

But whether as teams or individuals, the parties trying - energetically, and in good faith - to help the company avail itself of this insight were ignored. Compensated competitively, paid lip service to (if not actually fawned over, or rubbed as if for totemic good luck) in presentations to the Group Executive Board…but comprehensively overruled when it came time to set policy or direction. I'm tempted to say that considerations of user experience were bypassed at a structural level.

And this is the crux of it. As it happens, the value-engineering mindset that's so crucial to profitability as a commodity trader is fatal as a purveyor of experiences. Of course you still want to produce your offering for the lowest achievable cost - but that cost is bound up in intangible, nondeterministic dimensions of design, in ways that are only partially-at-best quantifiable. It's just not particularly wise to allow engineers to make decisions about things like product and service nomenclature, interface typography and the graphic design of icons: they're, I daresay, not even neurocognitively equipped to do so. And yet this is what happened when I was at Nokia and, I would imagine, is happening still.

Again, please understand that I say this with enormous respect for my engineer friends, who manage without thinking twice to achieve a very great number of things for which I am not neurocognitively equipped. My point is merely that, at Nokia, engineering has been allowed to displace what is properly the company's design prerogative almost entirely.

I'll give an example. Nokia spent many years, and a great deal of money, doing research and development of a technology called NFC, or "near field communication." NFC really does have the potential to transform all kinds of everyday interactions; it's essentially a flavor of RFID that allows signals to pass between objects that are brought within close (touch or tap) proximity with one another. It's the gimmick underlying the phone you'll buy next year, with which, if you live in the developed world, you'll almost certainly conduct the lion's share of your daily monetary transactions.

When I arrived at Nokia, the folks down the road at NRC were very proud of something they'd ginned up: an NFC-equipped, but otherwise entirely conventional, vending machine. At last!, I thought, here's a concrete step toward the future of everyday transactions. And in what was, from my perspective, the very best kind of context: that of an interaction so banal and unremarkable that it undermined any conceivable charge of utopian handwaving. Whatever frisson of futurism you derive from the encounter quickly subsides beneath the threshold of the ordinary, which - per all my gurus, from Don Norman to Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa - is exactly as it should be.

Except that, as realized by Nokia, this is precisely what failed to happen. I experienced, in fact, neither a frisson of elegant futurism nor a blasé presentiment of everyday life at midcentury. I was given an NFC phone, and told to tap it against the item I wanted from the vending machine. This is what happened next: the vending machine teeped, and the phone teeped, and six or seven seconds later a notification popped up on its screen. It was an incoming text message, which had been sent by the vending machine at the moment I tapped my phone against it. I had to respond "Y" to this text to complete the transaction. The experience was clumsy and joyless and not in any conceivable way an improvement over pumping coins into the soda machine just the way I did quarters into Defender at the age of twelve.

It's not that the NFC-based, phone-to-object interaction didn't work. Of course it did: it had been engineered perfectly. But what it hadn't been was designed. Those responsible for imagining the interaction apparently wanted to protect users against the (edge case!) contingency of someone making off with their phones and running up a huge vending-machine tab. They failed to understand that, for low-value transactions like this, at least, the touch gesture is a useful proxy for consent - and that if someone's got physical possession of my phone, I'm likely to have bigger problems than whether or not they order a few cans of Coke with it. A designer committed to the user and the quality of that user's experience gets this in a way only the rarest engineer seems to. Designers are also, by training and predilection, inclined to design for the usual, where engineers are taught a kind of rigor that compels them to account for, and overweight, low-probability events.

Bottom line: the "magic" of an NFC-based transaction, the "surprise and delight" our esteemed colleagues in Marketing so often demand we wrest out of technological interactions, was foreclosed from the beginning. All of the potential lightness and elegance that would make this not merely a possible way of doing things but a better way was ruled out, by an organization committed to the virtues of engineering rather than those of design.

Is it entirely fair to expect what was, after all, a product of a research lab to exhibit much in the way of polish at the level of interaction? Ordinarily, I'd say no, of course not. But for the fact, that is, that certain highly-placed people in the Nokia mainforce were aware of the NFC vending machine project, delighted with it as-is, and perceived little if any fault with it. It may certainly have needed some "fine tuning," I was told on more than one occasion…but otherwise stood proudly ready for the day the mass market was provisioned with NFC-capable phones, and could make use of it.

I have to conclude that it's this inability to even perceive the clear makings of an unacceptably bad user experience, let alone address them as profound obstacles to success in the marketplace, that leads to situations like this.

Another, blunter way of putting it: there's nobody with any taste in the decision-making echelons at Nokia. And this is especially unfortunate and ironic, given that elegant, simple Finnish design has tutored generations in what taste means. My whole tenure in Espoo was soured by the nagging counterfactual, "What if Nokia had embraced and extended the finest traditions of its own national design culture, in its approach to the global mass market?"

Something tells me that Stephen Elop, whether or not he turns out to be a Trojan horse for Redmond, will be comprehensively unable to help in this department.

We're happy if our product is viable enough that it reaches an audience, and contributes in any way to making those lives easier. It doesn't have to be a blockbuster. This raises a related issue, which is that Espoo is only and solely interested in scale. In Nokian terms, this generally means "on the order of tens of millions of users." On the surface, this is defensible, but it means the company doesn't really have many innovation pathways open to it. It certainly can't tolerate the kind of lowercase experiments that other institutions benefit from, whether these are inherently viable businesses generating high-multiple ROIs that are, however, small in absolute terms, or probes like Twitter that enjoy no clear business model at their outset, but later find scale and thereby produce value.

In concrete terms, this means that projects like Nokia Sports Tracker - one of the best things I saw during my time in Espoo, and in my opinion actually superior to the Nike+ iPod offering - are abandoned, orphaned, starved of the oxygen they need. This despite what I would have thought was the obvious fact that it's projects like these that lend your brand an aura of futurity, build consumer enthusiasm and loyalty, and generally make your company more attractive as a place for people to work. In other words, they pay for themselves many times over and in many ways, whether or not they generate revenue. If nothing else, they cut down on headhunter bills; a company that fully and whole-heartedly supports homegrown initiatives like Sports Tracker is a place where bright developers will want to play.

Although I had nothing a'tall to do with Sports Tracker, it's extra-galling to me personally that Nokia killed the project more or less in the same breath that it embraced the frankly ludicrous fantasies peddled by acting head of Services and Developer Experience Tero Ojanperä ("responsible for the company's portfolio of location, messaging, entertainment and context-based services"). I find it so galling because the company had, in its sweaty little hands, a truly pioneering service that showcased its devices and their onboard sensors at their best, leveraged locational technology, was fun to use and nice to look at, and, if you'll forgive a little jargon, demonstrably "drove user engagement." And it literally threw this all away, apparently preferring to indulge itself as an institution in, among other things, the fantasy of being a glittering media brand.

I always thought of Sports Tracker as something I would be proud to have designed myself. Now, though, in my role as managing director, I understand that I would be equally proud had I anything to do with creating the kind of environment in which folks like the creators of Sports Tracker might thrive. That's why it's inexplicable to me that Nokia's mid-upper echelons took a pass on what was obviously a service with a bright future - I mean, if success indisputably has many parents, didn't they want a win they could claim credit for?

I have a great deal more to say on the topic, if you can believe it, but I've already gone on pretty long, and likely stressed your interest and/or patience to the breaking point. Quickly, therefore, and I say this to everyone who's ever whiled away their hours in the corporate breakrooms of the world, boring their coworkers with dream-architectures of world domination and largely ungrounded assertions that everything could be so much better if only x and y and z: I wish I'd done this years ago. Gone out on my own, that is.

You own your mistakes and failures, certainly, in a way that a large organization can trivially buffer you against, but so too your joys. Yeah, it's brisk out here…but so, so exciting, and there is at the very least a 1:1 ratio between the effort you exert on a day-to-day basis and what is seen to come of it. Say that about any big shop you care to name, I dare you.

As for Nokia, their fate is their own, too. Given the highly questionable judgment displayed by the organization and its senior management over many years, I'd say they've finally gotten what was coming to them - but for the fact that "they," in this context, unavoidably includes many who have been doing their absolute best, under truly thankless conditions, for far, far too long. It's to you that I'm going to raise my glass tonight, and you know very well who you are.

It also includes just about the entire Finnish people, for whom Nokia has long been a particularly significant benefactor, and for whom I retain a great (if frequently enough puzzled) fondness. These people are blameless - or if not blameless, certainly don't deserve to be held culpable for the blunders of a few. To me, their experience is a sobering reminder of the responsibility for the welfare of others one takes on in deciding to start any kind of venture at all that extends beyond the shores of the self. And if, in the end, that's all I wind up taking away from my time in Espoo, I guess that's not such a bad deal at all.

Adam Greenfield is the author of Everyware and managing director of New York City-based design practice Urbanscale.