Ion man makes his mark with clubbers

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The Independent Online

Nightclubbers - from Ibiza to Ilford - hardly feel dressed unless they are carrying a mobile phone. But if Steve May-Russell has his way, this could soon be replaced by an electronic pendant.

Nightclubbers - from Ibiza to Ilford - hardly feel dressed unless they are carrying a mobile phone. But if Steve May-Russell has his way, this could soon be replaced by an electronic pendant.

The Ion, as Mr May-Russell and his colleagues call the item, is an interactive device designed to "heighten the clubbing experience". It allows wearers to send messages to their friends; to pay for their drinks and order their taxis home; to find out what the DJ is playing at any given time and to make their own requests.

At the same time, the Ion can tell club operators exactly who is on the premises, even to the extent of identifying the room they are in. In addition, it enables the operators to find out the likes and dislikes of individuals so they can target advertising more accurately.

The pendant is also able to act as an ID card and entry ticket, and, according to Mr May-Russell, managing director of the Coventry-based industrial design company Smallfry, leisure groups and other companies have been quick to see the potential. "It does seem to have hit the mark," he adds.

Mr May-Russell sees the reaction as testimony to what he and his staff at the small firm claim is a new approach to design and development.

This comes down to harnessing technology developments to create a targeted product that real people might actually want to use. For a company like Smallfry, the strategy represents a bigger risk than simply waiting for a client to ask for a specific answer to a perceived need. But Mr May-Russell believes it gives a better chance of creating a successful product.

Product designers use various market research techniques to find out what people want. But these can sometimes be focused more on identifying consumers' desires than on creating something to satisfy them.

Among the methodologies Smallfry uses are the benchmarking of existing products; carrying out SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis; and what is termed "virgin user observation", or watching how people use products they have never seen before. If they try to use it in the wrong way, the product is deemed to be flawed.

But even more fundamental to Smallfry's approach is the aspect that Mr May-Russell calls "live the life". This is an attempt to understand what real people do in real situations.

"If we're designing tractors, we plough fields. If it's alarm bell boxes, we get people to install them," he explains. "Thinking about it is not the same as doing it."

Since Smallfry has a number of employees in their twenties, there was no shortage of volunteers for the club project. But the Ion is not the only development to have been based on the "live the life" concept.

The company has previously developed a videophone conferencing system that would, for example, enable a team dealing with an emergency to be helped by experts on the other side of the world.

As Mr May-Russell says, the development techniques behind the Ion can be applied to a range of other businesses. The important thing is to come up with products that offer "genuine benefits to people".

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