This is how a Helsingin Sanomat journalist tried to save Nokia

Nokia E51.
Nokia E51. Kuva: handout

A HS journalist got a new telephone five years ago, but did not know how to use it. He e-mailed this letter to Nokia. How did Nokia respond?

Dear Nokia:


Dear Nokia:

This is a letter for a person who is responsible for designing Nokia telephones. I could not find any place on the Nokia website for giving feedback on Nokia products. There actually was a possibility to ask questions, but this is more of an answer than a question.

I am sending this letter to Nokia Press Services because I am familiar with the place. While I am a journalist by profession, I am writing this as a private individual. I hope that you will forward my letter to whomever you feel might be the best recipient. However, it would be best if you would frame this and hang it on the wall of your lobby so that every Nokia employee could see this each morning when they come to work.

Nokia’s dazzling success began about 20 years ago when mobile telephones became commonplace. The mobile telephone is a technological innovation. This means that some people (a very small proportion of them) were naturally interested. Another part (a very large proportion) had misgivings.

The misgivings were unfounded, as Nokia’s telephones were very easy to use. Everyone learned to use them right away, and no manuals were needed. To call, press the green handset symbol, and to hang up, press the red one. Nokia’s telephones in particular were known for their ease of use. Nokia became the overwhelming market leader.

My employer bought me my first mobile phone in 1996. It was handy and durable, but it broke down in 2001, at which time I was given my second mobile phone. It had new functions, and even the internet. However, I quickly learned to use this new telephone.

My second mobile phone broke last week and my employer bought me the third mobile phone that I have ever had in my life. It has been the source of some bewilderment for a week now. At first I did not even know how to make calls without consulting the manual, and I still understand very little of it.

The problem is that about six months ago a friend of mine at work showed me a device manufactured by Apple called the iPod Touch. It was love at first sight. I wanted an iPod, and that device would also give me convenient access to the internet and much more. I ordered my own iPod touch, turned it on, and knew immediately how to use it. I have been using the device on a daily basis for over six months now, without giving any thought to the manuals. The logic of the device opens up right away. It is no wonder that the device is a huge global success.

My new Nokia telephone model is called the E 51. Unfortunately the phone has not been designed to make it easy for just anybody to learn to use it.

In fact, I get the feeling that it was designed as if its main purpose all along would be to advertise itself to telephone technology enthusiasts. All kinds of amazing functions are promoted on the display, but since I do not understand what the names mean, my guess is that I will never use them.

Here is an example: the first thing that nearly every user of a telephone wants to do is to change the ringtone; so do I, but how do I do it? While fiddling around with the new phone I noticed that it has a key with the picture of a house on it. Pressing it opens up the main menu. At this point I was supposed to understand which one of the keys is for the ringtones. The options are messaging, office, log, media, tools, installations, connectivity, download, address book, web, calendar, and instructions.

The names were not much help, so I tried each of them one at a time. With each of them, new choices opened up, but none of them appeared to offer a way to change a ring tone. Therefore, I tried to seek advice from instructions, but they only gave instructions on the installation of 3D ringtones. I did not want any of those, because I do not even know what they mean.

Finally I asked for help from a friend who is into technology. It turned out that I should have known at the outset that I should select tools, and from there go to settings and from there to general, and from there to personalisation, and there, finally I would finally find what I had been looking for: Tones. I was therefore expected to make five discerning choices in a downward hierarchy before doing something with my telephone that is the first thing that every user of a new telephone wants to do.

Initially I had a choice of 12 keys. Assuming that beneath each of the keys – on each hierarchical level – there is an average of 10 new keys, the changing of the ringtone was hidden at a hierarchical level where 120 000 different choices are possible. Consequently, in a random search I would have had a 1/120 000 chance to find the right one. And the search would have been virtually haphazard, because the names of the keys were of little help.

This just cannot be. Telephones – like all other devices – need to be designed on the terms of the simplest user. All of the most important functions need to be offered at the first hierarchical level, or at the very latest at the second, and they need to be found on the basis of the name of the key using ordinary common sense. The more sophisticated and more special features need to be placed at the lower hierarchical levels. People who use them are technology enthusiasts and are quite capable of finding them there.

And then there is another, different example: I send a text message, which is something that I do dozens of times every day. First, I press messages, then I select create message, and then I need to choose from among four options: text message, multimedia message, audio message, or e-mail. So each time, dozens of times a day in the years that follow, I am bothered by this extra message, and each time I give the same answer.

I would guess that this is the case with others. My guess is that out of every 1 000 messages sent, 999 are ordinary text messages. It is as if my telephone had not been designed in such a way that it would make it as easy as possible to do what I am doing with it all the time, and that instead, the telephone is constantly promoting all of the amazing things that I could do with it.

A telephone is mostly used for making calls and sending text messages. It would be vitally important for these features to be designed so that the user can perform the tasks with as button pressing as possible – in other words, quickly.

Summary: By putting a telephone like the E 51 onto the market, Nokia has squandered its most important legacies: that of making telephones so that they are easy to use. This will cause Nokia some grief.

Yours in friendship and concern,

Lauri Malkavaara

(This letter was sent to Nokia on August 18, 2008.)

So what happened then?

I wrote the quite self-confident and fast-paced letter above in my office five years ago on the evening of August 18, 2008.

When I finished the letter, I sent it right away to Nokia’s e-mail address.
The next day my telephone rang, and on the following days it rang again several times.

What happened was exactly what I had secretly hoped would happen: my letter had started to be passed around inside Nokia. But another thing happened, which I had not hoped for at all: I started getting calls from Nokia bosses who wanted to explain Nokia’s strategy to me.

I told them all that I had sent the letter as a private individual, and that there was no point in wasting time on me, even though I was a journalist for Helsingin Sanomat. I do not write about Nokia. I had already said my piece in the letter.

One of the bosses was tenacious. He wanted to meet with me, and we agreed that he would come to Sanoma House as my guest.

In the reception area a polite and intelligent gentleman was waiting for me. We went down to a conference room.

The manager started to brief me on the backgrounds of Nokia’s strategy. The idea was that people are different, and therefore, they need different kinds of telephones.
I became agitated: “The kind of person who wants to use a bad telephone does not exist”, I said.

This sparked an argument. I explained in different ways how dreadful my new telephone was, and the manager spoke in its defence.

All of a sudden he went silent. He looked directly in my eyes and said: “This conversation is in confidence, isn’t it?”

I assured him that it was.

He continued:

“I agree completely with everything that you wrote in your letter and with what you have said now.”

I was astounded.

“I agree completely with you and I want to apologise on behalf of Nokia for producing a bad telephone for you.”

Then the manager started to tell about how a top-secret project had been launched at Nokia for the design of a completely new operating system. It would result in new kinds of telephones. They would be easy to use and they would change everything.

I met the same manager again a few years later.

Then I found out that he had been talking about the Meego. However, the project made slow progress, and finally the new CEO Stephen Elop shelved it completely.

He also told me that when the iPhones came out in the United States in the summer of 2007, the situation was followed at Nokia with keen interest. A large number of iPhones were immediately delivered to Nokia’s head offices in Espoo by courier.

The manager took his own iPhone home that same evening. He studied it so enthusiastically that it caught the interest of his four-year-old daughter.
As an experiment, he gave the telephone to his daughter, and she learned to use it immediately.

In the evening as the parents were going to bed, the drowsy four-year-old appeared at their bedroom door with a question: “Can I take that magic telephone and put it under my pillow tonight?”

It was at that was the moment that the Nokia executive understood that his company was in trouble.

Juttu on käännös Helsingin Sanomissa lokakuussa ilmestyneestä suomenkielisestä kirjoituksesta.