Belinda Stening, Curve editor, was one of them. While she was there she spoke to Stefano Marzano, Philips CEO and chief creative director, about his vision.
The first Philips Simplicity Event was launched in 2005 in Paris as a way of demonstrating to the media, the design industry and Philips’ associated partners how designers at Philips are exploring design solutions for people.
The event then travelled on to Amsterdam and New York in 2005, to London in 2006 and now in 2007 to Hong Kong.
Perhaps it was the mood lighting but, despite the minimalist vibe, the event fostered an overwhelming empathy with people and the way they feel and want to live. Stefano Marzano, sitting comfortably in a room furnished with white leather lounges arranged in an intimate circle, began by explaining how he came to draw up a manifesto for what needed to be done at Philips.
“In 1992 I presented a keynote speech called ‘Flying over Las Vegas’,” Marzano said. “In it, I pointed out that the increasing complexity of life and its accelerating pace would lead to a demand for greater simplicity, as well as a better balance between various parts of our lives, and between us and the environment.”
“The views expressed in that speech continue to drive our creativity and focus. They create relevant and meaningful solutions based on advanced, easy-to-use technologies – always with a focus on people.”
The Simplicity design approach consists of three major steps, developed by Philips over the last fifteen years.
“First, we research users and future trends so that we can identify meaningful and relevant solutions that make sense for people,” he explained. “We then filter this information by looking at it through a Philips lens.”
“Second, we define what the product should and should not do – and how simple and pleasurable its interface should be – by designing an experience that offers new forms of interaction between people (gestures) and products (responses).
“Third, we strive for a simple and iconic ‘look and feel’ to ensure a positive response when people first encounter the solution, as this greatly influences their initial perception and expectations.”
According to Marzano, Simplicity is all about creating role models for the future, by promising the quality of life that people seek.
“In the Simplicity Event collection we are exploring solutions that enable people to lead a healthy lifestyle. We design the ‘experience’ of the solution and find new forms of interaction between people and products.
“In this collection we are focusing on gesture and touching, as they are natural ways for people to interact with their environment. It is much easier to learn and remember a few simple gestures than to cope with complex keypads and menus.”
The Simplicity Event’s large white space housed a number of separate spaces, like stages, where product concepts were demonstrated by actors performing the roles of people in their homes. The white environment – like a different world with its own sound and feel – had temporary walls that moved aside to transform the space into conceptual visions of the future.
Here you could stand in ‘private’ inner spaces of people’s homes, as the occupants used product concepts in their bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens.
“Enabling people to experience design concepts is essential in successful Simplicityled design. Too often a concept is an idea described in words or sketched on a piece of paper. It has no form. You can’t pick it up, listen to it or watch it work.
"It’s just an idea. And most of the people who come across it in that form won’t be interested in it at all.
“But if a concept is realised as an ‘experiential demonstrator’ – that is, made into a tangible object that responds to human gestures – it can trigger an emotional reaction and grab the attention of any audience, be it businesspeople, opinion leaders, the press or potential consumers.
“This is why concepts given physical form can become powerful tools for illustrating and energising strategic marketing plans geared to innovation. They’re the best method for clearly communicating the benefits of a product concept and allowing the audience to react.”
The idea of creating products for ‘personas’ based on reallife characters has its roots in Marzano’s childhood.
“When I was a boy, I learned a great lesson from my grandfather, who was a tailor in a small town in Italy. Customers would come to his atelier when they needed a new suit: he would talk to them, show them different fabrics and styles, and try, through structured dialogue, to piece together the picture that was in their heads,” he recalled.
“As I played under his cutting table, I heard how he got to know them, understanding their hopes and the context in which they lived. Later, when the customers returned to try on the finished suit, I saw how delighted they were with the result. It taught me that getting into your customer’s mind can help you meet and exceed their expectations.”
“Traditional techniques for investigating people fall short in a number of respects. In the first place, they are often too general and miss some of the fine detail that can be indicative of underlying values.
"They also tend to focus on product use and buying behaviour. But in order to provide solutions, we have to understand the factors that give rise to people’s needs at a much earlier stage.”
Marzano also thinks that conventional research methods are limited because they tend to deal with people in isolation and in just one context (for example, at work or while using software), even though consumers are clearly affected by the people around them and by their various environments.
“Much of our own work at Philips Design over the past fifteen years has been aimed at trying to overcome these shortcomings. We introduced a research-based and people-focused approach to design, working in multi-disciplinary teams that combine traditional design skills with insights from psychologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, sociologists and trends researchers.
"We also developed the technique used in our many visionary ‘future’ projects: generating innovative future product concepts based on our people research and our understanding of emerging technologies, and then eliciting feedback and stimulating debate by exhibiting realistic mock-ups.”
Marzano sees a necessity to look beyond stereotypes and target groups, and to see people not just in their physical setting but also in their social setting.
“Developing an all-round picture is particularly important if you want to use the information not only to design better products and solutions, but also to plan strategies for the future direction of the company. For such purposes, you need rich, dynamic data that you can place in the context of people’s daily lives.”
But the fact that everyone is different, and has different ideas about what they want, makes this research a daunting task.
“Meaningfulness, relevance and simplicity are ultimately, like beauty, in the eye – or rather, mind – of the beholder. What one person considers significant may not even be noticed by another. And what one person experiences as simple may seem overly complex to someone else.
"Certainly, there will be commonalities, based on the constraints imposed on us by human cognitive and physiological structures, or arising from similarities of age, culture and lifestyle. But many more perceptions will depend on people’s individual mental make-up.”
Faced with the impossibility of investigating the needs, wishes and perceptions of everyone, in 2003 Philips started a project focusing on real individuals, rather than groups or market segments.
Participatory or co-research techniques (such as those developed within applied anthropology and ethnography), and the techniques of contextual inquiry (as often used in software design), were part of the methodology.
“In co-research, people are treated as participants in the research and not just as passive objects of observation. We invited a number of people (within a demographically defined target group) to conduct research into their own lives. In an initial phase, they were asked to do some ‘homework’ in preparation.
"The aim was to gather information, to make people more aware of their own behaviour, and to help them visualise abstract or vague concepts and issues. They were given two attractive booklets. One contained creative and fun-to-do tasks (applying stickers to things they liked to buy, taking photos of their surroundings or keeping video or audio diaries).
"The other booklet contained a questionnaire designed to elicit information about values, preferences and activities.
“Ten days later, participants talked to researchers in face-to-face, in-depth interviews. Researchers observed them in their surroundings, and also talked with them in joint sessions with friends and family. All these sessions took the form of open conversations (though guided by the researcher when necessary), in which people were free to talk about their experiences.
"They were invited to enact activities (for example, what they did when they came in after doing the shopping), or to give a guided tour of their home. Such activities were recorded on video. This yielded rich information both on the level of values, and also on the practical level of solutions.
"For example, we were able to see – and people were able to verbalise – what they found difficult, awkward or inconvenient, and what they found (or said they would find) handy, easy and pleasurable.”
Out of this research grew a tool based on the concept of the ‘persona’, originally used in software development.
“A persona in that sense is a tangible and structured representation of information about a fictional person who wishes to accomplish a particular task, usually at work, by using, say, a software application,” explained Marzano.
“This is then used by designers and engineers to guide their work. Our adaptation of this concept differed from this usage in that our personas were based on real people, not invented people.”
“Our personas consist of three main components: background information (data, quoted opinions, descriptions); key values (character traits); and domain-specific information (information about the individual’s home environment). To represent this information in a consistent way, we developed a template for a persona data sheet.
"A typical data sheet shows a photograph of the individual in a normal setting; a diary (written in the first person) describing aspects of the person’s life and surroundings; a short question-and-answer interview; and an article about the individual, combining analysis and diary-style quotes. These basic elements can be supplemented by a mood board, photographs or keywords.
“The use of personas in this format has a number of benefits, not only for developing new concepts for products and systems in the short term, but also for projecting developments in the long term. With such a clear, concise summary of the research findings to hand, designers are better able to understand them and take account of them in their work.
"They can refer to the persona continually during the development and design process, and the persona can also facilitate cross-fertilisation between researchers and designers. Validation of the proposed concept becomes more accurate, too, since the individual on whom the persona is based can be asked to give feedback, and designers can see their propositions in context earlier.
"With respect to marketing, personas can also be used to ensure that briefings to agencies and others are clear and based on a shared understanding of the target group. Finally, personas based both on existing people and emerging trends, can help inject greater realism into designers’ long-term scenarios and facilitate validation by futurologists and other trends experts.”
The Hong Kong event highlighted concept designs that help people maintain a healthy lifestyle. The concepts for this theme drew on fourteen personas, ranging from young children to people over fifty, and representing a wide geographical spread.
The personas were brought to life by actors, who talked to the audience about their life and what they are looking for. This gave viewers an immediate connection with the product concepts on display.
The personas included:
• A married couple in their mid-thirties who live in a big city in Latin America and have office jobs. They know they should drink more water, but they don’t. The husband is trying to keep his weight down. The couple would like a baby and the wife needs to monitor her fertility.
• A mother in her mid-thirties and her two daughters (one a teenager, the other a preschooler) who live in England. The mother is interested in ways to get her younger daughter off to sleep; her older daughter likes taking and sharing digital photos.
• A Scandinavian couple in their early fifties and their teenage daughter. The parents lead busy working lives, and feel a need for bodily relaxation, while their daughter experiences tiredness in the Nordic summers and winters.
• A Singaporean father in his early forties who needs to do more physical exercise but isn’t too keen. His young daughter and her friend need to spend less time playing computer games and watching TV.
• A young Italian couple who are real home birds and like creating different inspiring ambiences in the house to suit the changing moods of the occasion.
In keeping with the healthy-lifestyle theme, the design team explored simple ways of utilising modern technology to relax, stay healthy or keep in touch with loved ones.
“Whether it’s a portable light that re-energises and refreshes, a magical ‘brush’ that lets kids paint with light on any surface, a photo frame that transmits pictures to friends and family, or a filter that purifies and mineralises tap water, the emphasis is on finding natural and intuitive ways to integrate technologies that make sense in people’s lives,” Marzano explained.
The focus on well-being stems from Marzano’s belief that health maintenance is already a central pre-occupation worldwide, set to become a more articulated need in the future.
“We now know that seventy-five per cent of the variables that control our health and longevity are determined by our lifestyles, by what we eat, drink and do in daily life,” Marzano said.
“This means that living a long and productive life is easily within most people’s grasp, if only we would take responsibility for adopting a healthy lifestyle. And it may well be that this becomes less a choice than a necessity.”
“There will be a far greater emphasis on personal autonomy in preventing disease by making lifestyle choices, selecting courses of preventive medicine, and via constant self-monitoring.”
But personas, themes and predictions are just the start of Marzano’s journey towards Simplicity, a path that is leading the way.
“Moving from such broad research to a finished collection of concepts for the coming three to five years requires a continuous, informed decision-making process. It is not about painting every possibility for every possible situation; it is about identifying the thematic directions and selecting the relevant solutions that will ‘make sense’ to people in a preferred future.”