I walked out of Verizon yesterday having just ordered the Motorola Droid X. I was pretty excited to try it out, having waited for Verizon to get something I wanted.

“You know what was conspicuously missing?” my husband said as we walked out of the store.

“Nokia!” we said together.

Where is Nokia in the new wave of cool mobile phones? They had the market, the reliability, cell phone models with large screens, integrated applications, SMS, and the first powerful ring tone store. They had cameras, web surfing, and music. So they had the basis to leap into this market—to create it. But Nokia was not on the shelf.

Juhani Risku, an ex-Nokia executive, was recently interviewed by Andrew Orlowsky of The Register, who posted an intriguing and revealing article. Risku’s recent book about his time at Nokia is a minor sensation in his native Finland, and contains a sweeping diagnosis of Nokia’s perceived innovative malaise.  He offers some radical suggestions for a new Nokia, one that can keep up with the Googles and Apples of the world in terms of groundbreaking products and services. Throughout the article Risku’s pain at Nokia’s malaise and his anger at their non-performance runs deep.

The inability to ship is not unique to Nokia—as I wrote in Corporate Identity and Innovation: “Innovation is not just, or even primarily, about technology leaps—or user experience leaps—or new category definitions. Innovation is about corporate identity and corporate skill.”

Nokia was a valued client of ours some years ago. We loved the people and the place and the energy. We introduced Contextual Design to that organization, training probably 100 people in how to do the process. We stopped doing direct work with product designers in Nokia in 2001, about the time Risku came to the company.

Any time people have great hopes for their company, they look around for causes when the company seems to stumble. But I must say, I was surprised to find myself listed as a leading cause:

Another feature of the modern Nokia bureaucracy, that wasn’t present 15 years ago, is the obsession with data gathering.… There is a philosophy called Contextual Design, every designer at Nokia has been trained in it by the guru Karen Holtzblatt. Everybody has attended her courses and got her very expensive book signed. The idea is that you ask the users what they are doing, then design something. If you think about Apple, they don’t ask anybody. The idea of users as designers is a catastrophe!

Wow! I didn’t know that I trained so many people or that I was even a minor contributor to Nokia’s problems! If we at InContext (and others in our field) affected designers around the world to understand the lives of their customers,  what they do, their intents, their motives, the drivers of their joy, delight and frustration—and armed with that knowledge, to create great products—I think that’s great!

Why? Because, as Risku later says, “We have to rely on what the desires of users are and trust the designers.”

Yes, this is the core of the Contextual Design philosophy—understand users in order to find out their fundamental intents, desires, and drivers. But these are invisible to the users—so the only way to glean them is to go out in the field and talk with people in the context of their real life.

I have written repeatedly about this core philosophyin our book and in the article Don’t Ask Your Customer. Yes, innovation and requirements do not come from asking the customers anything.  Customers will never reliably tell you what to make or build. If we listen to their feature requests and implement them, we will probably be implementing a tiny fix to an annoyance in our product or adding a feature that a competitor has. But we will not create a new wave in the industry.

Gathering field data does not involve asking customers what they need or want or do. But it is sometimes hard to get developers, designers, UCD professionals, managers, and C-level executives to understand the difference. Field data does not mean asking questions of people and looking for answers in their words.  Field data-driven design means learning what is happening in people’s lives and experiences and then using that knowledge to invent something of value.

I don’t agree with Risku when he says about designing from field data: “It’s only relevant to evolutionary products, it’s not relevant to blue-sky products. When you have a blue-sky product, there are no users, and so there are no users’ opinions.”

But I do agree that companies should not design from user opinion.

Design and innovation emanate from a dialogue between the inventor and the world into which the invention will be placed. Design springs from the heart of inventors deeply immersed in knowledge of the customers’ lives and the technology that might transform it. Contextual Design—and field data gathering—creates that immersive experience. The solution comes from dipping the inventors into that data and letting them go.

Risku lists many, many ideas that were never shipped by Nokia—evidence enough that immersing designers in field data generated lots of ideas.  Unfortunately Nokia the organization could not find a way to ship them.

I share Risku’s pain.