Tech’s roving R&D man

November 29, 2010, 8:00 AM UTC

Frog Design’s Jan Chipchase interviews residents of the world’s hot spots so big business doesn’t have to.

Chipchase, photographed in Tokyo, documents the world for clients.

Jan Chipchase is the Indiana Jones of technology for the developing world. The British-born, Shanghai-based researcher travels the globe, trying to understand how and why the planet’s poorest people would use cellphones and other gadgets. Part cultural anthropologist and explorer, and part designer and entrepreneur, Chipchase uses his findings to develop new products and services that can help improve commerce and life in remote and sometimes dangerous parts of the world, such as Accra, Ghana, or Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Chipchase, 40, earlier this year joined San Francisco consultancy Frog Design to help the firm better understand the needs of consumers in the developing world — people that Frog’s clients (Disney (DIS), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Dell (DELL), to name a few) are eager to serve. Before leaping to Frog, Chipchase spent more than a decade at Finnish phonemaker Nokia (NOK) studying users in far-flung emerging markets. “He was one of the first people to write about the use of airtime as a form of currency,” says Bill Maurer, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Irvine. Chipchase documented Uganda’s sente system, in which villagers transfer money across distances by buying and passing along cellphone minutes. Vodafone (VOD), the U.K.-based mobile-phone operator, later launched a similar money service in Kenya with a local partner.

In 2008, Vodafone partnered with Afghan mobile operator Roshan to launch the service in Afghanistan (where it is called M-Paisa). As the leading expert in this nascent industry, Chipchase wanted to see how it compared with the local hawala system of informal money brokers. So he and a team of researchers spent two weeks in Kabul and Jalalabad asking locals basic questions. “Most of the workers there sew it into their clothes,” Chipchase recalls. “So we asked, ‘If you could carry it on your phone instead, would you?’ ”

Chipchase travels light, keeping his mixed-gender, multilanguage research teams to just two or three people. His attention to cultural details wins him trust more quickly in communities. He passed, for example, when workers offered him tea in Jalalabad during Ramadan, when Muslims don’t eat or drink during the day. And most important, he questions every assumption. “Anyone who tells you he really understands what’s going on is lying to himself,” says Chipchase.

His work may sound professorial, but his employer and its clients are motivated by profits. A cellphone for innumerate consumers that features icons instead of numbers isn’t just largesse, it’s good business — the world is filled with billions of hard-to-reach buyers of technology. Luckily for Frog’s clients, Jan Chipchase knows where to find them.