Monday, November 14, 2011

A Computer at a Hair Salon in Liuzhou, Guangxi

Not long after visiting the Guangxi University classroom with the "Sansumg" computers and handwritten bilingual notes I traveled to the city of Liuzhou, about 3 hours by train from Nanning and also in Guangxi.

Liuzhou provided a number of research opportunities, including a small hair salon which had a single computer.  How small businesses use computers has been relevant to some of my research in China and the findings are often fascinating.  Some of the many potential issues that can be explored include:
  • What are the intended uses of the computer(s)?
  • How is it (are they) actually used?
  • Who uses the computer(s)?
  • Who purchased the computer(s)?
  • Who chose the computer(s)?
  • and so on...
The answers one finds in China can be particularly intriguing given the scales of revenue involved for many small businesses.  To provide a hint of what they may be for a hair salon, I've paid less than US $1.50 for a haircut in comparable hair salons in Chinese cities similar to Liuzhou -- that's the total price, there's no hidden tax and a tip is not at all expected.  While some salons will charge more, it's still quite a bit less than what you'd pay for a hair cut at a salon in a US city with more than one million people.  However, the costs of computers of equivalent quality would not be so different.

Regardless, if what most concerns you is driving innovative hardware design then it may be this scene from the hair salon in Liuzhou that generates the largest number of questions and ideas: 

lady playing a game on a computer that is sitting on top of its monitor
Desktop computer on top of a monitor in a hair salon

Perhaps what is most striking is that the computer tower is stacked horizontally on top of the monitor.  Understanding the reason for this arrangement could inspire solutions that either better accommodate such stacking or eliminate the need for it.  Those involved in hardware design are likely already identifying some other aspects of the scene that could also lead to relevant insights.

The scene is also potentially relevant to those with interests in other aspects of technology.  For example, a quick look at the computer screen provides some insights into how the computer is used by at least one salon employee while "working".  There's really quite a lot in just this one photo.  The key at this point is not to assume you know why anything is the way it is.  Even if you can find aspects of this scene elsewhere in the world, it doesn't necessarily mean they have the same underlying causes.

Scenes such as the one above are invaluable in large part because they are "real".  I mean this in two different senses.  One, they show what users of technology actually do and the environment in which they actually do it.  Two,  I am reasonably confident that someone at the salon didn't prepare or alter this scene for my visit -- the scene is the same as it would have been even if I had not visited the salon that day.  I know this because my visit was a complete surprise to everyone there.  That in itself can cause some atypical behavior, but I can be reasonably sure this photo is representative.

In a later post, I'll share some the ways people being researched may prepare for a research study, how it could interfere with research goals, and how I've managed it.  It's an important issue when conducting research anywhere, but it's especially critical in China.  It's one of the reasons I sometimes try to mix in some opportunistic research even when formally recruiting people for a research study is necessary.


  1. Based on your recent photos, I'm not sure you're getting your $1.50 worth.

    The way everything is stacked up there, I'm assuming (hoping) this is in a region that's not prone to earthquakes.

  2. I plan to get my money's worth soon. It's been a while.

    Interesting point you make regarding earthquakes. There have been some earthquakes centered close to Liuzhou as shown here (Liuzhou is to the upper right of the center of the map). Not sure whether any of those impacted Liuzhou, though.

  3. We do indeed have earthquakes in Liuzhou, although they tends to be more earthshivers than full blown quakes. The most recent was a force 2.3 quake on June 16, 2008.

    The biggest was a force 5 in 1935.