by Pirjo Näkki
For most users, the Web is about communication rather than technology. The rise of so-called social media shows that when people are provided with simple tools and easy access to online content, they find new ways to utilize the Internet. The VTT Open Web Lab (Owela) is studying how social media tools can also be utilized in innovation and product design processes.
As increasing numbers of people spend their time in online communities, companies are also trying to find their way into these networks. One of the new ways of utilizing the Internet is the open innovation platform, where companies develop new technology, products and services openly with customers and end users. For companies, the Web serves as a direct channel for communication, feedback and sharing ideas with users.
Owela is an online laboratory that utilizes social media features for participatory design and open innovation. It has been developed in the VTT research project 'Social media in the crossroads of physical, digital and virtual worlds' (SOMED). This project started in 2006 and will continue until August 2008. It is developing technology and applications that support the creation of user-friendly and value-adding applications with socially created input for everyday use.
Owela serves as a virtual working environment, in which VTT is studying social media as a phenomenon of digital culture, and is testing and developing new social software for computer-mediated communication. In Owela we can improve our understanding of future user needs as well as gathering feedback from a wider audience. Furthermore, Owela is used to study how new social media tools can be utilized to enrich interactive Web-based research methods. Owela was launched in April 2007 and is under continuous development based on experience and user feedback.
Traditional user-centred design begins with user-need acquisition, use-context analysis, and an examination of users' social and physical environments. In different phases of the product design, users participate in interviews, observations and testing. The user research process requires a lot of time and resources from the researchers.
In the new era of the Internet, when applications and services are produced with more agility, the traditional thorough user research process seems too time-consuming. New, easier and faster ways to perform user-centred design are therefore needed. As both a means of communication and a meeting place, the Web serves as a good medium for participatory design, since that is where the users are already. Our goal is to define and implement the processes and tools for user-driven product development so that the whole user-centric research process can be carried out reliably and efficiently.
At the moment, Owela is centred around a blog-based tool called IdeaTube, with which users may browse, comment on, and rate ideas, concepts and scenarios of new products and services. Other tools for collaboration between users, developers and researchers are chat and test lab, in which users may test new prototypes and give feedback. In addition to these qualitative research methods, quantitative online questionnaires can be used.
Owela is not only a collection of different tools but an active community of users interested in new product and service development. In this kind of design community, optimum results are achieved if users' motivation comes from the community and participation, rather than from external rewards. Direct contact with users is needed, along with communication via Web site and emails. Furthermore, the design process must be clear to the users: they must see how their participation affects the design.
Owela can be combined with other user-centred design methods and utilized as a communication channel between face-to-face studies. User research can be done either publicly or, for confidential user studies, in restricted environments. It is also possible to link Owela tools to other existing Web communities. In the future, mobile features will also be developed.
As a follow-up project, we have been planning the project 'Information Technologies supporting the Execution of Innovation Projects' (ITEI) in cooperation with seven European universities and 22 companies. This will involve further development of methods for user-driven innovation and the online tools that support it.
Pirjo Näkki, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland
Tel: +358 20 7225897