Showing posts with label Exploratory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Exploratory. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Unexpected Connections

During my explorations in China and elsewhere in Asia, I found that an experience in a new location could remind me of another I had elsewhere. Sometimes it seemed obvious what caused my mind to connect them. Sometimes it was not so obvious.

Recently, as I looked out from a restaurant deck onto Mobile Bay in Spanish Fort, Alabama, US, I was unexpectedly reminded of the views of Erhai Lake around Xizhou, Yunnan province, China.

two trees in Mobile Bay
Mobile Bay

three dead trees in Erhai Lake
Erhai Lake

I'm not sure why it was specially Erhai Lake that came to my mind, but it seemed to be partly about my emotions as I looked across the water.

I can't say I ever expected to make a connection between Alabama and Yunnan. For me, it was a sign of why I enjoy exploring the world. It's not just about seeing something new, but changing your perpectives on the "old". More on that topic soon.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

An Experience Observing Shopping in Handan, Hebei

I'll share a light story about an experience that like the previous post about the couple in Liuzhou provided me an opportunity to observe shopping behavior in China. Far from Liuzhou, this experience took place in Handan, Hebei province (see here for the more than 1000 mile drive between the two). I don't expect it to necessarily inspire any ideas related to technology on its own, but it will help provide some additional color and context for a few upcoming posts.

While in Handan last year in November, I stopped by yet another mobile phone store to see their selection and talk with some of the staff:

four young ladies at mobile phone store
Assistants in their work uniforms and one of their friends at a mobile phone store.

After a lengthy discussion, one of them offered to show me around the city on their day off. I accepted the unexpected invitation, and the next day met her and two of her friends:

In short, they didn't have much of a plan for sightseeing, but they were thrilled to discover I'd be happy to go shopping with them. By "go shopping" I mean follow them around as they shop. I had no personal desire to go shopping myself, but I knew the opportunity to observe them could provide some useful insights.

The first shopping center they visited was here:

large shopping center

It was a large building full of small individually-owned clothing stores, such as this one which was owned by an acquaintance of theirs:

In upcoming posts I'll share more about the environments of similar shopping centers. But one detail about this particular shopping center is worth sharing now since it connects with the previous post. As in Liuzhou, Lady Gaga made an appearance, this time in the name of one of the stores:

small clothing store with the name Lady Gage on its window

After an afternoon of shopping, I asked them to pick one of their favorite places to have dinner since I was interested to know what type of restaurant they would consider "special". For example, when I presented this choice to a shop assistant in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province she excitedly chose KFC.

However, this time KFC was not the choice. Instead, they chose a restaurant well known in Handan for this favorite dish of theirs:

bowl of spicy duck heads

It's probably not clear from the photo, so I'll help out and identify that as a big pot of spicy duck heads. Thanks to some previous experiences with coworkers at Microsoft China I was prepared to tackle such a delicacy. Still, I couldn't have predicted that munching on a bunch of duck heads would be the way we'd close out the day.

In upcoming posts, I'll focus in on several items of interest two me regarding shopping in China that could have an impact on the design of technology. I think for now I have fulfilled my quota on posts regarding Lady Gaga and duck heads.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Shopping in Liuzhou Lady Gaga Style

In previous posts I wrote about how opportunistic and exploratory research conducted in a classroom in Nanning and a hair salon in Liuzhou opened up a variety of insights and questions that could help guide the design of technology. I'll now share another experience I had in Liuzhou last year that's very different from both of them. It may not include any photos focused on technology, but it could have just as much of an impact.

One evening, after leaving a store with a wide variety of Chinese designed and manufactured mobile phones I was deciding where to go next. While I stood in thought at a street corner this young couple approached me and asked if I needed directions:

Two friendly college students in Liuzhou, Guangxi

Although I didn't need directions, I took advantage of the opportunity to ask them a few questions about the very inexpensive mobile phone I had just purchased and the conversation led to other topics as well. They then asked if I'd like to join them as they enjoyed a break from their college studies, and I happily accepted.

Later in the evening I accompanied the couple to a shopping area that looks like this during day:

Sidewalk during the day

While there are a number of stores along the street, in the evening the area transforms into another shopping experience -- a night market:

Sidewalk during the night

Given the crowds in the photo, it's hard to see that there are numerous racks with clothes for sale and additional items on display on the ground.

During their time at the night market the couple considered a variety of goods such as some bowls:

and shorts:

That night wasn't just an opportunity for me to observe what they did while shopping, but to also learn about their thoughts on numerous topics and about how they expressed themselves. For example, the young lady was particularly colorful, whether it was her desire to pose for photographs in various locations:

Posing on a bridge over the Liu River

her abilities in opening beer bottles with her teeth:

Opening a bottle of beer during dinner

or her favorite expressions such as the frequent, "That's so Lady Gaga!"

This is just a small taste of what I saw and learned that night and serves as a lead into several upcoming posts about some other shopping environments in China. I'll touch on a variety of related topics such as how computers are used in small retail businesses and how such environments may provide insights for designing better online shopping experiences. Those posts will shed some some light on how what I learned in Liuzhou could be of value to designing new technology.

For now, I'll just say that the opportunity to talk with the college couple in Liuzhou and observe a small part of their lives was yet another invaluable experience. The opportunistic nature of it added the benefit that I could be sure that factors such as their style of dress weren't a reflection of preparing for me in any way. And based on what they told me, it may have been very unlikely I would have come across them through a typical recruiter for a research study.

So, I'm very glad I took the time to pause on that street corner.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Lunches in China

A few days ago this was the view from my seat:

while eating lunch here in Sujiawei village in Guangdong province:

Today, this was the view from my seat:

while eating lunch here in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province:

I found both places while I was keeping an eye out for a place to eat as I explored two very different places. Not only did they both have really good food, but they provided an opportunity to further immerse myself into the local culture. Discoveries such as these can be important in literally and figuratively providing the fuel for other discoveries.

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.

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.