Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Discoveries Leading to Questions: "Sansumg" Computers and Bilingual Notes in Nanning

In previous posts, I've sometimes discussed or hinted at my interests in conducting research that is exploratory and opportunistic.  It certainly isn't not the only form of research I conduct or enjoy, but in the quest for new ideas and innovation I wouldn't want to work without it.  It's not just about learning more about the world, but discovering the right questions to ask about it.

The questions raised by such research can be invaluable for guiding further research not only for user-centered design and identifying opportunities where technology could play an improved or new role in people's lives, but also for impacting a variety of other pertinent issues related to the success of a technology such as marketing and sales.  Finding the right questions to ask can be just as challenging as answering them.  And finding the right questions to ask can be the difference between driving research that is meaningful and leads to an innovative success or misses the point and leads to a disastrous failure.  This leads to a key point: these questions may never be asked (or asked too late) if exploratory research is not conducted.

As an tiny example of this type of research, I'll share some of what I found when I had the opportunity to observe this graduate course on second language acquisition at Guangxi University in Nanning (photos of Nanning):

classroom in Nanning with computers in front of all the students
Class at Guangxi University

The classroom was of particular interest to me because of the computers that could be found in front of every student.  If you're wondering how I knew that I should go to Guangxi University and observe that particular class, I have a simple answer: I didn't.  The classroom was a discovery in itself.  In this case I didn't rely on kids or a dog to guide me, but instead I "followed my nose" after taking a taxi to Guangxi University.  After coming upon the classroom and discussing my research interests with the professor, I was invited to observe a class in session.

One of the "discoveries" I made regarded the computers that sat underneath the students' desks.  I noticed they had a name similar to a famous brand:

computer with the name Sansumg
A "Sansumg" desktop computer

Is this a Samsung computer?  Well, I doubt Samsung would ship computers with its name misprinted as "Sansumg" and the peculiar wording of the smaller text not far below it: "THE BRAND OF NEW TREND FOR HIGH PREFERENCE 2030 GD".  Is this computer an example of a Chinese company attempting to take advantage of the Samsung brand?  I suspect so.

Some of the questions that could now come to mind are:
  • Why was this brand of computers purchased?
  • Was the purchaser aware or concerned that the computers weren't Samsung computers?
  • Does the brand of computer suggest that any software programs on it are more likely to be unlicensed copies?
  • What is the quality/reliability of the computers?
Another "discovery" occurred while watching the students take notes:

students taking notes

Not only is it worth considering why they are taking notes with pen and paper while numerous computers remain idle, but an examination of the notes themselves reveal a key behavior:

open notebook with notes in both Chinese and English

As seen in the above photo, it was not uncommon for students' notes to be written in both English and Chinese.

In this case some of the questions that could come to mind are:
  • Why would students take notes in both Chinese and English?
  • How might the need or desire to write in multiple languages impact the design of technology to better aid students?
  • Does taking notes in two languages add a cognitive burden?  Are there ways to reduce it?
Am I able to provide answers to the sampling of questions about the computers and the note taking?  Based on what I learned in that classroom and what I know through other research there is certainly more I could say, but fully answering all of the questions would require a variety of additional research efforts that I may approach in very different manners -- whether it means focused field research, studies in a controlled laboratory setting, surveys, etc.  Most importantly, though, I gained some important insights which led to a number of key questions from just a single visit to a single classroom.  And I started that day without even knowing I'd be observing a class that afternoon.

I'll be sharing more of what I've seen, learned, or experienced in China that I think could matter for a variety of technologies.  I may not always provide my thoughts on exactly how what I've discovered could have an impact (there are things I can't or am not ready to share), but the examples will provide some more windows into life in China while also providing at the very least some more hints of the value of exploratory and opportunistic research in a broad range of environments.

Additional notes:

1.  Again, the above was just a single visit to a single classroom.  It would obviously be difficult to  make a claim based on this visit alone regarding the degree to which the findings are representative of other students or classrooms.  If determining that was important, it would be yet another research question to address.

2.  The research methods used for exploratory research can have a lot of overlap with some of the research methods for answering specific questions and for more directly driving/inspiring design.

3.  What counts as "exploratory research" is not black and white.  What most concerns me is conducting the right type of research, whatever you want to call it, for the task as hand.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    As to the cognitive burden of writing notes in several languages, it's not really an issue when you're a polyglot, or at least bilingual. My native language is French. I spent a year in Spain during my BA, and I found myself taking notes in an unholy mixture of French, English and Spanish that Latino friends would find really confusing. Taking notes in two or three languages at once was not a cognitive burden for me, but rather a way to reduce that burden by bypassing the need to translate, which remains present as long as you have not mastered the "target" language enough to think in it whithout effort. It could be different for those students, though, but at least that was my experience.

    Excellent blog, by the way.