In at least one sense, Microsoft and Nokia seem like perfect partners. Former Nokia design leader Adam Greenfield explained on his personal blog this weekend why the company has had such trouble innovating, and the problems he describes sound a lot like the big-company problems faced by Microsoft over the last decade.Greenfield quit to start his own small design company, Urbanscale, in 2010. Here’s what he thinks is wrong with Nokia:
- Too many layers of bureaucracy. Greenfield explains that Nokia is too big to move fast because every project has to get sign-off from multiple people at different levels of the organisation.
- Blockbusters are required. If a project can’t appeal to tens of millions of users, Nokia doesn’t put a lot of resources into it. This tends to close down innovation that might eventually become a great business.
- Focus on scale rather than design. Nokia has a long history in commodities: timber, rubber boots, and now cell phones. Nokia’s engineers focus on keeping costs low, and they have great expertise in issues like supply chain. Unfortunately, this focus is exactly the opposite of what Nokia needs in the current smartphone market: the ability to create great end-user experiences.
- Over-engineering. Related to the last point, Greenfield gives a great example of a research project into near-field communication (NFC) that let users to tap a vending machine to buy a product — but first they had to approve the purchase by replying to a text message. It worked perfectly, but the engineers worried too much about weird corner case — a stolen cell phone being used to buy products against the owner’s will — and the resulting design was alienating instead of delightful.
Microsoft has all of these traits: workers often complain about endless meetings and bureaucratic infighting, new products have to have billion-dollar potential before Microsoft puts serious resources into them, and products like Office are designed to provide every imaginable feature to every user but don’t take the overall end-to-end user experience into account.
Microsoft has occasionally broken these trends: it has various research groups that focus on innovation and aren’t required to show immediate return on investment, and some of its more recent products like Kinect and Windows Phone 7 seem designed with the user in mind first.
Still, it’s tough for companies to focus on both scale and innovation. Both Nokia and Microsoft have been geared toward scale.