Exploratory User Research to Inform and Inspire Innovation Frontiers: Nokia’s legacy

By | May 24, 2021

Swedberg (2020) offers a glimpse of the legacy of an exploratory approach to research. The reasons for using such an approach, based on his analysis, are:

  1. The empirical situation makes it necessary to use an exploratory approach. Swedberg (2020) gives the example of a study conducted in 1937 by Lazarsfeld & Stouffer on the effects of the Great Depression on families, where they state it was difficult for them to get good data because by the time of their study, the most dramatic downturn of the business cycle was already over, thus necessitating an exploratory study.
  2. When existing facts are contradictory or fragmentary in nature. The example used by Swedburg (2020) is James Coleman’s study (1958) of nationalism in Nigeria.
  3. A general lack of knowledge about some topic that was important to study. (Swedberg, 2020)
  4. And for generating new hypothesis, even if the social phenomenon had already been studied quite a bit. Paraphrasing Swedberg (2020) who quotes Merton extensively to support this reason, in hypothesis-generating exploratory studies, the language used signals to the reader that the hypothesis are tentative; and, that the researcher was justified in moving ahead, albeit with less than stellar facts. And, that even if new hypotheses were generated, they could not be verified within the scope of the initial explorations.

While Swedberg’s introduction to exploratory research (2020; 2018) is situated in the discipline of sociology, his lucid tracing of the historical legacy of methodological developments, as well as mentions of methodological innovations (eg. snowball sampling) traced to such explorations, clearly shows the disciplinary relationship to the type of research conducted at the initial phases (“design before design”) of the human centered process for design and innovation. Here, Swedberg (2020) quotes Gouldner & Peterson (1962) to make his point that methodology can be flexible and adaptable to context, it was discovery of the novel that exploratory approaches sought:

“we have deliberately sought to devise and place ourselves within a ‘context of discovery’ rather than a ‘context of proof'” (Gouldner & Peterson 1962:63)

In recent years, the concept of an exploratory approach focusing on discovery to inspire and inform (Chipchase, numerous 2005-2008) design and innovation has often been conflated with the term discovery driven innovation in the popular press, but as the literature on the latter (McGrath & MacMillan, 1995; McGrath, 2010) shows, the approach recommended for discovery is based on learning from experimentation and iteration (McGrath and McManus, 2020) – often called the ‘spaghetti on the wall’ approach by practitioners and faculty in methods based innovation planning and design (numerous examples from faculty meetings whilst working as Director of Graduate Admissions at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology) as there are no bounds to the solution space prior to starting iteration or experimentation.

I find myself writing this because there is no literature introducing the theoretical background and thus, the methodology, for the type of discovery research that companies like Nokia used to conduct (Blom, Chipchase, & Lehikoinen, 2005) to inspire and inform the design of novel products and services. I first came across the term exploratory user research, as opposed to the more common user research, in Jan Chipchase’s blog during his heyday (eg. Chipchase, 2007), and could find no citations or literature to reference it for my own grant funded study in 2008-2009. I resorted to using a link extracted in 2009 to then Nokia Design Researcher Younghee Jung’s blog (Jung, 2008, defunct, see wayback machine).

For the design research team in Nokia (Chipchase & Steinhardt, 2013; Younghee Jung, 2009) exploratory user research meant conducting primary fieldwork in new and unknown markets – often those opening up to mobile telephony – where they traveled around documenting observations, conducting camera studies, interviewing people, spending a ‘day in the life’ etc, all of which are derived from ethnography, though some are mentioned by Swedberg (2020).

As Ichikawa, Chipchase & Grignani, (2005) describe in their Method section in detail, they had to figure out ways to identify the users to be interviewed through what has come to be known as ‘guerrilla interviews’ within practice in real time on the streets of New York, Helsinki, and Milan. They cite an approach (Tamminen, Oulasvirta, Toiskallio,  & Kankainen, 2004) to their study rather than cite any literature on exploratory user research for their methodology, instead choosing to explicate the various methods used for discovery. Tamminen et al (2004) describe their approach as follows:

The data was gathered by ethnographic participant observation and analysed from an ethnomethodological standpoint [13, 14]. Ethnomethodology is interested in how people make sense of their social world, on how everyday life gets ‘‘done’’ with the help of different trivial actions and resources that are available to people in a given situation.

Their citations for the ethnomethodological standpoint are Garfinkel (1967) and Wolcott (1995). This approach is also from sociology, as are Swedberg’s (2020) examples of exploratory studies, but its limited by its nature as a fundamentally descriptive discipline which does not engage in the explanation or evaluation of the particular social order undertaken as a topic of study.

That is, while useful for those looking to inspire the design of mobile phones in the early days, it is by itself insufficient for generating hypotheses for contexts where data collection might always be inadequate or insufficient, and where there is little prior knowledge of the subject matter.

It is on the point of methodology, or rather the methods used, that exploratory user research for discovery and to inform and inspire design and innovation diverges from Swedberg’s methodological arguments (Swedberg,2020) which are based on contemporary thinking within the discipline of sociology. After all, the goals for the disciplines are quite different even if the methods used are often the same. Worth noting, is the fact that sociology is one of the preferred first degrees for graduate study in human centered design research methods and in such design firms (Bhan, 2004).

On the other hand, the ethnomethodological approach still serves the purpose of exploratory user research conducted to provide insights for design and innovation based on Swedberg’s (2020) own summarization:

An exploratory study can essentially be carried out for two different purposes. The first is to increase the knowledge of a topic that is little known but needs to be better known. The second is to generate new and interesting hypotheses about a topic that is already known. (Swedberg, 2020)

In my own experience of conducting exploratory user research to inform design and innovation, I began with the first purpose in mind, but over the years of focusing on the same context and conditions, I have progressed to  projects designed for the latter purpose. I would say that my hypotheses have been generated in the space between projects rather than as their direct outcome. Stebbins (2001) guiding precept serves to describe my approach:

To understand well any phenomenon, it is necessary to start by looking at it in broad, nonspecialized terms. In other words, first observe the woods, then study its individual trees.

And, his following sentences serve to explain my own rationale for starting out on this path of figuring out how to use elements of the design process, such as exploratory user research, to figure out a way to understand what seemed to me to be inherent conflicts between problem framing and solution development for low income populations.

The modern tendency to rely on formulas inverts this precept, causing no small number of people to get lost in the forest while also contributing to the intractable problems of incomplete explanation of and faulty prediction about social life. (Stebbins, 2001)

source: Sam Enoka

The illustrations above clearly show when and why exploratory user research is required in design, and are from a brief article by Sam Enoka that I found on the practitioner oriented site UX collective. Here, the problem space can be considered that which drives the design process, if one takes the view of design as a problem solving approach. On the other hand, if one considers design as sensemaking (Krippendorf, Verganti) then the ‘magical research bridge’ in Enoka’s diagram (above right) provides the information for sensemaking of how things work in that local context, before one can even identify the innovation opportunity for that operating environment and the target audience therein, much less frame the problem space for the product development team.

From my perspective, Enoka’s methodological choices and brief outline leave much to be desired but given that so much of user research these days relates to the all encompassing digital sphere where data flows are easily available for analysis, perhaps these skills have begun to atrophy?

Whilst recent news implies that remote user research across socio-economic and continental barriers is possible, how much of this can scale, as an approach, for those without the legacy of local field experience who are able to contextualize fresh insights against their experiential knowledge base?

There’s a conversation to be had around the role of exploratory user research in novel operating conditions such as the high growth, frontier markets that Nokia’s researchers experienced in the first decade of this century, and how that informs a holistic approach to innovation that goes beyond artefacts and takes local economic systems into consideration. I will continue posting and writing on this theme.


Blom, J., Chipchase, J., & Lehikoinen, J. (2005). Contextual and cultural challenges for user mobility research. Communications of the ACM, 48(7), 37-41.

Chipchase, J., (TEDTalk, 2997), Our phones, ourselves: The anthropology of mobile phones, TED2007

Chipchase, J., & Steinhardt, S. (2013). Hidden in plain sight: how to create extraordinary products for tomorrow’s customers. Harper Collins.

Garfinkel H (1967) Studies in ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall, New Jersey

Ichikawa, F., Chipchase, J., & Grignani, R. (2005). Where’s the phone? A study of mobile phone location in public spaces.

Jung, Y., (Nov. 2008) http://younghee.com/2008/11/01/exploring-an-exploratory-design-research-method-nokia-open-studio/

McGrath, R., & McManus, R. (2020). Discovery-Driven. Harvard Business Review.

McGrath, R. G. (2010). Business models: A discovery driven approach. Long range planning, 43(2-3), 247-261.

McGrath, R. G., & MacMillan, I. C. (1995). Discovery driven planning. Philadelphia, PA: Wharton School, Snider Entrepreneurial Center.

Montangero, S., Vittone, F., Olderbak, S., & Wilhelm, O. (2018). Exploration of experimental design and statistical methods using the stick‐on‐the‐wall spaghetti rule. Teaching Statistics, 40(2), 40-45.

Stebbins, R. A. (2001). Exploratory research in the social sciences (Vol. 48). Sage.

Stebbins, R. A. (1997). Exploratory research as an antidote to theoretical stagnation in leisure studies. Loisir et Société/Society and Leisure, 20(2), 421-434.

Swedberg, R. (2020). Exploratory research. In Elman, C., Gerring, J., & Mahoney, J. (Eds.) The production of knowledge: Enhancing progress in social science, Cambridge University Press. 17-41.

Swedberg, R. (2018). On the uses of exploratory research and exploratory studies in social science. In Elman, C., Gerring, J., & Mahoney, J. (Eds.) The Production of Knowledge: Enhancing Progress in Social Science. Cambridge University Press.

Tamminen, S., Oulasvirta, A., Toiskallio, K., & Kankainen, A. (2004). Understanding mobile contexts. Personal and ubiquitous computing, 8(2), 135-143.

Wolcott H (1995) The art of fieldwork. AltaMira Press, WalnutCreek

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