Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Facebook, Taiwan, and a Waitress's Comments on Censorship in China

Several months ago while at a cafe in Chengdu, Sichuan, I spoke with one of the waitresses and asked her a number of questions about her use of the Internet.  Eventually, the conversation touched on the issue of online censorship in China.  In summary, she expressed that she didn't like it in terms how it directly impacted her online experience, but she felt that it was for the best so that China could maintain stability during its current stage of development.

I've heard similar comments from many others across China.  There's much I could say about this viewpoint, but for now I'll just share what followed in this particular case since I believe it highlights some deeper issues and I hope it can stimulate further discussion.

After her comments defending censorship, I simply asked the waitress to take a look at the screen of my laptop, and I pulled up a browser window with Facebook on it.  After looking at the screen for a few moments she asked me how I could be using Facebook -- she knew it was blocked in China.  I briefly explained how I used a VPN to get through China's Great Firewall.

I then pointed out some posts a friend had written on Facebook entirely in Traditional Chinese (Language note: Some Chinese characters exist in both a Simplified Chinese form and a Traditional Chinese form.  In mainland China and Singapore typically Simplified Chinese characters are used when available.  In other places such as Hong Kong or Taiwan typically only Traditional Chinese characters are used).  I asked the waitress what she thought of the posts.  She said she felt that my friend had a "special" way of expressing herself since she used Traditional Chinese.  I suspected the waitress's impression was based on the assumption my friend lived in mainland China, so I then told her that my friend lives in Taiwan.  The waitress nodded and understood that it would be typical for my friend to use Traditional Chinese.

I waited.

After looking at the screen for a bit longer the waitress suddenly cocked her head, looked at me, and with a puzzled expression asked, "They can use Facebook in Taiwan?"  I explained that Facebook wasn't blocked in Taiwan and anyone there was free to use it.

Her face quickly shifted to an indignant expression, and she emphatically said, "That's not fair!  Why can they use it and we can't?!?"

In later discussion she expressed that she was frustrated that she couldn't use a service such as Facebook.  I think it's particularly striking how her expressed acceptance of censorship significantly changed in a short period of time without any confrontational debate or explicit argument.  Instead of justifying the censorship she was beginning to strongly and openly question it.  Especially given the informal nature of this interaction, whether this indicated a deep change of opinion or an opening up of ideas already held is difficult to confidently determine.  Regardless, what she expressed, both verbally and emotionally, had shifted dramatically over the course of the discussion.

In part, I believe what occurred was that the waitress had previously been able to rationalize why it was OK she didn't have the same freedoms as someone in a place such as the US by noting the differences between the countries and cultures.  However, people in Taiwan can be considered "Chinese people" -- from the perspective of the waitress this was true both in terms of ancestry and of country.  Seeing that what was closed off to her and others in mainland China was freely available to anyone in Taiwan made it more difficult for her to maintain her earlier justification of censorship.  I also suspect the comparison to Taiwan impacted her sense of pride and caused a more visceral reaction.

I never did try to provide the waitress an answer to her question about why people in Taiwan can use Facebook but people in mainland China can not.  It was a question I could have easily asked her myself without even bothering with my laptop or Facebook.

But it makes all the difference that she asked it herself.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Not in Kansas Anymore

Due to some travel and Internet issues I haven't had a chance to post lately.  For a clue of where I am, see here:

ad for Sony Internet TV in Taipei Metro station

If you look closely at the ad for Sony Internet TV you'll see logos for Skype, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.  The latter 3 were all blocked in China last time I checked so is Sony promoting blocked web sites like K-Touch?

Not at all.  Some readers may have picked up on some clues in the photo (such as the signs and use of Traditional Chinese characters) that the above scene is from inside a metro station in Taipei, Taiwan.  No Great Firewall in Taiwan!  I'm full of joy to be able to access such sites without having to slink behind a VPN (although I still use it at times for other reasons such as privacy/security over Wi-Fi).

For at least the next week or so, I'll be traveling around Taiwan.  I first visited here over 9 years ago and it's fascinating to see a) what has and has not changed during that period of time and b) how it compares to... um... "Mainland China".

In upcoming posts I'll share some thoughts on those topics and some conversations I've had in Mainland China regarding Taiwan.  The topic of Taiwan there can be hotly emotional in ways that can be very unexpected for those who aren't familiar with such issues in China.  I'll see if I can write about it without causing a firestorm.

Admittedly, my enjoyment of Taiwan and catching up with a number of friends here might interfere with my posting.  But at least I know the Great Firewall won't be getting in my way.

And in case you're wondering, no, I didn't follow Google Maps' advice for getting to Taipei from Shanghai (if you missed out on this fun, use the directions tool on Google Maps, enter "Shanghai" for starting point and "Taipei" as the destination point, and look at step 33 or so explaining how to manage a large stretch of water along the way).  The direct flight from Shanghai to Taipei worked out just fine for me.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Only Some Things are Shared

Here is a view I enjoyed on an early evening this past weekend from near the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center:

It's hard not to be impressed by the architectural wonders and ponder what they imply about China's economic strength.  However, scenes such as this one are worlds away from the lives of most people in China, and they can be symbols of the relatively extreme concentration of China's new wealth.  For many in China, the photos I previously shared of Shanghai's Xiaonanmen are far closer to their daily lives.

The above photo can also be a symbol for how the costs and benefits of China's development can be spread very differently.  Even if one isn't reaping much profit from China's economic growth, you still breathe the pollution from its factories, power plants, and vehicles.  I can't say for sure whether the haze is a result of clouds or pollution but Shanghai certainly has more than enough of the latter -- possibly an unavoidable price for China's rapid economic development.

Two questions to ponder:  Which would be easier to change -- the amount of pollution or the imbalance of wealth?  Which would most people in China prefer to be changed?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Paradoxical Text Message from China Mobile

Yesterday, I called China Mobile's customer service using their 10086 hotline number.  They were very helpful in answering my question about international roaming.  Shortly after the call concluded I received a text message asking for feedback.

As a prelude, I'll just say that there are many challenges to writing good survey questions.  For example, small changes in wording can mean big differences in how people respond and how the results can be interpreted. 

However, in the case of the text message sent by China Mobile the shortcomings are relatively clear.  There are several things I could comment on but it was that last sentence that caused a moment of pause and my friend to wonder why I was laughing.  I share the text message here "as is" [grammar mistakes not mine]:
Premiere Service, Only For You. Dear Customer, please rate your satisfaction with our 10086 hotline service: 1. reply 1 for "Strongly Agree" 2. reply 2 for "Agree" 3. reply 3 for "Passable" 4. reply 4 for "Disagree" 5. reply 5 for "Strongly Disagree". If you refuse to response this message, please reply with "0".
I'd be interested to know if any Chinese equivalent is also so wonderfully paradoxical.  Though, there might not be one since they say this "Premier Service" is only for me.  Maybe I should just feel special.

In case you're curious, I decided not to respond.  Although I was tempted reply with "6".

Friday, August 19, 2011

Bertrand Russell's Advice to the Future

Although I've been living in China the past 5 years I still closely follow news and commentary in the US.  During that time, I have wondered if there was an increase in the severity of several problems that I believe interfere with meaningful debate over how best to address a number of important issues, whether the environment, the recession, the debt, etc.  Two of these problems are:
  • Attacks against or dismissal of logic, science and intellectualism.
  • Labeling those with different viewpoints as "evil" or "traitors".
I find them particularly concerning since they work against traits that I believe are part of some of America's most important strengths.  I'm certainly not the first to note them and neither is new to the world.  In fact, in 1959 when Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say to people alive 1000 years later his response touched on these two issues.

The following is a video of Russell's response.  It is just a 2 minute clip from a longer interview (which can be found here).  I'd be curious to know how various people interpret and react to it.

I don't think his response would be at all out of place if he made it today, especially this:
In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other.  We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don't like.  
Maybe the continued aptness of his comments shouldn't come as a surprise since he apparently thought this advice would still be useful about 950 years from now -- possibly a silver lining for an interpretation of struggles in today's debates.  And while Bertrand Russell's comments were likely the result of some careful thinking, I suspect he would also appreciate debate about his very own advice.  After all, he has said:
I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.
I believe there is much strength in that view.  And I believe that if more people held it, we might be able to have more productive debates in the US.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pedestrian Bridges as Intended

In an earlier post I challenged readers to identify the intended meaning of a sign on some pedestrian bridges in Chengdu, and in a later post I provided the answer.  In another post I shared a video someone took of a driver incredibly using a pedestrian bridge as a car bridge in Kunming.

The other day in Shanghai I saw this pedestrian bridge:

man walking bike down ramp on pedestrian bridge in Shanghai

The photo shows someone walking their bike down the steps using a side ramp as intended for that purpose.

Just goes to show that not every moment in China involves people not observing signs or driving their cars across a pedestrian bridge.  Sometimes, people behave just as designers intend.  It happens.

For me, the scene is also indicative of how like everywhere else in the world there is a more "typical" side of China of people simply going about their everyday lives.  It may not seem as flashy, but if you want to understand people that side is important, too.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Curious Promotion for the K-Touch W700 Mobile Phone in China

As I mentioned in the previous post, this past weekend I was in Shanghai's Qibao Town, best known for its "Ancient Town".  As part of another experience I had in a non-ancient section of Qibao, I became familiar with the promotion for a new mobile phone including a new mobile operating system, both developed by Chinese companies.

This building in Qibao includes the electronics store Yolo (永乐 - Yongle):

As part of of a promotion outside the store, a video of scenes from Gameloft's game Asphalt 6: Adrenaline was displayed on a TV:

The promotion wasn't primarily for the game, but for K-Touch's recently released W700 phone on which the game could be played.  K-Touch is a Chinese mobile phone brand that I've seen for sale in many cities across China, and I mentioned it in an earlier post about the mobile phone selection at stores in Zhaotong, Yunnan.

K-Touch's W700 is particularly notable for running Alibaba's new Aliyun (阿里云) mobile operating system.  Alibaba is a significant force in China, particularly in the e-commerce domain and the Alibaba Group includes web sites such as Taobao (the "eBay of China") and China Yahoo!.

Alibaba intends for Aliyun OS to compete with Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS in China.  As noted by Mark Hachman in PC Mag:
Alibaba's operating system makes use of "cloud-based" services, including e-mail, Internet search, weather updates and GPS and mapping applications, the company said. The OS will apparently require users to be constantly connected to take advantage of its Web-based apps, instead of designing applications that can run natively on the phone's hardware...

"Mobile users want a more open and convenient mobile OS, one that allows them to truly enjoy all that the Internet has to offer right in the palm of their hand, and the cloud OS, with its use of cloud-based applications, will provide that," said Wang Jian, president of Alibaba Cloud Computing, in a statement. "Introducing cloud apps to mobile devices not only brings a whole new user experience, but also greater ease for third-party mobile software developers who will be able to use Internet technology such as HTML5 and JavaScript to reduce the complexity in the app development process."

Alibaba said that each user would be given a free 100 Gbytes of storage to back up data to AliCloud's remote data center, which could be replicated to the PC and mobile devices.

I went inside Yolo to try out the phone.  I wasn't able to spend much time with it and mostly focused on the Asphalt 6 game given the staff's eagerness to show it off.  The short story is that I could only steer the car by pressing on the sides of the screen screen.  Tilting the phone to drive the car did not work.  The staff insisted that the phone's settings must have been changed because tilting the phone worked fine when they had played the game earlier in the day.  They didn't offer to try to change the settings, though.

That Asphalt 6 could be played at all on the K-Touch W700 is interesting since Gameloft does not list the W700 or Aliyun OS as compatible for the game (nor does Gameloft have a Chinese web site).  However, there is a key feature of Aliyun OS that may explain how the game can be played.

One line of the flyer seen above advertises "兼容多种Android应用".  That translates as "Compatible with a variety of Android applications".  I'm not familiar with how Aliyun OS is able to run Android applications without itself being or including a version of Android in some manner.  But this relationship of operating systems isn't entirely unique in at least some regards.  For example, it's possible to run Windows on Apple's Mac OS X.

The promotion highlighted the Android connection elsewhere as well.  For example, you may have already noticed than in the photo of the TV above the words "Available Now On Android" appear on the screen.

The Android logo also appeared in the display case as seen here:

There are pictures of cubes representing Youku (the "YouTube of China"), Windows Live Messenger, Kaixin (a social networking service), Taobao, QQ (instant messaging & more), and... Android amongst others.

While I could appreciate the desire to highlight that the W700 could run Android applications, I found it curious that K-Touch would build a whole promotion around an application that was built for Android versus focusing on the uniqueness of the Aliyun OS offerings.  I also noticed that "Asphalt 6" or a Chinese equivalent was not written on any of the promotional material I saw that day other than in the video and the game itself -- even though there is ample reference to the racing theme.

At the time I wasn't sure whether to read anything into this.  However, I now see that the game appears to be be specifically referenced in connection with the W700 on the K-Touch web site as seen in the mention of "狂野飙车6" in an announcement of a game competition which is being held by K-Touch in 20 cities across China including Shanghai (screen capture of part of the page below).

And a sales page on Taobao linked to from the home page of the K-Touch web site specifically says that the game is included on the phone and that K-Touch has an agreement with Gameloft to do so.

No problem here.  K-touch has an agreement with Gameloft.

Whatever agreements K-Touch may have with Gameloft, it isn't the only mobile phone brand tying Asphalt 6: Adrenaline to its product in China.  In Qibao and elsewhere in Shanghai I've seen the following advertisement in metro stations:

Since this Sony Ericsson mobile phone runs the Android operating system, I suspect their marketing challenges are a bit more straight forward.

Regardless, what most captured my attention about the K-Touch promotion was the final scene for the video on display:

Yes, the video included directions for where to find Gameloft on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. 
Maybe it's just me, but it seems a bit peculiar for K-Touch to be promoting web sites that are blocked by China's Great Firewall.  I asked the salespeople about why these web sites were included in the video.  After some discussion they decided they had no idea and looked hopeful I would stop asking about it.

Later, I discovered one possible source for the video: YouTube.

As far as I recall, the YouTube video above is the same video I saw outside the Yolo.  And for what it's worth I couldn't find it on Youku.  The video was posted by Gameloft and is specific for its Android release (there is another video for its iPhone release).

Anyways, it will be interesting to see how the W700 does in China.  But even if it performs poorly, K-Touch can perhaps still tie in Asphalt 6 to its products.  After all, some of K-Touch's other phones, such as the U2 and W606, don't use the Aliyun OS, but they do use Android.

They may want to drop references to blocked web sites, though.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shopping Cart Kid in Qibao, Shanghai

In the previous post I noted I had yet to see a kiddie play area in Shanghai as large as the one I saw in Changchun, Jilin.  This weekend I saw another kiddie play area in a modern shopping district in Qibao, a town in Shanghai well-known for its "Qibao Ancient Town".  However, yet again the play area's size was not as impressive as the one in Changchun.

Keeping the kids amused in Qibao

Not all the kids around there were just playing around.  After all, there's shopping to be done.  This kid was doing it style, though, while riding around in a shopping cart in Tesco (a Walmart-like store):

She seemed well prepared for the hot and humid weather outside with the fan hat.  The proud display of Shanghai kiddie fashion is was most caught my eye.  Both her and her parents seemed quite happy when I asked if I could take her photo. 

Soon, I'll post about some unrelated mobile phone marketing I saw nearby this Tesco that involved Android, Angry Birds, and Facebook -- not exactly a combo I was expecting to see in Qibao or anywhere in a country that is currently blocking Facebook.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Mega Kiddie Play Area and Mall in Changchun

In an earlier post, I commented on a ramp at an historic site in Guiyang, Guizhou that was being used in a manner its designers had not likely intended -- as a kiddie slide.

In Changchun, Jilin I saw something else that prompted kids to play.  However, in this case the designers clearly had kids in mind:

This rather incredible play area is in a very large mall in central Changchun.  It was particularly striking to me since I'd never seen a play area on this scale before.  A Shanghainese friend told me that they recall seeing even bigger play areas in Shanghai as a child but they now seem to be fewer in number (I haven't seen anything like this in Shanghai myself).  I have to admit I was a bit jealous nothing like this was available when & where I grew up as a kid.

Is this one of those things that's easy to be impressed by only to discover it's unsafe or built improperly?  I saw nothing obviously amiss but I really don't know.  If I had kids, I probably would have caved in if they wanted to play in it.  All I know for sure is that it's been open for at least well over a year (based on my two visits to Changchun).

It is but one of the attractions in the mall.  For example, there is also an indoor amusement park on the 4th floor.  It includes a number of rides such as the ubiquitous swinging pirate ship and also some dinosaur scenes such as this one:

Fortunately not real

Similar (but smaller) to what can be found at The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian hotels in either Las Vegas or Macau, China there is also a fake Venetian-style shopping corridor with its very own canal:

As you can see in the photos, there weren't a lot of people at the mall (at least relative to its size).  I've seen it far busier on other days, though, and there is a lot of space for people to be.

The mall is not representative of the typical shopping experience in the Changchun area, but it represents the "big" side of China that can be found in a variety of places.  As China's economy grows, malls like this may become more common in places such as Changchun, an area with over 7 million people.

At least that's probably what some kids are hoping for.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mobile Bookstores in Shanghai

In recent years, e-books have had a large impact in the mobile domain.  Not only can e-books be read on many mobile devices but they can be purchased as well.  While e-books are probably already familiar to most readers of this blog, these mobile books may not be:

At the Wujiang Road pedestrian street in Shanghai

On the right is a "mobile bookstore".  I've seen similar elsewhere in Shanghai.  It's not uncommon to find such vendors with an ample supply of English books.  The books are typically (always?) copies.  The quality can vary -- the binding won't be as strong, the ink may smear more easily, the print quality may be slightly blurry or offset, etc.

Why are English books common at these mobile bookstores?  I suspect these two issues are important:
  • Especially in comparison to Chinese books, English books can be rather pricey in Shanghai.  So, it's easier for a copy to be cheaper and be more attractive to consumers.
  • Overall, the selection of English books at "proper" stores in Shanghai is not, shall we say, stellar.  While mobile bookstores may not have a large number of books, sometimes the selection can be more interesting (for my tastes at least) and/or include books not found elsewhere.
To varying degrees similar issues hold for DVDs and software as well.  In a later post, I'll share some stories about my own experiences trying to buy genuine DVDs and software in China.  Sometimes, even if you want to buy genuine you can't.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Online Behavior Isn't Always Enough to Answer "Why?"

Jian Shuo Wang, who lives in Shanghai, can "recite 85 digits of pi after the decimal", and works in the technology industry, has a popular blog that I first noticed shortly before moving to Shanghai years ago.  He comments on a mix of topics, ranging from daily life in Shanghai to his experiences working in the technology domain.  In a recent post he mentions that Facebook was initially surprised that its photos application was such a success, and they desired to know why.  In reference to the value of "knowing why" he writes [note: English is not his native language and I have kept his writings "as is"]:
Soul searching means the deep trace of the reason why something worked. It is easy to be happy about a great feature, and a successful campaign, but it is way to easy to just stop tracing the deeper reason of the product. Just like the photos application of Facebook. It is a simple application without most of the features other photo sites have, but it is soon becoming the most successful photo application on the Internet. What is the driver for that? Why is that? Why, Why and Why?

... If something happens, and it is a good one, don't let it go. Push ourselves to do a deep soul searching and understand the deeper reason behind it.
I certainly agree that when a design is unexpectedly successful there is often much to be gained from understanding why and that it may not be wise to simply bask in glory.  A deeper understanding could lead to even more successful designs and/or guard against later problems.

However, I don't entirely agree with his comments on where the answers to such questions can be found [emphasis mine]:
Thank God we are in Internet space, and we have all the data needed to understand the reason. Just like Facebook can dig into the data and understand every photo change leads to 25 new page views, there must be some link between the reason and the result.
It is the section in bold that particularly concerns me.  I assume he is referencing the data that can be collected by an online service's server logs (in short, server logs can potentially provide details of many, but not all, of people's actions on a web site such as pages visited, buttons clicked, text submitted, etc).  I think it's worth addressing this claim in a blog post as I've heard people I've worked with make similar comments, and I've found it can be invaluable to provide a fuller picture of how research can best approach seeking answers to questions about people's behavior.

I'll focus on two reasons in particular for why the data found in server logs aren't always sufficient for answering why something online is or isn't a success.  I could write chapters on each and delve into some deep issues, but for now I'll keep things relatively brief and make use of some simple analogies.

1.  Observing what people do doesn't always tell you why they do it.

Imagine if you spent a week only watching people as they purchased ice cream at an ice cream store offering 10 different flavors.  At the end of the week you may be able to say with confidence that chocolate ice cream was the most popular choice during that period of time.  However, you probably couldn't say why.  Maybe people naturally preferred its taste.  Maybe there were effective TV advertisements for chocolate ice cream.  Maybe news of chocolate's health benefits had a large impact.  You could continue observing ice cream purchases in the store for a year and still not get much closer to an answer for why chocolate is purchased the most.

Similar issues can hold true for understanding online behavior.  In fact, only looking at server logs might not just mean you can't answer any deep "why's" but that you can't even be sure whether something is truly a success.  For example, server logs may indicate that people were far more likely to click the "correct" link A than the "incorrect" link B.  But the logs won't tell you if people were clueless about the purpose of link A and only clicked it because they knew link B was not what they wanted and saw no other option (yes, I've seen this happen).  In some cases, that might be good enough to be considered a "success", but in many others it won't be.

2.  People's online behavior isn't only driven by online factors.

The online world is just a part of people's lives.  While the online world can be wonderful and vast, the offline world still matters (really!) and plays a key role in determining how people behave online (the reverse can also be also true).  Without any data regarding the offline world, one could be left in the dark about key issues impacting behavior online.  Continuing with the ice cream example, if you only observed behavior inside the store you would not likely discover potentially key information such as whether people who preferred chocolate were more likely to have seen TV advertisements for chocolate.

For the online world consider social networking.  Imagine you're concerned that certain types of experiences people have aren't being shared with others online and you want to know why.  It could be that those experiences are in fact only being shared when people are face-to-face offline.  This insight may be key to an explanation for the online behavior and innovating a new online feature/service yet it wouldn't likely be discovered by only viewing data from a server log. 

Sometimes, it's not only important to understand what is occurring in the offline world before and/or after an online experience, but during as well.  The following webcomic from xkcd helps illustrate this point:

YouTube Parties

If you place your mouse pointer over the image, you may be able to see this additional commentary:
This reminds me of that video where ... no?  How have you not seen that?  Oh man, let me find it.  No, it's ok, we can go back to your video later.
There are several key issues directly or indirectly implied in the scene above such as multiple people watching the video together, different levels of interest in the video, different ideas about what should be watched next, etc.  Yet again, these issues in the offline world could be critical not only for understanding the success of various online features and how they're being used but also for providing inspiration for potential innovations (on the side, I think there are some intriguing designs that could be based on this single webcomic).  However, if YouTube only analyzed their server logs they may never discover the degree to which these or similar issues are occurring.

To be clear, I'm not saying that server logs aren't valuable.  Knowing how people actually behave is important and there is much that can be learned about it through proper analysis of data from server logs (even if the data doesn't show the full story).  With the caveats mentioned above, server logs can play a particularly valuable role in measuring the success of various features/services -- for example which of two or more designs leads to more page views, more time spent on the site, more purchases, etc. 

However, no matter how many "why's" you ask, there are limitations to what can be uncovered solely by analyzing data in server logs.  For some questions, other sources of data will be required -- whether from observations of people in their natural environment, experiments under controlled conditions measuring any of a variety of factors (such as eye movements, body language, and spoken comments), in-depth interviews, etc.  Knowing which method(s) could best answer a particular question is one of the main challenges in conducting meaningful research.  Sometimes, research methods themselves need a bit of innovation.

Someday later I may discuss how factors such as business goals, the resources required to conduct certain types of research, and the current state of knowledge about human behavior/cognition (there is much we don't know) can add pragmatic constraints to which "why's" can or should be tackled.  Whether in the corporate world or the academic world, often you need to address why it's worth trying to answer "why".

Monday, August 8, 2011

Tsingtao Beer in Qingdao

It escaped me that last Friday was International Beer Day.  While I missed celebrating the holiday, I'll use it as an excuse for a belated beer post.

There is much I could say about my opinions of most beer in China (in short, largely in line with those of James Fallows).  However, in honor of the holiday I'll refrain from dwelling on the abilities of many Chinese beers to make Coors Light taste like a hoppy India Pale Ale.  Instead, I'll share some of my beer-related experiences from when I was in Qingdao, Shandong.

If you haven't heard of Qingdao, you may recognize its older spelling of "Tsingtao".  Tsingtao is the name of Chinese brand of beer that can be found around the world (particularly in Chinese restaurants) and its home is in Qingdao.  Tsingtao came into existence as an English-German joint stock company during Qingdao's German colonial period during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The beer culture in Qingdao is a bit different from most places in China.  While in most places bottled beer is the norm, in Qingdao it is common to see kegs of beer sitting outside such as at these various locations (which are much more active at night):

In general, the beer was better tasting than bottled Tsingtao elsewhere in China (which I don't think is the same as what is found in other countries).  But still, nothing to write home about.  However, not all kegs of Tsingtao are created equal:

Above is a keg of Tsingtao's Yuanjiang (原浆) beer.  I believe this counts as the first major Chinese brand beer that I've been able to genuinely enjoy.  It's rather cheap too -- this pitcher was less than US $2:

pitcher of unpasteurized Tsingtao beer

It's unpasteurized, so it's only sold fresh and locally.  That combined with the outdoor atmosphere & cheap price reminded me of the bia hoi in Hanoi, Vietnam (though I think the Yuanjiang tasted better).

Of course, I didn't spend all my time in Qingdao drinking beer.  I also decided to pay a visit to the Tsingtao Brewery Museum.  I can't say I found the museum overly impressive.  However, in the holiday spirit I'll share some scenes such as this beer-inspired fountain outside the museum:

I think they missed an opportunity by not filling it with beer.

The museum presented a lot of information about Tsingtao and how it makes its beer.  For example, you can rest assured that Tsingtao Beer is very nutritious.

The display above says (text "as is"):
Based on a professional institution's evaluation, the nutritional value of Tsingtao Beer is outstanding in the beer industry.  Tsingtao Beer contains 236.47 mg amino acid in 17 categories per liter, and other vitamins, maltose, potassium, sodium, and magnesium human body needed.  A bottle of Tsingtao Beer can produce 400 - 700 kilocalories, equaling to that of 4 eggs, one pound milk, or 300g pork.
Folic acid, pantothenic acid and α-acid contained in beer can strongly restrain pathogenic bacteria.
Well, I'm not one to disagree with a "professional institution" so, drink up!  Would you rather carry around a bottle of beer or a pound of milk?

You can also learn about Tsingtao's fascinating history which was largely affected by Qingdao being controlled at various times by Germany, Japan, the Republic of China, and the People's Republic of China.  During part of the first half the 20th century, Tsingtao was owned by Japan's Dai-Nippon Brewery.  This lead to some "interesting" beer labels such as this one:

Tsingtao label with swastika and the words absolutely pure

Apparently in its quest to be a good corporate citizen, Tsingtao shared its concerns about the environment as displayed here:

poster of kid running from polluting factory
"Black fume is discharged arbitrarily. I'll report it to authorities."

Good luck reporting excessive discharges of pollution to the authorities, kid.

As I've pointed out before, Chinese museums love dioramas and the Tsingtao Brewery Museum was no exception:

In addition to dioramas, there were also some live scenes, such as this view (through glass) of a real bottling plant in action:

I'll admit that as I walked by I suddenly heard this song in my head:

Talk about a flashback and worlds colliding.  So much that is similar, yet so much that is different.

Finally, if you are so inclined you can get a bottle of Tsingtao with your very own photo on it for less than US $5:

I am sorry to say I passed on this incredible opportunity.

Outside the museum you can enjoy Qingdao's lively Beer Street where I tried a dark beer, not at all typical in China:

It was OK but definitely no Yuanjiang.

I met quite a few people in Qingdao who were quite happy to drink a few beers with a foreigner.  Though, despite Qingdao's strong connection with beer don't expect everyone there to be beer aficionados.  Some prefer other drinks:

man drinking from two liter bottle of Coca-cola

Even in Qingdao, I guess Coca-Cola's marketing is paying off.

Overall, my recommendation is if you ever find yourself in Qingdao to hunt down some Yuangjiang beer, especially since you can't get it elsewhere.  Also, no need to spend all your time on Beer Street.  There are other places, particularly in the "old town", with equally good food & beer at cheaper prices and with a more local feel.  And even forgetting the beer, there's much worth exploring in Qingdao -- it can be a pleasant and relaxing change of pace from the bigger cities of Shanghai and Beijing.

Happy (belated) International Beer Day and 干杯 (ganbei: cheers)!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Break the Glass in Case of Emergency

I've shared examples of how designs can influence people to behave in ways designers may not have expected, whether it's a device in a Coca-Cola tent or a ramp at a historic site.

In a public park in Chengdu, Sichuan (see here for some photos of the park) another design caught my eye simply because it was rather atypical and I was unsure of its purpose:

Most Chinese I've shown this photo to weren't sure why the fire hydrant would be covered in such a fashion.  One person thought that it's to prevent people from stealing water.  This wouldn't be an unheard of problem in China.  See here for a video (in Chinese) of an example in Nanjing, Jiangsu where trucks for cleaning roads were improperly taking water from a fire hydrant and creating problems for local residents.

One person thought the covering may be to prevent theft not of the water but the fire hydrant itself.   This may seem incredible but there are reports of such incidents in China.  It also happens in the US as in this case in Hawaii:
Officers arrested a 42-year-old man, a 33-year-old woman and a 17-year-old boy, who showed up at a recycling center with three stolen fire hydrants.

"They probably thought it had some brass and copper properties to it," a construction company owner, who didn't want to be identified, said. "But, you know, it's something that's worth over $500, and they probably maybe would have gotten $20."
And see here for another example -- a man allegedly stole dozens of fire hydrants in California.

While I could see how the covering may be enough of a hindrance to dissuade people from improperly using the water, I'm less sure it would stop someone who is already determined enough to steal a fire hydrant.  Also, if the purpose of the covering is to stop people from accessing the fire hydrant, it would seem to present a potential problem if there was a fire.  That is a fire hydrant, right?

However, I didn't test the covering to see if it was secure.  If it wasn't, maybe it's there just to keep the plants away.  If anyone in Chengdu can go check I'd appreciate hearing what you find.

Anyways, I remain unsure of the covering's purpose and I haven't seen any similar examples elsewhere.  But at least now I know more about the international art of fire hydrant stealing.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

In the Eye of the Beholder

In my post about some Coca-Cola tents in Shanghai I commented on a device with a design that led me to misinterpret how it was intended to be used -- with nearly destructive consequences.  At the historic Wenchang Pavilion site in Guiyang, Guizhou, I saw another example of a design that also suggested to some people an unintended use.

Kids sliding down a ramp

The ramp in the photo above is on a high wall overlooking the pavilion.  I suspect that the designer(s) weren't intending it to be interpreted as a kiddie slide.  Furthermore, the ramp's potential use as a slide may not have occurred to me had I not seen the kids using it that way.  But if I were still a kid I suspect I may have been similarly inspired.

It's a simple example highlighting that not only may people interpret the use of something in unexpected ways but that perceived uses can vary for different subgroups of people.  This is a key issue in designing useful and usable technology -- whether it's online services, software, hardware, etc.

Like the ramp above, unexpected interpretations of a design aren't necessarily always problematic.  In fact, sometimes they prove to be invaluable.  Regardless, identifying any such issues early in a design process is often the most opportune time to resolve or capitalize on them.  This may mean leveraging available knowledge of human behavior & cognition and/or conducting novel research.

The better and earlier that intended users can understood, the lower the risk of an undesired hit or slide when it's too late.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Coca-Cola Tents in Shanghai: More of a "Hit"

I apologize for the recent lack of posts and blame a range of unexpected cosmic forces.  I'm back.

I'll start with something light to get the ball rolling again.  A few months ago, I commented on the curious Coca-Cola sponsored police tents in Kunming, Yunnan.  I also shared that Coca-Cola marketing can be found in less potentially controversial settings such as on umbrellas for street vendors in Zhaotong, Yunnan.

Since then, I've seen more Coca-Cola umbrellas in a variety of cities in China, such as here at a beach in Qingdao, Shandong:

However, I have yet to see any more Coca-Cola police tents.  But, a few weeks ago in Shanghai next to a large shopping center I did see some Coca-Cola tents that weren't for police:

Upon entering the tents visitors were greeted by very friendly staff and given a free bottle of Coke:

While sipping some Coke one could learn more about Coca-Cola's history:

Or play a variety of Coca-Cola themed games:

I didn't play the one above.  But when I saw this:

I thought it was a high striker (strength tester) and decided to give it a try.

I can say with pride that I hit it with quite a bit of force.

I can also say that upon hitting it I wondered if I had broken the device, realized something was amiss, and noticed that the girl seen in the photo above was a bit shocked.  As she composed herself and checked the machine she explained that you're supposed to gently press down the round button, not hit it as if you're Thor.

At least on this occasion, the device could be considered a usability or affordance fail -- my interpretation of the design caused me to act in a way not at all desired by the designer(s).  I'm happy to point out that many in the user experience field would say you should never blame the user when evaluating a design.  In this case I certainly wouldn't argue with that.

The real intended purpose of the device was to simply indicate the recommended temperature (in degrees Celsius) for an enjoyable Coca-Cola drink.  That's rather interesting since cultures can differ on preferences for drink temperature.  In China it isn't uncommon for drinks such as Coke to be available cold in the summer but room temperature during the winter - though I've seen signs that is changing in at least some parts of China.

Overall, I'm not sure whether to say the tents were effective & worthwhile from a marketing perspective.  I thought it was curious there wasn't more of crowd, especially given there was free Coke available.  I also suspected other nearby locations would have been more ideal due to higher amounts of foot traffic.  Regardless, it was probably a positive sign that a number of the people who came into the tents became engaged with the various activities available.

Anyways, personally the experience left me a more positive impression of Coca-Cola than the police tents.

I'll just make sure to ask before I hit anything next time.