China calling: Inside Nokia’s Research Centre in Beijing

February 16, 2012

One of Nokia’s top researchers in Beijing explains how innovations in China are influencing the next generation of mobile technology around the world.

China has to be the largest, fastest growing, mobile market in the world – and perhaps the most challenging.

“It’s quite different,” says Ying Liu, who leads a research team of seven looking at developing local UI and user experiences at the Nokia Research Centre (NRC) in Beijing. In China local users want to get local services. It’s really difficult to sell any kind of mobile phone without local applications.”

Ying joined Nokia 11 years ago, and completed a PhD on interactive technologies in Finland. Now she’s based at NRC Beijing in one of the city’s south eastern suburbs.

“To begin we look at user experiences, getting an understanding of user problems and design in the local areas – and then we propose technical solutions. If we have ideas specific to a location we probably develop relevant technology and produce a working prototype.”

In 2009 Ying worked on a prototype for a Chinese job hunting service.
“China has huge numbers of migrant workers, perhaps as many as 225 million people, and a study we looked at from 2006 showed that they use mobile phones as the main way of communicating with families back in rural areas, and conducting their lives. They also face a lot of challenges, though; the cities are unfamiliar to them, and they haven’t got the necessary skills to get proper jobs.”

The team at the NRC conducted a successful pilot project to develop a job hunting and skills app.

“We learned a lot about technology and users from that project,” Ying says. “The pilot worked by increasing the relevance of job content to individuals. The recommendations algorithm we developed really worked, and we transferred that knowledge to other operating units. We also developed a recommendation engine that matched locally relevant content with user profiles.”

Equally important, Ying says, was the information the team collated about local users: “We understood how people would use a service, and how mobile internet technology would work in that scenario.

“For example we learned that there are important differences between age groups.

“Younger people are really good at using browsers, like the Nokia Browser. Older people like services that they can access through native applications, and tend to be more reluctant to open a browser.”

In China, Ying says, people expect to buy phones with local apps and content.

“People expect QQ, the local messaging and social network with more than 650 million users. That is considered essential. There are also a lot of customer-to-customer services – like, a sort of eBay where people buy anything and everything from other people. And microblogs are also a huge phenomena in China.”

How people use and access their devices is also very different. “Text entry is totally different. A lot of people don’t know how to input text using a QWERTY keyboard so hand writing recognition where people use a stylus or their finger is really important.”

Ying’s team is currently working on new finger-based technology where people can write characters continuously on a touchscreen. “It will be the most advanced handwriting recognition method on the market.”

Ying believes their research on text inputting and keyboards can also be applied to QWERTY keyboards to make inputting faster and better in English, and other languages, too.

New projects connected to social networking, and location services are also planned.

Nokia had “golden years,” in China Ying says, and still has a reputation for making durable, high quality products. The kind of in-depth work on user knowledge and innovation that’s being conducted at NRC Beijing will be crucial in making sure that Nokia continues to be competitive in one of the most demanding markets in the world: “We need more innovation, and more integration of that innovation into products.”

This article was for Conversations by Nokia and Republic Publishing

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