Photo: © Rubra

HYBRID: Interview with Marko Ahtisaari

Marko Ahtisaari is the Director of Design Strategy at Nokia. If his name sounds familiar, it is probably because his father is a former UN diplomat and president of Finland. Marko was born in Finland and raised on three continents. He studied economics, philosophy and musical composition at Columbia University in New York, where he subsequently lecture in logic, philosophy of economics and the history of thought. He once received a Grammy Showcase Award for new artists and in-between moments he continues to create experimental music. When asked about his life and career, Marko Ahtisaari humorously remarks that he is a hybrid.

Marko Ahtisaari was among the speakers at this years' Ars Electronica conference in Linz, Austria. The theme of the conference was HYBRID - Living in Paradox, a theme which very much relates to Marko's personal and professional life. Sebastian Campion met him for a talk about the past, present and near future of the mobile telephone.

At a moment in time, when the mobile industry is pushing ever more technological features and functionalities at people, what do you think are the most important needs to design for?
At Nokia, we believe that people are increasingly looking for simple and sensorial products. And so, the challenge is: how do you make an elegant simplicity that hides the complexity in the overall interface and experience of the product? This is a real design challenge and opportunity so we spend a lot of time at that. The theme at this conference is 'hybrid' - is there a better example of a mass-market hybrid product than the mobile phone? I mean, it was based on a collective good - a shared phone if you like. Transform that into a personal object. At the same time, cut the cord and it becomes a simple familiar function - but mobile. Then, the clock is there. Then text messaging and now we have the camera as well. So, it's a platform with a lot of gravity, which is a real design challenge because this is when we start loosing the simplicity.

The hybridization has also created some paradoxes. For example, on airplanes we can not use the features of our phones, such as the camera,  simply because it's prohibited to switch it on.
Well, there are off-line modes, but as a general point, I would say that we have done a bad job in rushing to connect everyone. We need to retreat from that and design a sometimes-off experience for an always-on world. I think we will see some innovation in that area. How we tune out, and then tune back in.

Has the development simply happened too fast for the industry itself to follow?
Surely. We are really working on polishing the things that we know people are using. Designing simple elegant objects that simply works, that's a challenge.

In contrast to many of today’s new features, SMS was not pushed by the industry. It only became popular once teenagers began to play around with and consequently discovered its social potential. Nobody told them what to do with SMS, so they found out themselves. Nowadays, we are always told how to use things, what to think and what to feel...
Right, but I actually have a slightly different view on the history of SMS than the popular one. The big thing to observe about it is not that the industry missed it. It's rather, how did the industry react to it. Now, for example in our case SMS was lifted way up in the interface when we started noticing. Now, that's what design is about. You watch, and then you do. You are absolutely right that SMS wasn't pushed and I think that makes a case for certain things not being pushed, discovered and then designed to. But it's not as if people had no clue - there were some people who saw more use for it than others. Personally, I wasn't in the industry until the late 90's but Nokia definitely had the best interface for SMS. It has become largely a benchmark and broadly copied within the industry. That's the sort of thing that happens over time and then you just have to stay on top of it.

Is it a part of your innovation strategy to have an organic relationship with your users?
Absolutely. We actually do studies - with full consent of the users - on smartphones. We do 100% tracking of all functionalities over a period of time. This means, we have granular view of usage. So then we can look at what are people using, why, what paths aren't working. This has been missing from an industry that tends to ask people "will you use an MP3 player on your phone?" and they answer "yes" and typically people will overestimate their own interest in it.

To which degree do you think that phones should be 'hackable', in the sense that users are able to tweak and modify them?
My general take on it, is that the definition of hackability is too narrow. Hackability is much more about everyday kind of things, starting from the colored replaceable covers. You might say, that it is too tightly driven but the trend of customizing the generic will continue. This will continue both in hardware and in software. We have tools to sketch in software, like on the Nokia series 60. I am not a programmer but it took me two hours to learn it and to write applications that I use nearly everyday. So that's me sketching my own use. I think that's another way of staying close to users and usage. Hackability is broader than just open software.

Nokia seems to be filling the market with phones that are often very different and experimental in their looks and functionalities. Is this a way of testing the market and staying close to usage?
It is. In functionality you have to be very careful in watching what is happening with the adoption but in stylistic terms we can sometimes push the form and style of a product far. Like the stick-phone in the fashion collection that we do. It is not really stretching the functionality, but it is stretching the style. So there's room for both. And we need to constantly do that and test, what is still core Nokianess and then what is outside and maybe another brand at some point. As we do with the luxury phones. In the public they are not really associated with us.

Do you anticipate new kinds of content or communication forms to emerge within the near future?
Well, one thing that we have launched publicly is an application that allows people to have a local Bluetooth web-page while they are walking around. It can be read by other people in their proximity. We are trying it out just by having the software available for the Nokia series 60 phones. I think the software that we are building for the series 60 will allow a lot of innovation in that area that we can't anticipate.

How important is the Finnish identity to Nokia as a global brand? A Finnish friend once told me that "Finns don't really like to talk to each other" - is the global-sounding Nokia motto 'Connecting People" simply a self-reference?
We're a global company - a very multinational company - so I wouldn't make to much of it. Finns are perhaps more silent or quite but people like to communicate. I think there are some roots in terms of values and the way it reflects in the Nokia design, in the very human and natural forms - and thus, in the way that we are constantly looking for a way to simplify the experience.

Sebastian Campion (MFA) is a conceptual designer and consultant, who has developed several innovative communication concepts for mobile platforms. After living for a number of years in Amsterdam, he recently moved to Copenhagen, where he works for the designagency 1508.

Danish Design Centre HC Andersens Boulevard 27
DK 1553 KÝbenhavn V
T  +45 3369 3369
F  +45 3369 3300