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Nokia Open Studios

The following essay, co-authored with Younghee Jung outlines a design research method called ‘Nokia Open Studio’ that was run in three ‘shanty town’ communities as part of an design research project. The method sought to engage in a cross-section of the community in the design research process. A full list of acknowledgments Nokia Open Studios: Engaging Communities [PDF, 10MB]
  • Nokia Open Studios [PowerPoint, 6MB]
  • Video of Younghee discussing Open Studios at the 2008 LIFT Conference
  • Business Week Article and Photos of Designs
  • Introduction

    The following essay outlines a design research method – the so-called ‘Nokia Open Studio’ (NOS) that was run in three ‘shanty town’ communities between July and November 2007. Part of a broader study that explored the impact of mobile connectivity within the context of global urbanisation, the NOS aimed to engage a broad cross-section of these communities through hosting a design competition. The Nokia Open Studios were run as a parallel activity to other design research methods in an attempt to reveal aspects of these communities that other research methods would not reach.

    Nokia Open Studio: Entrants, 2007

    Figure 1 Entrants in Favela Jacarezinho: Sketching ideas in the studio space, a rented NGO office (left); posing with the entry form showing his final sketch and his daughters who inspired his idea (right)


    The corporate design researcher is able to pick and choose from a suite of established research methods – many evolved from established ethnographic practices. There are numerous ways to gain a comprehensive understanding of local cultures, and in key markets it can worthwhile to permanently embed a research team in relevant locations, creating a fixed touch point to the local environment. This however, requires a substantial corporate commitment which in turn implies that the location is already or is expected to function as a business hub. A more common practice is to hire-in local or global research agencies with branch offices established in the key market locations. However for exploratory design research activities – where the research themes are largely influenced by micro and macroscopic trends it is difficult to predetermine location by business potential alone. For example, in a study of mobile video use to inspire the design of future rich media services it helps to be located in the hot-bed of mobile video use – South Korea. A study on mobile banking might focus on advanced practices in the Philippines, and so on. The authors work in an in-house corporate design research team specialising in explorative design research – with the broad aim of informing and inspiring future designs, data gathering processes, and challenging given assumptions. The decision of what to research is decided on an approximately 6-12 month’s basis with some themes drawn from corporate strategy, guided by a consumer insights team that highlights trends of interest, and based on team member’s instinct of what will have the most impact within the corporation. The style of research could even be described as migratory in the sense that the team is drawn to where the resources – research topics of interest, and the means to carry out that research are richest. A major challenge of any kind of corporate field research is finding the right balance between field work and maintaining relevance within the corporate structure – which can involve anything from the face to face sharing of the results to hands on application of what was learned into the design process. The challenge boils down to: how to efficiently and meaningfully gather credible and interesting data, within a relatively short period of time in the field (which for us equates to about two weeks) from a research location anywhere on the planet? In keeping with these constraints and factoring in the cost of running multi-cultural research, the authors have developed a toolkit of established and adopted design research methods designed to be both complimentary and run in parallel.

    NOS is a design research method carried out in 2007 as a part of a broader project that explored urbanisation and in particular shanty town life. The method aimed to tackle the following issues:

    • The need to gather data in a variety of languages and dialects beyond the immediate language skills of the in-house researchers (translators are part of the extended team, but each additional language increases the workload and increases the likelihood possibility of miss-interpreting the data)
    • Some, but not comprehensive in-house experience of working in shanty towns
    • Working in communities with varying levels of literacy and uneven exposure to technology including mobile phones
    • Communities where trust in ‘authority figures’ varied, generally erring on the side of caution

    The purpose of the NOS was not to generate ideas that could be bought into the design process. Rather, the research method aimed to generate inspirational and cross-referential material about the role of future technologies in participant’s lives by giving residents the opportunity to articulate their needs and aspirations, and present these in the context of their everyday life.

    Future Urban Project

    The design research method described in this essay, the ‘NOS’ was run as part of a year long multi-cultural study to explore so-called ‘shanty towns’ places often distinguished from their more developed counterparts by: a lack of official recognition or land rights; limited access to infrastructure such as electricity, water, sanitation; services such as financial credit or maternity health care; and to the untrained eye – rapid and seemingly unplanned and autonomous growth. Nokia’s interest in these communities is a reflection of their increasing global relevance – for a significant proportion of the world’s population slum living is and will continue to be the urban reality with UN Habitat estimating that of the 3.3 billion people who live in urban centers today almost 1 billion live in slums. Moreover in the next 30 years this figure is estimated to rise to 2 billion living in slums. On another level we look to these communities to learn from what we are unlikely to find elsewhere either because of their unique context, or because within that context trends are that much easier to spot. To give but one example: how do people with limited access to infrastructure with low to non-existent disposable income optimise use of scarce resources? And what role might personal communication tools play in facilitating ‘better’use? For a corporate team tasked with challenging the status quo and seeking out new opportunities this is fertile ground. 3 cities were chosen for the project: Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, and Accra after a pilot run in Chongqing where our research methods were tested.


    NOS was run in three communities in three different cities, coinciding with the locations of the Future Urban project and being broadly representative of different types of shanty town. Within the community it was important that the NOS was located in a neutral space easily accessible to anyone in the community. Furthermore the studio space had to be conducive and functional as a working environment for our team and for participants to carry out design tasks.

    Nokia Open Studios: Communities

    Figure 2 Dharavi, Mumbai, India (left), Favela Jacarezinho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (middle), Camp Buduburam, Accra, Ghana (right)

    1. Dharavi, Mumbai, India Estimated population of 1 million, Dharavi is situated in the middle of metropolitan Mumbai. The NOS was situated in a rented neighbourhood photo studio. [Dharavi: Wikipédia, ].
    2. Favela Jacarezihno, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Estimated population of 60,000, Favela Jacarezinho is the second largest favela in Rio de Janeiro. NOS was set in the office of NGO “Célula Urbana”, located in the community, above a LAN house (internet cafe). [Jacarezihno: Wikipédia, Google Maps].
    3. Camp Buduburam, Accra, Ghana 17-year old Librarian refugee settlements hosting an estimated number of 35000 people, 27 miles west of Accra. NOS was set in the office of NGO “MOPGEL” which normally hosts computer-related classes for the community. [Buduburam: Wikipédia, Google Maps].

    While Dharavi and Favela Jacarezinho shared similar histories and diversity of residents, Camp Buduburam differed in that: it was the youngest community; provided relatively homogeneous patterns of how and why residents came to settle there; and was ‘off-site’ to other research activities.



    The process of running a single NOS took approximately one month from start to finish: 2 weeks to locate and set-up a suitable space, hire and train staff; a week to create and run a campaign to advertise the competition; the studios remained open for between 7 – 14 days depending in part on availability of the rented space; with an award ceremony scheduled shortly after the last day. The aim was to finish setting up a studio space prior to the research team’s arrival so that the promotion of the event could get started early enough and the training of the staff could take place immediately within the actual studio. Open hours of the NOSs were aligned with the rhythm of the local community. In Dharavi, it was important to open during the evenings to accommodate day workers. In Jacarezinho, it was open during the normal business hours of approximately 9 to 5. In Buduburam, limited access to electricity dictated that it was practical only to open during daylight hours.

    Local Team

    A team of up to 20 local assistants was recruited in each location from a variety of backgrounds, though mostly with some relevant experience in design, sociology or journalism. Since the NOS was one of the tasks in the Future Urban Project, assistants took turns working in the studio. A minimum of 2 staff, one male and one female were required to be present in the Studio at any given time for registering, assisting, interviewing and photographing entrants with their entries. In Dharavi, the average time staff had to spend with entrants was considerably higher, due to the high level of illiteracy and the need to systematically walk participants through the textual parts of the entry form step by step. In Buduburam, additional staff was drafted in to manage and support the waiting queue of entrants outside the studio space.

    Nokia Open Studios: Studio Locations

    Figure 3 A photo studio rented for NOS, Dharavi (left); the local team going out to promote NOS to the community with a handout, Favela Jacarezinho (middle); NGO office for rented for NOS, Camp Buduburam (right)


    Studio assistants were given the task of creating a locally appealing promotional campaign to raise awareness of the studio. In Dharavi, the team mostly generated printed material including flyers, posters and larger banners. In Jacarezinho, a funk song was composed by a local musician/producer M-Shellz, broadcast through the community radio station. In Buduburam, the community radio was also used to play announcements and the team distributed the entry forms in advance so that people can come to the studio space when entrants consolidated their ideas, due to the high popularity of the event.

    [The M-Shellz’s tune created for promoting the NOS in Favela Jacarezinho can be found on his MySpace Profile].

    Nokia Open Studios: Promoting the studio

    Figure 4 Promotion of Nokia Studio in Dharavi with a slogan “Create a phone, take a phone”; in Favela Jacarezinho with a slogan “It’s about time to design your mobile phone”; in Camp Buduburam, “your dream phone, share it with the world”.

    Entry form and competition conditions

    In order to minimize the logistical burden, one A3 form was designed as an entry form. Entrants were required to sign the consent which was a part of the form in order to be eligible for entry, in part to avoid misunderstandings caused by entrants expecting to see their ideas being made into products and potential disputes over intellectual property. The rights of Nokia to use drawings and photographs of entrants to publicize the research was signed over in the consent form. For underage entrants a parent’s signature was required. All entrants were only asked to sign after they had completed the form to give them the opportunity to fully appreciate what they were signing.

    Nokia Open Studios: Entry form

    Figure 5 the entry form used for NOS. In a single A3 sheet, the left side asks entrant’sr demographics and contact information, and a short description of the idea. The right side asks for the entry number, title of the submission, and that visual sketch.

    Submitting an entry

    The NOS space provided a broad range of drawing and writing tools from which to craft their entry. Many participants thoroughly prepared their ideas prior to coming to the studio space – with one female in Mumbai creating eight entries – which she reported as being drawn under street lighting as her home did not have electricity. Whilst it took participants a minimum of 20 minutes to complete their entry a fair number took around two days, with some entrants adopting a strategy of probing studio assistants to understand what other entrants were doing; taking the entry form home; and completing several drafts of the design before committing to fill in the official entry form.

    After the entry was submitted participants were interviewed to probe their motivations for the features in their designs, and to explain the context in which the design would apply to their everyday life. As a last step, entrants were photographed together with their sketch and a printed photo was given as a memento of the participation. Entries were physically archived and later digitally scanned by the team.

    Nokia Open Studios: Assisting

    Figure 6 Mumbai team member assisting an illiterate entrant filling in the form through an interview (left); mother and daughter discussing about the idea in the studio space (middle); an entrant in camp Buduburam drawing on the entry form referring to the sketches he had made prior coming to the studio (right)

    Winner selection

    On the final day of the competition, studio assistants and research team members convened to discuss and select winners. Each entry was reviewed with the assistants actively debating the merits and relevance of entries they advocated. A research team member took the role of facilitator in the debate to draw out why the assistants considered particular ideas relevant to this community (one of the key factors in determining winners) and following-up to ensure that we accurately understood the nuances in their responses.

    Nokia Open Studios: Selection Process

    Figure 7 Entry forms selected for final consideration put on the wall by Dharavi team (left); a local team member in Favela Jacarezinho advocating the idea she strongly supports (middle); Nokia team member facilitating the winner selection discussion in camp Buduburam

    In Mumbai, the opinions of assistants were split along gender lines, and generated such a heated debate as to who woud be the first place winner that the research team were required to intervene to offer ‘first place’ prizes to two entrants, with local assistants stressing the importance of giving winning prizes to entrants of both genders. In Buduburam where opportunities for materialistic gain were limited, locally hired assistants from the settlement were under mild pressure from their social peers to influence the winner selection process – an issue counter-balanced by having non-local assistants present in the discussion.

    Award ceremony

    Winners were contacted and invited to an award ceremony. In Rio, most winners came with family members, and in all locations considerable effort was made on personal appearance. In Buduburam, the high number of entrants without mobile phones meant that assistants were required to inform many of the winners in person.

    Nokia Open Studio: Prize Giving

    Figure 8 The crowd gathered outside the rental photo studio used as NOS venue in Dharavi during the award ceremony (left); A group shot of winners and team members in Favela Jacarezinho (middle); Audience gathered to listen to the winners’ explanation of ideas during the award ceremony in Camp Buduburam (right)

    Entries as inspiration for local artisans

    In Dharavi and Jacarezinho, a number of entries were shared with local artisans as source material to inspire them in creating artifacts using the common local material and visual styles. Our intent was to use these artifacts to help sell the research. In Mumbai this included a sign painter, foam sculptor, and embroiderer. In Jacarezinho, three comic artists were hired to create a coherent story out of the selected entries demonstrated as a small comic booklet.

    Nokia Open Studios: Contexts of Use

    Figure 9 Posters explaining the context in which the idea is inspired from or useful, created by a local artist

    Nokia Open Studios: Local artisans

    Figure 10 Embroider, mobile phone repair engineer, and theater sign maker were asked to represent selected ideas through the art or material that they are most comfortable with.

    Nokia Open Studios: Using comics as artifacts to communicate the research

    Figure 11 A comic book storyboarded and created by local comic artists based on selected entries from NOS. [See also: Using comics to communicate research findings, commentary].



    The NOSs attracted a total of 222 entries from 3 communities, with a breakdown of numbers shown in table 1.

    Dharavi Jacarezihno Buduburam
    Total Participants 57 27 138
    Male / Female 79% 21% 59% 41% 88% 12%
    Mobile Phone Ownership 74% (42) 74% (20) 18% (25)

    Table 1: The number of participants in each of three communities and gender ratios

    Below 20 21 – 30 31 – 40 41 – 50 51 – 60 Above 60
    Dharavi (n=57) 40% 42% 12% 3% 0% 0%
    Jacarezihno (n=27) 30% 26% 30% 15% 0% 0%
    Buduburam (n=138) 26% 49% 20% 5 0% 1%

    Table 2: Age group breakdown of the participants

    Entrant ages ranged from 18 to 64, with the majority below the age of 30. Due to data consent requirements, participation was limited to adults – resulting in a number of disqualified entries particularly in Jacarezinho. Some overcame this restriction by bringing their parents to sign the entry form – a practice that was encouraged. The variance in numbers of entrants per studio location (27, 57, 138) is primarily a reflection of the availability of the studio venue and the context in which the studio was run: In Dharavi, the studio was open during the peak of monsoon season which created challenges in the community including flooded roads, houses, and overflowing sewers. In Jacarezinho, the weather took its toll albeit in a much smaller scale compared to Mumbai as the studio period overlapped with the coldest winter days by the local weather norms of Rio de Janeiro. A bigger disruptive factor in Jacarezihno were days when, due to police and/or rival gang ‘invasions’ of the favela the majority of local residents retreated into their homes due to the increased risk of being caught up in the violence – as a result the studio remained shut on these days. In Buduburam, while the studio enjoyed great popularity over the full period of its opening, there were shortcomings that reducing the number of potential entrants: the electricity supply to the NGO Mopgel’s space depended solely on a separate emergency generator, as the common electricity supply had shut down for weeks in the camp. This meant that the studio could only run during natural daylight hours. This created a situation of long queues of people waiting in the blazing heat, which in turn lead to the situation where a waiting area was set up outside the NGO building with shade, seating and submission forms were handed out in advance enabling entrants to think through the submission prior to stepping in the studio – and minimising processing time later on.
    Mobile phone ownership amongst participants was relatively high compared the general populace (74% in Dharavi, 74% in Jacarezinho) with the exception of Buduburam (18%). Despite the low number of mobile phone ownership in Buduburam, most entrants provided a phone number by which they could be reached.

    As expected, the gender balance of entrants was (heavily) skewed towards males – with 12% females in Buduburam, 21% in Dharavi, compared to 41% in Jacarezinho. In Dharavi, this was a reflection of the limited amount of time that women spent outside their immediate home environment and the social acceptance of entering a non-family mixed gender space. In Buduburam, the bias reflected the traditional perception of women’s role in society, succinctly articulated by one female entrant stating her reason for participation as “to prove that women can also do what men can do”. Local teams specifically encouraged female participation – for example through door to door canvassing, but this stopped short of offering a fully ‘mobile NOS’ in part because of the logistical hassles created by the monsoon. The issue of gender was widely discussed during the planning phase – with the final NOS setup balancing the resource needs of the broader project.
    An age group bias was also observed with the ratio of participants under the age of 30 being highest in Dharavi (82%) then Buduburam (75%) with Jacarezinho the lowest at 56%.

    While we didn’t systematically document the preparatory process – entrants often brought sketches and written notes about their intended designs to the studio – often substantially more information than ended up on the entry form. One female Dharavi participant – an illiterate laundry washer, brought with her 8 ideas which she articulated were ‘sketched under the street lights because my home does not have electricity’, with her designs reflecting her preference for the geometric shapes of object’s she liked – such as a mango or heart. In Jacarezinho, several entrants brought their family members to the studio and discussed their ideas in the spacious studio space that could accommodate several people working comfortably in parallel. Numerous entrants from Buduburam stated that they first visited the studio space to learn what the studio was about, went home to discuss their ideas with friends and family before going back to the studio to create their entry. In informal post-interview sessions with participants, it was common to observe several pages of idea sketches, especially from participants who had more elaborate concepts and technical knowledge.v

    Nokia Open Studios: Entries from Buduburam

    Figure 12 Detailed idea sketches entrants have done prior to coming to NOS. Often entrants brought their idea sketches with them to create a concise and quality final sketch on the entry form in the Studio space.

    There was also evidence that the competition generated discussions and collaboration in the community, in particular Buduburam where a seemingly original idea was submitted by several entrants who stated their inspiration came from their peer group. Local teams also reported that the waiting queue outside the studio space supported the idea discussion with some copying of ideas between participants. This highlights the challenge in judging the relevance of a single idea based on say, the number of entries received because of the social processes that occur outside the studio space, but it also implies some degree of collaborative filtering with ideas that are perceived as most likely to win the prize being most highly valued.

    Figure 13 Entries from Camp Buduburam featuring a similar concept of side folders


    The entries included ideas that ranged from simple statements, to complex conceptual representations, to highly symbolic expressions reflecting their understanding of the needs of individuals (themselves) or the community. The research team evaluated the entries through a number filters including: status expression vs. utility; personal vs. communal; stand-alone vs. complementary; original vs. evolutionary.

    Entries can be broadly divided into the following themes:

    • Device symbolism: Ideas focusing on shapes, typically representing or symbolizing the entrant’s preference, heritage, profession, and what they desire in the future.
      Dharavi: Heart shaped phones, pen shaped phones representing the need for literacy – because ‘everyone should write more’, cricket bat shaped phones
      Jacarezinho: Colors reflecting African heritage, pan-American colors (the Pan-American games hosted by Rio de Janeiro had just finished), football and spray paint can shaped phones
      Buduburam: Foot shaped phones as symbols of progress and development
    • Functional improvement: Ideas focusing on specific functions as solutions to problems or issues they have personally facing or the community in general. Some ideas were developed for specific target groups with common problems. Often the most important problem that the idea intended to solve needed to be articulated during the interview
      Dharavi: Festival speaker phone, solar charger, emergency alarm
      Jacarezinho: Mom or couple monitoring phones
      Buduburam: pen drive, video call, split display, solar charger, pollution detection, large capacity recording of videos
    • Mobile Convergence: Ideas focusing on creating attractive combinations of known functions on one mobile device
      Dharavi: Internet-enabled phone replacing LAN house and laptop, bike-repair tool kit phone
      Jacarezinho: all-in-one entertainment system, make-up kit phone
      Buduburam: global business man’s tool
    • Magical function: Ideas addressing the most important issue in their lives in mobile context, without any technical references or relevance to communication
      Dharavi: Water bottle phone that can float on the water
      Jacarezinho: Peace button phone
      Buduburam: World phone showing what’s happening around the world, and by inference – sharing what is happening in the refugee settlement to the outside world

    Based on follow-up interviews with entrants, we surmise that the intent of the designs was driven by the following needs:

  • Cost saver: Saving money was often the central theme behind the submission, not surprising given the relatively low incomes in these communities. Some stated the reason for an all-in-one-internet-enabled device was to save money compared to using nearby LAN houses (internet cafes), with the mistaken assumption being that internet usage via the phone would be free. The four-star design highlights the already common practice of using multiple SIM card slots in a phone, intra-network calls being cheaper in Ghana. Convergent device ideas, absorbing the functions of other devices, were thought of a way to save money by not having to buy separate products, with the assumption that a convergent device would be cheaper than separates.
  • Convenience booster: Most ideas around mobile convergence were motivated by increasing the convenience of carrying fewer objects by combining them instead to the mobile phone. This may be related to the relative bulk – with local designs driven more by cost than by minaturization.
  • Expressing Status & Identity: Many participants wanted the shape of their design to reflect their cultural or racial heritage, profession, and/or wealth.
  • Token of goodwill or better future: As a vehicle or tool to attain a better, more positive future – either through shape or functionality
  • Problem solver: Ideas representing solutions to problems of a larger scale – often seemingly irrelevant to the functions of mobile phones, such as natural disaster and human conflicts were not uncommon.
  • Relevance, not newness

    Aside from the value of NOSs being a vehicle to gain insights into participant’s living conditions, lifestyles, needs and aspirations, their submissions highlighted that innovation in the context of these communities is not about newness of technology but relevance to the individual’s needs, usage contexts, and adaptability, especially for those who are exposed to the spread of technology or technology-driven products in a non-linear fashion compared to more developed markets. This is best explained though the intense debate that occurred amongst the local team in Dharavi during the winner selecting process, during the discussion of the ‘Cloudy-buddy’ idea submitted by a 21-year-old student. The central idea in the submission was that the weather sensor on the mobile phone would allow the user to point the phone at the sky and have weather information displayed on the screen.

    On one hand, it was argued that the idea of weather forecast has nothing new to offer because weather information can be obtained in so many ways. On the other hand, it was argued that accurate weather information is not accessible for many people living in Dharavi due to the lack of subscribed publications such as daily newspapers and limited personal access to electronic appliances such as radio or TV. Furthermore, it was pointed out that for illiterate people or those who lack skills to operate complex mobile phone features the idea indeed made the weather forecast that much more accessible. From the author’s point of view, this is an important lesson coming out of the NOSs: as researchers and designers responsible for highlighting potential opportunities based on field research data and observations, the expectation of our peers, the industry and the ongoing focus of the media is for newness over relevance. Systematically documenting the personal motivations behind the NOS submissions generated data that counterbalanced the ‘eternal hunt for the new’.


    Motivation for participation

    Whilst the opportunity to win prizes and general curiosity stimulated initial contact the motivations for entrants varied: from an opportunity to have their opinion heard – a non-trivial issue in communities that are often stigmatised by outsiders; a chance to elevate their standing within the community through contact with representatives of a respected corporation – Nokia being both known and a preferred brand in all three locations; a chance to show off creative skills; a mental and physical space to reflect on their own life, their relationship with their peer group and community and, mostly in Jacarezihno a fun family activity. For some Buduburam entrants it was also an opportunity to kill boredom – time being one resource that they did have in abundance. From the first-hand comments heard by the research team, there was a sense of pride associated in participation as it was a rare opportunity to express their ideas on an intellectual level to outsiders.

    Positioning of the NOS

    One unexpected challenge was aligning the local team with the intent of the project goals. When commissioned with the task of creating the promotional plan of the NOS, the Buduburam team came up with the slogan of “Refugees are human, Nokia values your opinions”, a slogan that was turned down by the research team as it was both outside the intent of the competition and did not convey that the event was encouraging the design of ideal mobile phone. It was common for the local team to initially understand the purpose of the NOS to be collecting new, innovative ideas, and they therefore questioned our motivations for conducting a follow-up interviews with each entrant. This sometimes resulted in mis-directed interviews with entrants, as the local team focused more on the idea itself than finding out how the idea fits into the entrant’s needs and aspirations. A few iterations between the local team and the research team were therefore mandatory to make sure that the goal of the NOSs was understood across the whole team. In Mumbai, the local team submitted entries in order to put themselves into the shoes of the participants.

    Unstructured versus structured facilitation

    The intent of defining the theme of the NOS as ‘Design your ideal future phone – for yourself or for your community’ was to give entrants a sufficient direction by focusing on a ‘modern technology object’ with which entrants would be familiar, either through ownership, their peer group or popular culture. Except the theme, the guidance given to the entrants was kept minimal as to the written instruction and questions on the entry form.

    The brief was kept deliberately open to encourage re-interpretation of the question. The entry form was given to anyone who wanted to participate in advance and many entrants returned home with the form and came back to the studio once they had consolidated their ideas, often with sketches of ideas they had made on their own.

    The role of the local team ranged from assisting entrants in completing the written parts of the entry form to interviewing the entrant about the motivation behind the idea – especially when the entry form lacked a detailed account that explained the background to, and how the idea would fit into the entrant’s life context. The process of the first NOS run in Dharavi did not include a structured interview – however based on the results we recognised the need to more formally capture the motivations and context of how the entry was created. It should be noted that the skills to document research data i.e. conduct closing interviews to gather meaningful data, is unlikely to occur without training that requires additional time and effort, and this may conflict with a desire to hire assistant from the local community. From the second NOS location, Favela Jacarezinho, the interview and documentation responsibility was given specifically to local assistants who had journalism background, along with a separate structured interview form given to them.

    Based on anecdotal evidence and a review of submissions it is clear that there was some level of collusion or collaboration amongst some entrants though whether this is positive or negative depends in part on how the data is to be used. If the intent is to gather data that is broadly representative of community then a process that formally or informally supports group work can be seen as desirable. This can be supported through shared design tasks and explicit or implicit rewards for group submissions and collaboration. If the intent is to generate more rigourously measureable data – for example comparison across studios – then more emphasis needs to be put on shielding entrants from the design question and other submissions, and that all submissions are completed on-site. Our assumption is that these informal, unstructured discussions – such as in the waiting area in Buduburam act as a filter to elevate and refine good ideas, or sometimes pushing entrants to come up with a unique idea that other entrants were not thinking about, though the reader should be aware of the desire to second guess the intent of the judges.

    The benefits of unstructured facilitation mainly came from providing ample incubation time that allowed entrants to internalize the theme and their ideas. In that sense, the results of NOSs are comparable to in-depth research methods. The team experimented with collecting data through a ‘My Ideal Phone’ street survey, provided an entry form with a drawing area and a set of simple questions that probed the motivations behind design choices. Our conclusion was that the results were too dependent on the survey participants’ educational level, and in the short space of time allowed by a street survey – ideas struggled to go beyond simply listing commonly known features and small improvement ideas based on their current mobile phone usage, and revealed little about the relevance of their ideas to their life contexts. Another instance was a structured 1-day workshop to create ideal mobile phones. Invited participants spent half a day discussing about the mobile technology and given the stimulus material and various tools and material to sketch their ideal mobile phone. The results show signs that their ideas are directly influenced by the discussion or the stimulus material made available to participants.

    Nokia Open Studios: Chongqing street survey entries

    Figure 14 Ideal phone sketches received as part of a street survey done in Chongqing, China, 2007. Ideas often refer to the commonly known features of the available high-tech mobile phones of the time.

    Nokia Open Studios: Bangkok workshop entries

    Figure 15 Ideal phone sketches received as part of ad-hoc interviews in the owner-run accessory shops in Bangkok, Thailand. As participants were used to designing personal objects, they quickly got on with developing their ideal mobile phone design and were able to explain how their idea was relevant to their personal life contexts. Due to the difference in aptitude for drawing, choosing a specific profession or educational level of participants has been observed to influence the outcome of this exercise.

    Local artisans’ work as a vehicle to share the research findings

    The artifacts created by local artisans in Mumbai including posters and physical sketches provide good talking points in sharing the research findings through the stories. Artisans typically added imagery that shows the local context on which the idea is based or more depth to the idea by physical sketches with colors and material in consideration. With entries from Favela Jacarezinho, a group of comic artists scripted a coherent storyboard incorporating the selected ideas. With the entrants themselves as actors representing their own ideas, a short comic book was created. While the effectiveness of the two methods tried has not been extensively put to test in practice, the importance of designing the effective vehicle to share the research findings from NOSs is quite clear: especially considering the audience with little knowledge on the research method in general easily could take the entrants’ sketches at their face value. A vehicle that can deliver the stories behind entrants’ ideas, and that can be created by further engaging the local talent would be ideal.

    Ownership of Ideas

    The issue of ownership of the entries was widely discussed within the project team during the planning phase. We set out to meaningfully engage the local community in a way that paid sufficient moral and legal respect to them, their ideas and the community in which they lived. We also needed to balance the right for our employer to use the data from the entries, and to legally protect the company should at some point in the future, an entrant turn around and argue that so-and-so feature from a product, was derived from their competition entry. On one side of the argument running a competition can be considered exploitation – subcontracting on the cheap but on the other hand as anyone who’s managed a research project of any complexity will recognise, data (and ideas) do not inherently have value, the value comes from their interpretation and application. It should be recognised that all entrants have the opportunity to exploit their own ideas both in terms of legal rights, the enforceability of those rights, and intent of the research team – though how practical it is to commercially exploit these ideas is another issue entirely.

    Whilst the authors have experience of a range of participatory design practices, some of which will be written up at a later date, the reader is reminded that the purpose of the NOS was not to create designs that could be brought into the design process, or to stimulate innovation in its broadest sense.

    Strengths and Weaknesses of the Method

    As a research method, the primary value of the NOS is in generating data that compliments and challenges alternative research methods being run in parallel in the same geographical location with a similar target group. The minimal guidance provided by the research team supports discovering topics that can easily be overlooked by other inherently more guided methods.

    The method allows entrants to work at their own pace, a process that encourages reflection and adds depth to the entries. This may conflict with research intentions focusing on spontaneous reactions.

    As discussed earlier, whether to encourage or discourage discussion, social collaboration and competition among participants is a question of research objectives. Considering there is no complete control over the inherent social processes that occur outside the studio space, and particularly in tight-knit communities such as these, it is wise to assume and perhaps plan to amplify collaborative idea generation. The simplest form of explicit encouragement would be specific prizes for group entries, with the exit interview being more like a focus group.

    The quality of results of any NOS is largely dependent on a local team that understands the intent of the research and is capable of interviewing and properly documenting ideas. Local assistants with a design background were capable at assisting entrants in articulating ideas having had experienced the mental process that idea generation requires. However our assistants lacked experience in documenting additional data such as the conversations with entrants.

    With a successful promotion campaign, the NOS receives a lot of attention in the community – and reputation management becomes a factor in the success in its execution. In Dharavi, one entrant stole a mobile phone from a studio assistant and was later caught by police, and incident that had the potential to create ill-will towards the NOS in the community – though there is no way to accurately trace the influence.

    The NOS generates an obvious output in the form of paper entry forms plus photos of entrants and their designs. Whilst there is a risk that the immediacy of this material over-shadows other more analysed and nuanced data, it can become a vehicle by which to engage and stimulate discussion amongst both stakeholders and external media. [Nokia and Design, 30th April, 2008 Nokia’s Dream Phones, Kerry Capell, Business Week, 30th April, 2008, related slides show of dream phones].

    Future activities

    The authors have plans to refine this methodology.


    Nokia team: Fumiko Ichikawa, Cui Yanqing, Ti el Attar, William Yau, Indri Tulusan, Raphael Grignani, Duncan Burns and Anne Coates.

    Dharavi: Zeenath Hasan, Hasina Hasan, Sridevi Padmanabhan, Sajai Jose, Akanksha Bhakuni, Akshita Gandhi, Anuj Agrawal, Francis Xavier, J Hemanth, Jalaj Chhatwal, Khushboo Gera, Mohit Arora, Prerna Dhawan, NIFT National Institute of Fashion Technology Delhi and Mumbai

    Jacarezinho: Bruno Vianna, Flavia Candida, Augusto Amaral, Michel Messer, Rodrigo de Deus, Ana Beatriz de Souza, Douglas Queiroz, Gabrielle Pereira, Tiago Ortega, Vatusi Silva, Anderson Ferreira, Leandro da Silva, Tiago Cunha, Wilton Araujo, Heloisa Lamounier, Lakshmi Rajagopal, DJ-MShellz, Renato Lima, Johanson Rezende, Erik “Rocker” Judson and Cabeludo, NGO Cellula Urbana and the NGO Amigos de Meio Ambiente.

    Nima-Maamobi / Buduburam: Kobby Asara, Johnson Appaiah, Wisdom Tsidi, Antwi Bosiakoh, Thersa Nkumah, Bruce Wiah, Alfred Tarley, Momo Johnson, Webster Nyion, Kenneth Kpdekpo, Vincent Kuuire, Jerry Detroy, Jaco Abudu, Yvette Otoo, Hisenburg Togba and NGO MOPGEL.

    Not least, thanks to all the entrants from Jacarezihno, Buduburam and Dharavi who took part in the Nokia Open Studio.

    Related research content/presentations-and-downloads/”>here