Interview: Juha Christensen, Sonopia


As part of our ongoing series of user experience interviews, we catch-up with Juha Christensen, CEO of Sonopia, a start-up focused on enabling operators to manage user experience across nano-segments. Juha led product management for the Psion series of handeld computers and played a key role in founding Symbian. He later led Microsoft’s mobile business as Corporate Vice President and went on to become President of Macromedia Mobile.

Marek Pawlowski: How did you become involved in the mobile business and what’s your role at the moment?

Juha Christensen: I was living in California in my early 20s and saw what I then thought of as a tiny Atari computer running DOS. I started working for Psion, based at the headquarters in London. Over time we brought out the Series 3, Series 3a and Series 5, and it was as the person responsible for Product Management of these devices that my interest in wireless started. We developed SMS software and cables that enabled you to send messages from a Psion.

We developed our third generation Operating System for the Series 5, and chose the ARM platform (as the first to do so, before the handset manufacturers started using it). We quickly realised that the real-time properties of the OS made it suitable for the kind of systems running in mobile phones. We spun out the software business into a separate company, and later pitched to Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola to join in with Psion as shareholders of this new thing that today is known as Symbian.

What does the term ‘mobile user experience’ mean to you?

To me ‘mobile user experience’ can only be defined if you think holistically. The experience is made up by tangible factors such as hardware usability, built-in software usability, third party software usability, the buying experience, the service layer experience, i.e. how you interact with the wireless services, and many other factors.

Addressing usability by isolating it to just hardware or just softwaren often creates broken experiences, as we see with many offerings today.

How important do you think it is to have direct exposure to end customers when developing new mobile services? Is this something you do when you’re building your own products?

Very much so. It’s important to develop your hypotheses about how consumers react, and lead with passion. But as Henry Ford said, if you had asked people what they wanted before the car was invented, they would have said ‘a faster horse’. Understanding and interpreting customers’ needs is more important than asking customers ‘do you like this colour?’ or ‘should this button be there?’

Who do you think has overall responsibility for user experience in the mobile telecoms industry – operators, handset manufacturers, application developers..?

All of the above. Only by integrating the experience across them do you get holistic experiences. I believe the operators, with some outside help, are in a better position to be the owners and coordinators of what we at Sonopia call ‘Sustained Lifecycle Management’. It’s a concept that maximizes the user experience across all the steps, from pre-purchase through to the critical point where a customer is thinking about churning, and through that stage into getting them new hardware and a service upgrade.

What was your first mobile handset and what do you use these days?

My first mobile phone was a huge luggable Panasonic phone. I remember being in awe about the fact that it could fit in my briefcase and only weighed 12 pounds or so.

Which services do you use most often on your mobile?

Besides the obvious, like SMS, email and the odd WAP service, I am playing around with different internal code, and some external services. One of the fun ones comes from Blogstar.

Do you think the industry should be moving towards a business model which enables each user to feel as if their handset has been designed for them as an individual?

I believe we are two or three years away from true nano-segmentation of handsets. Currently we see handsets designed for macro-segments, like ‘youth’ and micro segments like ‘young children’ but to truly give people what they want, and optimise services attachment with the device we need nano-segmented devices, each of which sells in thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. I think the handset business will change dramatically as we see the mobile industry get segmented like the tennis shoe and automotive industries have; standardised, flexible platforms with both cosmetic and substantive differentiation has driven brands like Nike and Scion to offer mass customisation, where in theory no two products are alike.

What’s the most bizarre use of a mobile device you’ve discovered recently?

Well, I remember an incident where a peer at Microsoft (one of the VPs who ran Windows) threw his Windows Mobile Smartphone in the lake next to his house. He later realised that it was not the software in the beta phone we’d given him that was the problem, but the fact that the operator it used actually didn’t provide service to his part of town.

Read more MEX interviews here.

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