9 December 2007

Cats, kids and experience design

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The Marker
Experientia partner Jan-Christoph Zoels was profiled last week in “The Marker“, Israel’s number one business and technology newspaper and part of the Haaretz media group. Below is the English translation by Saar Shai.


by Ora Coren

Either a mobile-phone, a computer or just a table – Jan-Christoph Zoels sees displays all around. With Italian company Experientia, he’s designing the future of the palm of your hand: smart and friendly.

He’s dynamic, vibrant, bursting energy and ideas, and no wonder he’s one of global industry’s hottest designers, especially in the technological front. Jan-Christoph Zoels’ resume is filled with leading, multi-national corporations as Hitachi, Sony, Samsung, Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent, Orange, Fiat, Vodafone, Telecom Italia and Ferrero.

Conversing with him leads to the inevitable conclusion that the future is in displays. It could be a computer-screen, a large table monitor or any electronic terminal (kiosk), but it seems that what really gets him excited are handheld displays. Everything becomes interactive, intuitive, anticipating users’ needs and doesn’t warrant an entire weekend of reading and memorising instructions and large manuals. For Zoels, the interface is the essence of design.

A smart and friendly interface, one that not just addresses needs, but also provides for a pleasant experience, would probably be the main motif in future industrial design, in every possible field. Evidently, ideas and products of his are presently assimilated among brand names such as Blackberry, Nokia and even the chocolate manufacturer Ferrero, and they are all high-tech. In the time he has left, he takes the time to invest in traditional crafts, such as pepper shaker designs – that age old instrument for grinding pepper, in a polished and colorful version – for the Italian Tre Spade, which is also a versatile company, with one department making household appliances while another making shift-gears for the international auto industry. There too, Experientia, where Zoels is a senior partner, remains devoted to the principle of experience, by designing also packages, communication pathways with consumers, and the brand’s web entity.

Zoels’ very noticeable German accent rely his origin. He finished his masters degree in Rhode Island School of Design. He has another masters degree in industrial design from the Berlin Art and Design Academy.

After spending some years in the US, head of the design department of Sony’s local branch, among other positions, he decided to go back to Europe with his family, and settle in one of the world’s design superpowers – Italy.

This week he arrived in Israel, along with Experientia’s head of R&D – Professor Yaniv Steiner, also residing in Italy. Steiner is considered the technological mastermind behind many of the company flag products and projects. The two conducted a series of lectures at Bezalel School of Art and Design, in a course named “Food and thoughts” led by Yaron Ronen and Steiner himself. The object of the course was to design interactive artifacts that will support social interactions.

Experientia – An attraction for Israelis

The Experientia staff includes 4 Israelis out of a total of 15 employees, destined to increase to 20 by the end of the fiscal year. One might therefore think that Israel is a considerable force of global design, although it is clearly not. Industrial design is not an integral part of Israeli industries, so it’s no wonder that prominent Israeli designers are forced to find their way into international companies.

Zoels offers Israelis, known as highly creative in programming, the possibility to take a substantial leap forward to a future that is just around the corner, and to be able to combine technological developments with focusing on the user’s perspective. That is, to evaluate the needs of the users, and find new approaches for making their lives easier and more efficient.

“Especially in Israel, which is known for its software, but not for its final design of applications,” says Zoels, “it is important to move the focus from the technological aspects of an application, to the people using it. Israelis need to progress to the stages of interface. This is a higher form of design. Academia should teach that in a combined and integrated way.

There are those who work in art and those who work in code. They should work together, side by side with sociologists and designers. An interdisciplinary step is required. Focusing on the service, not the just the product. “To think broadly,” he explains.

“This was the process that molded Experientia. Two years ago we decided to establish a company specialising in many fields, instead of just another design firm,” he adds. “We combine several proficiencies within one integrated proposal to our clients”.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about future trends, about the enjoyment of the user, about his current AND future needs, about the obstacles to usability and how design can eliminate those. Usually, designers focus on their process of creation. We get out inspiration from the issues the end-user faces.”

We produce a prototype relatively quickly, to allow us to test and assess ideas, and to check on potential profitability. We’re very fast and interactive. This is unique in this market.”

Usually, the process of design starts with a thousand ideas drained and ends with the one product on the market. R&D departments or academia narrow down the one thousand ideas into a hundred business opportunities. Traditionally, they also eventually reduce them to five that then get developed and tested before one is put on the market. We believe that if you can prototype these ideas quickly and cheaply and test them with potential consumers, it will be much easier to make a decision on how to best move forward. Our added value is that we offer 60%-80% certainty that the final product will indeed sell, because it is already based on experience with the consumers.”

“Most products we design are related to mobile technology, for companies such as Nokia, Swisscom, and others. The products under development are confidential and a time-span of two years is required for taking them to market.”

“One of the leading direction mobile devices are taking is joining advanced technologies and user-friendly interfaces. The combination of art and design is, in fact, the combination of need and enjoyment.”

“Art is the biggest skill in production, and this coincides with design. What is eventually produced is not only a product, but a pattern of behaviour. A way to allow new interactions between people, and between them and the product, that will fill previously unfulfilled needs.”

Seeing presence

“The next generation of mobile-phones will incorporate elements that are already widely available on the personal computer. In the near future we will see the presence of our conversation partners,” Zoels promises.

Exactly like MSN or Skype enable you to notice if someone is online of not, mobile communication would be just the same. Presence will require new interaction procedures. Usability will go from written text to sending mail messages and IMs. We will see who, from our contacts list, is online, and can be contacted. We will be able to see his condition, such as if he’s busy driving, and if he can answer, whether in writing or by voice.”

The design concentrates on the cognitive aspect: how to rely information and other interactions that technology supplies, in the simplest way possibility, and how to do that with the least effort from the user.

On Zoels’ mobile appears a collage of five pictures. “Through our research we found that people usually talk outside of work with no more than five contacts regularly,” he claims. Pressing one of the individual pictures enlarges it. If an X appears besides it, the contact is not available. If a V appears, communication is possible immediately. An additional batch of icons makes it possible to choose the type of communication, such as voice, message, text chat or music sharing.

We will also be able to accept requests on our mobile. For instance, when the picture of Catherine is blinking, it is a sign of an incoming message. An accompanying icon of a phone is a sign of an incoming call. The new mobile will inform us about the general location of the person we called, by cross-referencing three antennas in the vicinity.

The transition from film to digital data led Kodak to change its business model. Experientia is there to help them define their next generation services. Kodak founded kiosks to print pictures directly from the mobile-phone. “They have more than 90 thousand kiosks all over the world, in malls, photo stores and franchises in the US. In Europe they are based in electronics shops, providing the means to print swiftly and in high quality,” says Zoels.

“We conducted a research and discovered that people invest a lot of meaning into photographs. They want to make collages and albums, and add captions and comments. How is that seamlessly possible? This is the art — taking pictures and creatively composing something new,” Zoels continues.

“For example, whoever wants to make a collage from pictures of his cat and children, on his mobile-phone, would be able to access a new Kodak kiosk and personally create it, by moving the pictures from side to side, modifying their size, cropping… and virtually anything he can think of. It will be possible to add text, choose a background, and much more, in a process called Multitouch.” The new product is destined to reach the market in twelve months.

Even the Kinder eggs surprise toy, from Ferrero, will be upgraded and will no longer be just a lifeless plastic. Abiding to confidentiality, Zoels replies in suggestive questions. “Will the toy be just plastic, or embody interactivity? Maybe it will respond to hear or touch?” The product will most likely be connected to a computer or a mobile-phone, where it will be possible to control it.

Ecology in fashion

Another trend in design is ecology. The aforementioned pepper shakers, for example, are manufactured in an ecologically friendly manner. “In the United States, it is mandatory to enter the market with a story, a narrative on that. The number of ecologically aware costumers is rising. Those are 30-40 years-olds with money, not looking for plastic from China, but for a nice present for a friend. How do you infuse value with attractiveness? With an ecological fingerprint,” says Zoels.

A new development by Steiner was presented at a European art fair and attracted a lot of attention. Deutsche Telekom already turned to Experientia to further test the application.

The development is based on a large, inner-lit table, which is entirely an interface. The user places and moves his hands above it, and pictures from exhibition catalogues appear on the screen. Kids and adults activated the table without any need for written instructions.

When speaking of future trends, it is impossible to ignore social networks such as Facebook. Zoels is convinced that those too will find their way to mobiles that will gradually become more like laptops and less like phones.

In other words, the small screen and advanced technologies are about to become very dominant in our lives. To those afraid of new technologies, there’s also good news in this prediction. The industrial designers will make sure that even users not accustomed to high-tech will receive a friendly interface, without complicated and unnecessary applications, and might even enjoy it.

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