Nokia Execs have No Design Taste - Can Microsoft Save Them?
A former head of user interface design for Nokia bluntly says on his blog that Nokia executives have no design taste, and that's one of the reasons for the phone company's global plunge. Given that, was the deal with Microsoft the right move for Nokia?
Adam Greenfield, who according to GigaOm is the former Nokia head of design direction for user interfaces and services, has published a scathing post on his blog berating Nokia executives for their lack of design taste, particularly in user interface design. And that, he concludes, is one of the reasons that Nokia has fared so poorly in the smartphone market.
Greenfield starts off by lauding Nokia's strength, which is in engineering:
"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."
But he goes on to say that's no longer enough for success in the mobile world, and that Nokia stumbled when it failed to recognize that phones are far more than just a way to communicate efficiently. Nokia didn't see, he says 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."
Apple, he said, recognized that when it launched the iPhone. Nokia, though, left design to techies and engineers rather than experts in interface design, he claims. And that's where the company failed. He concludes:
"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."
Given that Greenfield is a designer by trade, you might call this a case of sour grapes. But I think he's right. Look at Nokia phones and their interfaces and compare them to iPhones, or Android-based phones like the Droid X or HTC Incredible. It's obvious why people haven't been buying Nokia phones.
Which brings us to Microsoft. If Nokia's greatest failing is in interface design, was choosing to partner with Microsoft the right move? Greenfield concludes not. He writes:
"My whole tenure in Espoo [Nokia headquarters] 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."
I'm not so sure that Greenfield is right here. Microsoft generally isn't hailed for its design sense, but the company has been changing in this regard in the last several years. Windows 7 is certainly a clean and welcoming interface. More to the point, Windows Phone 7's design is straightforward and simple and does an excellent job of conveying important, timely information in an elegant package.
The design of Windows Phone 7, though, won't be what could save Nokia --- it's Microsoft's marketing muscle, global developer presence, and billions of dollars it's putting towards Nokia's (and its own) cause. But Windows Phone 7 is certainly a good enough for a starting point.
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