Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Fake Stuffed Toys Influencing Technology Usage in China

During my several trips to Guangzhou in Guangdong province I have visited a number of large buildings full of small wholesale stores. The immense variety of what is sold makes it easy to believe that many of the world's products are manufactured in Guangzhou and other nearby cities. Such stores offer an opportunity to gain knowledge relevant to the design of various technologies. To provide a small taste of what I have found I will share an example of a single store. It highlights some important issues and at the end of the post I will allude to an intriguing question it raises about lands far from China.

The store's owner, who I will give the fictitious name "Jia", sells stuffed toys and other stuffed products based on animated characters. Her customers sell the items they buy in bulk to retailers or sometimes directly to consumers. Jia has an advantage running her business due to a close connection with the factory where the items are manufactured--her long-term boyfriend is a manager there.

There is an Internet-connected computer in the store that plays a critical role in taking orders from the customers, but not in the way one might first guess. Although some of Jia's customers may sell their merchandise online using services such as Taobao, Jia's store has no formal online presence itself.

person on the phone and sitting at a computer in a small wholesale store in Guangzhou, Guangdong
Jia takes a call from a customer.

Some of the reasons why Jia has a computer yet no online store became clearer to me after I asked Jia, "Are your products genuine?"*

She replied, "Kind of."

One may think that whether something is genuine or not is a simple yes or no proposition. But fake products in China have a wide range of quality. Jia's "kind of" reply reflects that although her products are not genuine, she believes they are equal in quality and practically indistinguishable from genuine products.

stuffed toys of Japanese cartoon characters in a wholesale store in Guangzhou, Guangdong
The stuffed products include many Japanese animated characters found in video games, television or movies.

What Jia sells is significantly cheaper than genuine products yet more expensive than lower quality fakes. Furthermore, her customers are fully aware they are not buying genuine products. To be sure they are getting their money's worth and a product meeting their needs, they desire to visit the store to examine the products firsthand. While in the store, many customers photograph whatever they may buy. Later, they can send their photos to ensure the accuracy of any orders which they may place via email, instant messaging, or telephone.

There are other factors at play, but this example provides a window into how fake products can influence a business's and its customers' use of technology. Had Jia been selling genuine products or low quality fakes the situation may have been different. As it stands though, Jia's customers are motivated to visit the store, take photographs, and later send them via the Internet. And Jia is motivated to use a computer to communicate with customers but is far less motivated to set up a formal online presence for her store.

Understanding not just how people use technology but the deeper reasons for why they use it the way they do is critical to designing useful and desirable technologies. Although Jia's business is just a single example, it can provide inspiration for new ideas that would not have been conceived otherwise. By combining it with other examples or with findings from different forms of research, compelling evidence may be found of needs impacting a great number of people--both in China and elsewhere.

Research such as this never fails to fascinate me. As I have mentioned before, sometimes such research is conducted to answer specific questions, but it is also valuable for discovering important new questions. In fact, I left Jia's store with a new question that pertains to issues beyond just technology. After all, Jia was not always sure (or willing to say) what happens to her fake stuffed toys after she sells them--especially those she delivers to her good customers in Australia and the U.S.

*Yes, this is a leading question**. I had reasons to believe it was appropriate for my purposes (especially since I wanted to know whether Jia would be forthcoming in answering such a direct question). I believe some of its value in this case is indicated by Jia's atypical response.

**A "leading question" is a question that is asked in a manner that may bias the reply. Especially in research, avoiding their use can be very important, though they can have value at times if used appropriately. I hope to more fully discuss this issue in a later post someday.

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