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A Conversation With Jan Chipchase and Frog Design’s Chief Creative, Mark Rolston

How do you design for China, a country that hasn’t had much exposure to design but whose citizens suddenly find themselves awash in new money?

On Monday, Frog Design, one of the country’s biggest and most respected design firms, announced it had hired Jan Chipchase, one of the world’s leading usability researchers and, for many years, one of the highest profile member of Nokia’s design team.

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It’s a big move for Frog and Chipchase both. For Nokia, Chipchase has roamed the developing world, trying to figure out what sorts of cell phones the developing world needs. At Frog, he’ll work from Shanghai, trying to understand the needs and wants of consumers in China, Frog’s most hopeful frontier. The company opened an office there just three years ago, but Chinese clients already comprise 20% of its total business.

FastCompany.com spoke with Chipchase and Mark Rolston, Frog’s Chief Creative Officer, about the challenges of designing for China, a country whose people haven’t ever had much buying power before but who grow much richer with each passing year.

What’s going on thatmade Frog decide to invest in China and hire Jan?

Mark Rolston: We’vebeen spending an incredible amount of time in Asia, and it’s going to be ourfourth year in China. The first two years, it felt like we were just camping out.But the last two year, it’s exploded. We can tell that if we put in the right amountof energy, our Chinese business can be as big as the U.S.

Obviously, that’s where all the new activity is in design.But there’s also something bigger going on. We’re a known entity in the U.S.market. But in China, for a firm like Frog, everything is up for grabs,including the role you play. Some think of you as less than what you want tobe, but some let you define it. We find ourselves open to all sorts of worldsin a manner not possible in more formal markets.

And Jan knows how to go into raw markets with emergingbehaviors, and get to the truth of the matter.

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In the past, Chinahasn’t really respected design a whole lot. They’re known for copying andmanufacturing. So does that mean you’re trying to change the culture of thoseyou’re doing business with?

MR: Universally there’s not a widespread respect of what we cando to help a company. But conversely, it’s not that they’ve tried design anddecided it’s not important. They just have no experience with it, and if theyhave been exposed to it, it’s just as a manufacturing process.

They’re starting to step out, and explore the idea of designas a process that starts with the raw possibilities of what customers want.People like our client Huawei are starting to say, Let’s come up with our ownanswers. I would not feel stupid staying they’re going to be the next Samsung.

As far as culture goes, if you do it right you can establisha tight relationship with a client. But with every new one, you’ve got to doall the same explaining very single time. And you have to convince them ofdesign’s importance even though they’ve never experienced it.

So what are the bigheadaches of doing design work there?

MR: Everybody talks about how fast China works. There’s amassive amount of impatience there. On the one hand you can be frustrated buton the other you have to be really impressed. For example, once, when we cameup with our first renderings of the product, the engineering team went aheadand made testing samples based on the dimensions we laid out. Eventually, wecame back with the right design and next time it will easier, but they wereimpatient with how methodical we were and we were frustrated that they took thefirst iteration and ran with it. There’s no way to deal with that besidesspending time with people.

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So how could someonelike Jan help you? From the outside, what he does might seem like watchingpaint dry.

MR: We’ve realized that to get people to take the time to dothings right, you have to bring them intimate truths about their customers’lives. Which is what Jan does. He goes places I wouldn’t be willing to go, andhe lives with them to get the truth, I think he’ll be able to get clients tolisten and drive them to aspects of what customers want.

So why is it so hardto design for China?

MR: There’s a lot of truisms about user interface that you canpresent in shorthand to American or European businesses. But with emergingbrands, they need a deeper set of truths. Even people like Samsung that boughtinto the market don’t know China that well. It’s simply too large and diverse.No one’s ever sold into it, and selling products to the Chinese is a new idea.

Some of the insights we’ll develop will be the first oftheir kind. We’ve done research for Samsung and Huawei to learn about thequalities of Chinese life. What color and form do they respect? What’s theChinese flavor? Do they like sharp objects or playful things? Serious things?We have truisms about Japan and Europe and America. But not in China.

Then how do you makethat kind of visceral appeal to Chinese businesses making the decisions?

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MR: You have to show the most significant delta from the genericapproach that you’d see selling at Costco. That’s where Jan comes in. To createthat, you have to go and find out core truths: This is a guy I met and this iswhat he does everyday. Too much research is too general. You have to putyourself in people’s seats.

They key idea is that it’s not just emerging market. Peoplealways say that, and our eyes glaze over. This is a bunch of people that don’thave a habit of buying things, because they’ve never been able to. Now they’restaring at these companies saying, “What do you have to sell?” And the companiesare saying, “I dunno. What do you want?”

Jan gives this example that I find beautiful. He spent sometime in Afghanistan for Nokia, and one thing his team discovered was thatAfghans don’t trust getting onto a bus with any money. It’s just not safe. Butthe Afghans developed this system where you buy a calling card credit at astand, then forward that code to the next stand. The person there thentranslates that credit’s cash value, and gives it back minus a commission.

That’s mobile money. Huge companies have worked on trying tosolve that problem. But these two guys in Afghanistan figured it out. Those kinds ofdiscoveries will drive into truly distinctive designs for the Chinese.

Can you give anexample of how the Chinese consumer differs from the American?

MR: As far as consumers go, and the culture of design, thinkabout Mad Men. It gives you a taste of the 1960s and what consumer culture waslike when it was just exploding. What’s interesting is that you see this emergein the story. The ad guys aren’t only coming up with the campaign, but alsohaving to explain the value of their product in people’s lives. You see thesame thing happening in China.

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For example, our previous research uncovered this hugedemand for customization that doesn’t exist elsewhere. Here, Apple has dominatedby stripping away customization. But you would not believe the amount of blingthe Chinese demand in their devices. These little insights represent thousandsof pinpricks that add up to the life or death of products.

Jan, maybe it’sobvious, but can you explain why you decided to go to China?

Jan Chipchase: Ihad a lot of choices about where to go, and I chose Frog because of thecommitment to social design. But if you want to be efficient in an organizationyou have to very careful about where you fit within it. Obviously, it wouldn’tbe very smart to go to Antarctica. In China, I’m hoping to amplify what Frogalready does. I’m not trying to give it a wholly new direction. And also, myrole is only based in Shanghai. I haven’t announced the details but I’ll beheading back to Afghanistan soon.

Can you givehighlights of your work that you find particularly satisfying?

JC: I can give two, one that ended up in a product and one thatinspired other people. In Uganda, for Nokia, we did a study that showed thatpeople have a completely different approach to sharing products. A cell phone,for example, might be shared between a family or a business. But a cell phone isalso designed for a personal experience. So in the phones that Nokia eventuallyintroduced, you have multiple address books that can be only accessed bydifferent users. That appears now in hundreds of millions of phones.

As far as inspiring other people, I take the people I visitvery seriously and I have an enormous respect for that privilege of seeingtheir lives. We once did research into illiteracy. There are 800 million peoplethat are illiterate in the world, who can’t read or write a sentence abouttheir own life. The cell phone wasn’t designed for them, and technically, theyshouldn’t be able to use them. So I started talking to colleagues aboutstudying how people communicate without written language, and designing acell phone for them. By communicating all the remarkable things these peoplewith limited resources, including the resource of literacy, could accomplish,we set the tone for how we began to think about the problem.

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But working in othercultures, it seems like it would be easy to misunderstand what’s going on, orto completely miss it. How do you ensure that you don’t miss all of thesedetails that might become important only later on?

JC: When you travel, it’s easier to spot things for the same reason that, in your ownculture, it takes a child to point out the most surprising things. Theyhaven’t been conditioned to forget, like we have been. Also, we always work with locals, and I have a style ofworking that fosters a sense of ease.

So how do you fosterthat in just two weeks in people you might see once in your life?

JC: We all stay in the same place, for one. I’ve had situationswhere I’ve slept on the floor behind a couch. But if you’re all seated aroundthe same table, eating from the same bowl, you can cut through the crap. Youcan get insights into really human stuff that’s overlooked in design, where theobject of the game seems to be about projecting status.

Once you’ve set that tone, you’ve got to plan to death butbe prepared to throw everything out of the window. And you have to alwaysquestion the usefulness of what you’re doing.

When you were firstlearning to work this way, how did you learn? Who’s your mentor?

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JC: No one’s actually asked me that. But at Nokia, it was a ladynamed Elise Levanto. I’ve never spoken to her about it, and this will be a surprise to her. Elise was moresenior than me when I left, but the way she has done research inspired me.Anyone can travel but its about asking smart questions and always beingcritical about what you can achieve with what you’re able to gather. Herintellectual honesty really awakened the same in me.

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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