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When I studied product design as a student, I loved the combination of thinking about people and how they interact with technology. One of things that makes product or industrial designers distinct from engineers and other technologists is that they don’t start with what the technology can do, but with what people want (or moreimportantly I suppose, what people need).

When I studied product design as a student, I loved the combination of thinking about people and how they interact with technology. One of things that makes product or industrial designers distinct from engineers and other technologists is that they don’t start with what the technology can do, but with what people want (or moreimportantly I suppose, what people need).

But as a design student it was a constant temptation to get side-tracked by some new material or mechanism or electronic component that you wanted to experiment with. Having that new widget at the centre of your creation inevitably left the user side-lined in the final design. It doesn’t really matter as a student, but the same thing happens in the real world too, resulting in a proliferation of products that focus more on finding applications for intriguing technologies rather than putting the needs of the user on the centre stage.

I was reminded of this earlier in the week, at a discussion (with a variety of academic researchers and business people) led by the Foresight Horizon Scanning Centre. We were gathered together to discus what kinds of “technology” (primarily intelligent systems) would be most important in 2025. Towards the end of the day, a few people suggested that our imaginations had followed somewhat predictable lines, such as a world filled with sensors that give people optical and haptic feedback forming an “augmented reality” to take one example close to the heart of the geeky (mostly male) delegates.

Many of the attendees came from the slightly more technical end of the spectrum, but I did have a fleeting conversation with an academic with a more arts-led perspective who also noted the lack of user-centredness in our futures discussion. Presumably the discussion was not too representative of the industry view though, as it was refreshing to read last week's announcement from Nokia of a new product, a dynamo powered mobile phone charger for the most ubiquitous mode of transport, a bicycle. Recently launched in Kenya (where it will cost 15 euros), it will give about half an hour of talk time from a 10 minute ride.

While Nokia’s product is user-centred design, it’s also another example of a theme picked up by The Economist in a special report on innovation in emerging markets, one of which expounded the refreshing idea of frugal innovation: “[General Electric and Tata Consultancy Services are] taking the needs of poor consumers as a starting point and working backwards. Instead of adding ever more bells and whistles, they strip the products down to their bare essentials”. Not necessarily containing last year’s technology, such frugal innovations include mobile phones that can connect televisions to the internet (both of which are ubiquitous, unlike internet-enabled personal computers) and hand-held electrocardiograms that reduce the cost of an ECG test (cardiovascular disease kills 5m Indians each year) from $2000 to $1.

It’s easy to see how putting the user at the centre in emerging markets, where prices are low and profit per unit is squeezed, would result in frugal innovation, but I wonder whether fragile economic times will encourage more companies to offer more "frugal" products in well-established markets. Does anyone have any examples?

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