Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mobile Phones in China: More on Variety

In a recent post, I discussed the great variety of mobile phones available in China and shared some examples from stores in Zhaotong, Yunnan (see here).  A reader, Jendy, had this to say about the post:
"I wrote a paper on the cellular industry in China during my MBA program, after having spent 2 weeks in there with my class. I remember a factory owner saying that the Chinese see cell phones as a status symbol, much like cars or houses in other countries. He said that some of his factory workers would prioritize having the best and most technological cell phone over new clothes, eating a good dinner, etc."
I made some related points when I discussed the role of fashion and image in people's choice of mobile phones in an earlier post "Mobile Phones in China: Local Rates, Fashion, and Fakes":
"Many are willing to spend a large proportion of their income to purchase a mobile phone, sometimes saving up at least several months of their full salary, out of concerns related to fashion and image. For many people in China, their mobile phone will be the most expensive and openly visible item that can be with them many places they go -- like a car for many people in the US. While hanging a mobile phone around ones neck isn't as common in China as it used to be, there remain many opportunities for it to be visible."
Fashion, image, and status can be very intertwined.  For now, I'll avoid getting into a deep discussion on these issues, but suffice it to say they all can play a role in many mobile phone purchases in China.

Jendy continued with a claim connecting the role of a mobile phone as a status symbol and the diversity of mobile phones in China:
"So, it's not really surprising that there is more variety in China when there is a large population of people who prioritize cell phones over many other things."
Jendy also provided some anecdotal evidence for the impact Chinese brand mobile phones are already having globally:
"On a side note, I have friends in Chile who order Chinese phones over the web because there is so much more variety and phones with more features than you can't find here (dual sim phones for example)."
As Jendy's example shows, by developing localized designs for Chinese consumers Chinese mobile phone manufacturers are also likely creating devices that meet needs in other markets.  There are reports that exports of Chinese brand mobile phones are rapidly growing (I'm still looking for a source I feel OK about linking to, though).  It will be fascinating to see how the industry develops.

To further highlight the variety of mobile phones available from China I'll share some photos from a store you may have heard of in Zigong, a city in Sichuan province that is a six hour bus ride from Zhaotong.  In a previous post about Mother's Day in Zigong I shared some photos of a fashion show at Mall-mart and commented that the store was similar to Walmart in many ways.  I later discovered that Zigong's first actual Walmart had opened only a few months prior to my visit.

Zigong's first Walmart

As typical for Walmarts in China, it had an electronics section including mobile phones.  Like the department store in Zhaotong it had a wide array of Chinese brand phones in addition to more globally familiar brands such as Nokia.  However, many of the Chinese brands were different from those I had seen in the Zhaotong store.  Here are some photos of the selection available at Walmart (thanks to the Walmart staff for permission):

Quejaz mobile phones

Hedy and Gionee mobile phones

"Great" mobile phones

Lenovo mobile phone with transparent screen.

Nokia mobile phones 

Konka and Dim mobile phones

Dim and Opsson mobile phones

There were other brands as well.  The Walmart in Zigong and the stores in Zhaotong are of course just a handful of stores, but they are representative in many ways and provide a hint of the diversity of mobile phones available in China.

More on mobile phones in China later.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Car Bombs and No-Smoking Ashtrays

James Fallows recently shared two photos of signs in Beijing and asked his readers to guess their meanings (see here for post).

Here is the first sign:

And here is the second sign:

The first sign confused me at first, but when I thought "China" the meaning was immediately obvious to me: "no firecrackers".  In China, I've seen firecrackers lit just about anywhere, including on sidewalks as people are walking by.  I've also seen signs forbidding them in a variety of places such as subway stations.

In a later post James Fallows shared some other responses from his readers to the "no firecrackers" sign.  Here are just a few:

  • "No Fishboning Permitted!!!"
  • "Don't pull the martial arts weapons off the pine trees"
  • The sign must mean: "Don't step on the fishbones lying on the ground, because it will make a funny noise."
  • My guess - "cutting down trees and/or removing tree branches is prohibited."
  • Beware of falling Douglas fir twigs?
For a fuller list of interesting guesses by Fallows' readers see the post here.

The second sign, which James Fallows initially labeled "no car bombers", left me more baffled.  In his post, Fallows shared some of my thoughts including that it was "no loudspeaker announcements from cars", "no sirens", or "no giant sponge monsters on top of car".  As the last guess may indicate, none of my answers had left me convinced I had really figured it out.

Later, Fallows added the following two contributions from readers on the meaning of the sign:

  • My wife (from China) says the second one means "no transporting loads on top of cars."  (btw, she knew no firecrackers instantly).
  • [Reader who once lived in China] As for the second sign, I have seen it many times before and never figured it out. But the firecracker sign gave me an idea: could it mean "no setting off fireworks on top of your car?" I have seen people in a Chinese wedding motorcade dropping fireworks onto the road, so perhaps in the past they affixed them to the roof of the car.
The first explanation seems questionable to me because I am unclear why this rule would be applied to such a specific area.  I also am not sold on the second explanation.  I've seen some pretty raucous wedding motorcades but have never seen anyone lighting firecrackers on their car roof (yet).

If Greece has anything to say about the sign they may actually support something similar to Fallows' original suggestion.  For example this sign in Greece:

according to Wickipedia means "No vehicles carrying explosive or flammable goods".  All I can say is I guess Greece doesn't have a giant sponge monster problem.

I was now curious to hear from some more people in China.  Not having time to do a rigorous experiment in Beijing, I informally showed the Beijing "no car bombers" sign to a waitress and waiter at a cafe (where I am writing this piece) in Chengdu, Sichuan province.  Here's a summary of their responses (they both easily recognized the first sign as "no fireworks"):

Waitress (who had last year passed her driving test):
  • She was clueless at first.  She said she had never seen a sign like that in any of her preparation for the Chinese driving test.
  • She first suggested it might be about not carrying fireworks.
  • She then wondered if it was about not making noise.
  • Her final answer was that it was a warning not to stop because something could fall from above.
  • He too had never seen such a sign.
  • His first guess was that it was about objects falling from above.  He stuck to that.
I shared the suggestion that it was "no transporting loads on top of cars."  Neither thought that was a possibility.

So, with the little evidence available to me it doesn't appear the sign has a consistent interpretation, even to Chinese.  However, maybe it's a Beijing thing.  With any luck, Fallows will later share more (which looks like will happen soon).

The signs brought to mind another moment when I had been confused by a symbol in China.  This is what I saw in a supposedly no-smoking hotel room in Dunhua, Jilin (for some earlier posted photos of scenes in Jilin see here):

While the symbol seemed readily clear to me, "no smoking", its placement on an ashtray seemed to be rather contradictory.  I wondered if there was an explanation other than someone having a strong sense of humor.

Numerous times in China I've seen evidence that would suggest the ashtray may be a response to hotel guests' behavior.  No-smoking rules are not regularly enforced in many parts of China.  It's not uncommon to find people smoking in designated non-smoking areas, whether it is a hotel room, elevator, stairwell, etc.  I've also seen the effects of people smoking in a no-smoking hotel room -- for example, glasses intended for drinking filled with cigarette butts.

The ashtray may be a pragmatic design in that it both informs people (where else is a smoker more likely to notice a non-smoking symbol?) and it reduces the chances of other undesired consequences if people ignore its message.

Also, in many cities in China no-smoking rooms are only available in more upscale hotels.  It is possible this hotel merely wanted to "act" upscale but had no real concern about guests smoking.

When I showed the ashtray photo to the same Chinese waitress she said it meant "You shouldn't smoke because it's bad for your health, but here's an ashtray in case you still want to".  Her interpretation would be consistent with the idea that the "do not" slash is more of a suggestion than a rule.  Maybe fitting since in China there are many "rules" which are in fact rather flexible.  Another waitress believed the symbol meant "no smoking" but was confused about the purpose of the object.  Her only guess was that it was a pencil holder.  When I suggested the possibility it was an ashtray she dismissed the idea as ridiculous since the no-smoking symbol was obvious.

So, like the car-bombing sign, the true intentions behind the no-smoking ashtray (or whatever you want to think it is) remains unclear.

I share the above because it highlights the challenges in creating symbols that convey a clear and consistent meaning without using any words AND the challenges in fully interpreting symbols in other cultures where you may not be aware of key contextual information.

This is an issue I've faced in my work when evaluating/creating icons for software, online services, etc.  Even a button for a seemingly simple function can provide a difficult challenge.  What at first may seem to be an obvious solution could be found to be ineffective after observing how numerous potential users interpret it.  It can take several cycles of design and testing to find the best symbol.

Furthermore, you may need to either localize symbols for particular groups of people or find a symbol that is interpreted consistently regardless of culture (which can be challenging depending on the cultures involved).   Even if a symbol is understood, it may still need to be localized to feel more "home-like".

And possibly, like the "no fireworks" sign, sometimes it might not be a problem if a symbol is only understood by some people.  The people who don't understand the symbol may not be the people you're trying to reach.  The "no fireworks" sign may be clear enough to fireworks-loving Chinese.  The fact that non-fireworks wielding foreigners don't understand it is not critical (assuming they don't cause a fish bone incident due to a misinterpretation).

So, next time you see a symbol being used you can ponder the challenges in finding the "right" symbol and whether the way you see it is the same as people from other cultures.

Finally, the waiter and waitress I questioned about the Beijing sign didn't feel satisfied with their answers.  They very much wanted me to tell them the answer and I had to say I was unsure myself.  When I explained that I thought the confusion was possibly indicative of poor design or that the meanings of some symbols need to be taught to be understood the waitress responded, "Well, this is the government making mistakes.  Don't blame the people."

I definitely won't.

Monday, May 30, 2011

China Scenes: Neijiang, Sichuan

Been a while since I've done a "scenes" post so here we go...

Neijiang is a city is southern Sichuan province that's definitely off the path for most, foreigners or Chinese.  I've already featured it in my post about cats in Sichuan and it will later appear in a post about rabbits -- though with a different twist.  The city it at an intersection of highways connecting the much larger cities of Chengdu, Chongqing, and Kunming which is what brought me there.

Although the city definitely had its charms, one thing I particularly recall is that I had a faster than normal connection to the Internet and fewer challenges using my VPN to get through China's Great Firewall.  I have no idea if it was related to my hotel, the city, or something else but it was a welcomed change of pace.  Thanks, Neijiang.


Vegetable market

At Shengshui Temple

Tuo River


Zongzi (glutinous rice with other goodies wrapped in leaves) for sale

Crossing the bridge

Working at a large market (she requested to have her photo taken)

Selection of items available at one the street-side restaurants that setup at night

An ordinary alley

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mobile Phones in China: A Main Gateway to the Internet

In a recent post I wrote about the immense variety of mobile phones available in China and shared some examples of the selection that can be found in stores in Zhaotong, Yunnan.

Here are some mobiles phones actually being used by one college couple in Zhaotong:

Nokia and Sunlight Mobile Phones

One had a Nokia and the other had a Sunlight, one of the many Chinese brands of mobile phones.

What most caught my attention about this couple wasn't their choice of mobile phones but how they used them.  Despite neither of them having advanced phones by today's standards, they primarily accessed the Internet through their phones.

College Dormitory Room
Going to an internet cafe was seen as an unnecessary expense and inconvenience.  Purchasing a computer was definitely out of the question, neither of their families could afford one.  Even if there had been money available they would have faced the problems that there was no wired Internet access in their college dormitory rooms and that electricity wasn't available at all times.

Instead, both students took advantage of what they considered to be a cheap plan that enabled them to regularly access the Internet from their phones.

If you want to guess the one piece of technology owned by any college student in China, a mobile phone is a safe choice.  It was clear the couple used their phones to access the Internet not mainly because they were mobile phones but instead because the phones were a relatively cheap piece of technology which fulfilled a variety of other needs as well (such as phone calls and text messaging).

Especially in China, "mobile" isn't always about mobility.

It was also fascinating to see how they used their mobile phones for a variety of purposes, whether it was browsing news sites or interacting on social networking sites.  They were not inhibited to complete what could be considered complex tasks due to using relatively basic mobile devices.

These two students certainly aren't alone in China in how they use their phones.  I've observed that for many Chinese a mobile phone is their primary gateway to the Internet.  Surveys conducted by The Nielsen Company during the past year have found similar results:
"For many people in China, the mobile Web is the only one they need. When they think of the World Wide Web, they don’t think of tethering themselves to a desktop PC and the accessories of mice, keyboards, mouse pads, printers and monitors.  Not only don’t many homes in China have (or need) landlines for voice communications, they also don’t require hardwired Internet access for their fix of the Web.  And with mobile phones, everything they needs is in the palm of their hands.

In a short amount of time, mobile consumers in China have surpassed their American counterparts when it comes to using the devices to access the Internet (38% of Chinese mobile subscribers compared to 27% of American mobile subscribers), despite less advanced networks."
Furthermore, Nielsen'a research shows that mobile internet use in China is particularly pronounced in youth:
"Youth in China and the US lead the way among young mobile subscribers who use advanced data. Eighty-four percent of Chinese youth use their phones beyond voice and text compared to 47 percent of Chinese adults. Eighty-three percent of US youth use advanced data, 32 percent higher than US adults.

At 70 percent, young Chinese advanced data users have a significantly higher mobile internet usage rate than the rest of the world."
graphing indicating Chinese youth use the mobile internet more than American youth

The ramifications of all the above for companies with online services is readily apparent.  If they desire to reach a broad range of Chinese youth it could be critical for the design of the services to take into account that for many youth a mobile phone will be the typical device used to access the Internet, even when mobility is not a primary concern and the phone is relatively limited.

From a research perspective, this is why at times I don't want to be always using the latest and greatest mobile phone, even though I work in the technology industry.  It helps me better appreciate the experiences of many of the consumers I'm trying to understand and reach.

A Variety of Reptiles & Amphibians for Sale

I've reposted my piece "Mobile Phones in China: A Variety of Options" that was lost during Blogger's recent incident.  It discusses the variety of mobile phones available in China.

To celebrate this historic occasion I'll share another example of the wide selection of items available for sale in China.  This particular assortment seen in Neijiang, Sichuan isn't so typical, but that's part of its appeal to some people:

selection of dead turtles, snakes, frogs, and alligators for sale
Any requests?

And now things are hopefully back to "normal".

Mobile Phones in China: A Variety of Options

[Note:  Originally posted on May 12, 2011.  I have reposted because the original piece was removed by Blogger in response to an incident around May 13, 2011 and has since not reappeared.  Thanks again to readers who wrote in to say that a saved copy of the post could be retrieved from some RSS readers.]

A previous post covered the topics of local rates, fashion, and fakes for mobile phones in China. Like before, what I'll share in this post is intended to be a high level overview, this time about the variety of mobile phones available in China.

In the "tier 1" cities such as Shanghai many stores selling mobile phones, especially in downtown areas, will have a selection that includes most of the major globally dominant brands. However, in many other cities the typical selection of mobile phones noticeably changes. While Western brands may still be available, there will often be a larger number of Chinese brands.

To provide a small taste of the options in a non-major Chinese city, I'll share some photos (all taken with permission) from two different stores in Zhaotong, Yunnan -- as regular readers of this blog will likely know by now a city in a very rural area of Southwest China.

Here are just some of the phones being sold in one of Zhaotong's larger department stores:

And here is a small part of the selection in one of the many small mobile phone stores one can find in Zhaotong:

Some assorted points:
  • While there are some foreign brands sold in the department store such as Nokia and LG, there are a significant number of Chinese brands, including BBK, Gionee, Jugate, K-Touch, Oppo, Sunup, and more.
  • Some phones in both stores show obvious attempts to be visually appealing for Chinese tastes.
  • The Sunop phones with an apple on them arguably may be a trademark issue, but the overall design is not just simply copying Apple .
  • In the smaller store, trademark issues are more apparent -- especially in the names of phones such as Anycoll (Anycall, a Samsung brand sold in China), Nckla (Nokia), iPheon (iPhone), Mctcrcla (Motorola), and Cppc (Oppo, a Chinese brand). As you can see, this issue is not just limited to foreign brands.
There is much more one could comment on regarding the above photos. And these are just showing a sampling of the phones in two stores out of many in Zhaotong, yet alone in China. However, they're representative enough to make a key point: there is a great variety of mobile phones available in China. There are two reasons why this point is critical to understanding the mobile phone market in China that particularly interest me.

      1) Many consumers have a very wide range of mobiles phones to choose from.

This raises a host of fascinating issues to explore. For example, what impact, if any, does the greater variety have on how people choose their mobile phone in comparison to places with less variety?

      2) It indicates there is a lot of "experimentation" occurring in China.

It's easy to criticize the mobile phone industry in China for the immense about of amount copying that occurs. It's definitely an issue but don't be fooled. There is also a significant amount of design that could be considered creative or innovative. Some of the resulting products may prove to be significantly successful or provide inspiration for better designs -- not only for the Chinese market but others as well.

I'll explore the issues of creativity and innovation in China more in later posts. I don't think they're as clear cut as some portray them to be. For now I'll just close with a claim that may come as a surprise to those who are not very familiar with China: The diversity of mobile phones available in stores in "communist" China is greater, not less, than what can be found in the US.

I'd be very interested to hear you think about that.

[UPDATE:  Follow-up post with a reader's comments and more examples of mobile phones in China here:  Mobile Phones in China: More on Variety]

Thursday, May 26, 2011

WOW! A Cool Android Ad in China!

So, my efforts to get a response from Blogger about my still missing post (and insightful comment by a reader) have not been very successful.  I'll try one last approach...

Look at this photo I took today of a fascinating advertisement in Chengdu, Sichuan!!!

Ad for Sony Ericsson Android mobile phone
"My Android Loves To Sing" -- I bet it would really love to sing about my post returning!

Isn't the photo so cool that you want to forward this post to say... at least 300 people?!?  Then Google will say "Wow, such wonderful free online advertising for Android.  We gotta get that guy's missing post up pronto or let him know what's going on!"

Can't miss, eh?

Anyways, come Thursday afternoon China time I'll replace the missing post myself.  If I've gone nearly two weeks without my post reappearing and almost as long without any word from Blogger well... disappointing but life must move on.  I now need the post up as some future posts will build on it.

Plus, I'm getting tired of the "missing" theme.

Note to readers:  I suppose this may be a form of "selling out" (though I would be stunned if this actually had an effect and it's more about adding some humor to the situation).  If I ever did so I would note it (or be explicit about it like here).  I've never received (nor expected) any compensation (such as money or freebies) from any company (such as StarbucksDairy Queen or WiTopia) for posting about them.

Note to any Google folks who are readers:  I understand there may be little you can personally do about my predicament and it may be frustrating to read about it.  Having worked at Microsoft I am particularly used to being on the receiving end of a lot of "suggestions" and appreciate the complexities of both the technological & business aspects of situations such as this one.  Regardless, as a user experience researcher I also appreciate the value in hearing from one's users.  I am not bashful in expressing some of my own experiences/viewpoints partly in the hope they can be helpful in creating services/products that are more useful/usable/desirable and also more profitable.  Keep up what I suspect is most excellent work on your projects.  Glad to have you as readers.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Moments of Insight: How Kids Learn Language

Fellow Johns Hopkins Cognitive Science grad department alumni (and friend) Tamara Nicol Medina just made the news for some really interesting research findings.  In short, kids learn language not by gradually honing in on correct word associations over time but through more focused moments of insight.

One of the more interesting aspects of the research is the logic the research team had for doubting what was assumed by many to be key for language learning:
The current, long-standing theory suggests that children learn their first words through a series of associations; they associate words they hear with multiple possible referents in their immediate environment. Over time, children can track both the words and elements of the environments they correspond to, eventually narrowing down what common element the word must be referring to."

This sounds very plausible until you see what the real world is like," Gleitman said. "It turns out it's probably impossible."


"The theory is appealing as a simple, brute force approach," Medina said. "I've even seen it make its way into in parenting books describing how kids learn their first words."A small set of psychologists and linguists, including members of the Penn team, have long argued that the sheer number of statistical comparisons necessary to learn words this way is simply beyond the capabilities of human memory. Even computational models designed to compute such statistics must implement shortcuts and do not guarantee optimal learning.

"This doesn't mean that we are bad at tracking statistical information in other realms, only that we do this kind of tracking in situations where there are a limited number of elements that we are associating with each other," Trueswell said. "The moment we have to map the words we hear onto the essentially infinite ways we conceive of things in the world, brute-force statistical tracking becomes infeasible. The probability distribution is just too large."
See the full article here.  If you're interested in how kids learn language, this is a must read.

The research conclusions themselves can be one of those "Aha!" moments that immediately sink in once you think about it.  The conclusions touch on several key issues including:

  • Losing information (memories) can sometimes be a very good thing.  As researcher Lila Gleitman said, "It's the failure of memory that's rescuing you from remaining wrong for the rest of your life."
  • The human mind has many strategies for working around limitations in acquiring, processing, and storing information.
  • Artificial Intelligence will be better able to mimic how the human mind works the more it takes into account the brain's limitations.

Later, I'll share some fascinating visual cognition research that has provided surprising insights into the limitations of human cognitive processing, even when we feel we are "fully" processing the world around us.

Cats with Wings in China

A recent post here shared a series of cat photos in Sichuan province (see here).  A reader has brought to my attention that it isn't the first time for cats in Sichuan to receive attention.

A couple of years ago there was a report of a cat in Sichuan that had sprouted wings.  Yes, cat wings.  You can find an article with photos of the winged cat here.  I now recall seeing this story when it first broke.  Later, there was a similar report out of nearby Chongqing (see here for photos of another winged cat).  For more general information on winged cats see here.

All I can say is I have yet to see any winged cats in Sichuan or anywhere else in China.  I'll let you know if I do, though.

For the time being, here's a photo of another Sichuan cat, this one outside a bookstore in Chengdu:

No wings on this cat

Update on Missing Post

Time for a a brief update on the still-missing post "Mobile Phones in China: A Variety of Options" (see here for previous update). I want to keep the topic fresh particularly for when people come to this blog's main page after seeing the "Page not found" message.

One sign of progress is that the combo-label with the curious number boxes on the "Posting - Edit Posts" panel (see here for description) has gone away.

I know as of this past weekend I was not the only person still missing a post.  I also saw on Twitter that some people were finding their posts replaced as late as the end of last week (at least that is when they found them, I'm not 100% sure when they actually reappeared). I will take it as a sign Blogger is still working on the issue.

I'm hoping for a general announcement from Blogger or a reply to any of my attempts (using a variety of methods) to report the issue. Even a "hey, we've lost it, sorry, how about we ship you a free box of cookies?" would be appreciated (note: those chocolate-mint girl scout cookies would be great -- can't get them in China).

Anyways, hopefully I can end my meta-posts soon.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cats in Sichuan, China

[Post in memory of a friend's dear kitty]

While having a pet has become more popular in China, especially in more prosperous cities, in many parts of China having a cat as a pet doesn't seem to be as common as it is in the US.  And if people have a cat, it can solely for pragmatic reasons such as catching rodents.  So, if an American cat lover visited many homes in China they may feel like something was missing.

However, the cities of Zigong and Neijiang in Sichuan province seemed to differ from many other similar cities I've explored in China.  I noticed a curious number of people with cats as pets.

I'll share what I saw to document my observations for posterity (and provide entertainment for any readers who are cat lovers).  Here are a handful of the cats I saw in the two cities:

Working at the fruit shop

Guarding the trash can (owners are in a shop on other side of the sidewalk)

Mother keeping watch (somewhat) over the kittens

Hanging out on the roof

Outside the honey store

Another shop cat

The bra & panties cat

Restaurant cat

Fresh meat for dinner

Dog lovers, fear not, a "dogs in China" post is in the works.  Though, it will be a bit more... complex.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Macho Man RIP

My yet-to-be-returned post (and comment) saga continues.  However, other news helps keep it in perspective as I've learned that one of the more colorful figures in the 80's & 90's has also gone missing -- in this case with no chance of return.

Randy "Macho Man" Savage died in a car accident.  A famous "pro wrestler" in the US, the Macho Man certainly had his own flair.  This classic video sums it up quite well (H/T Kim Le who has an interesting blog about her expat life in South Korea):

The video is a particularly apt way to remember the Macho Man as his talents were more often exhibited in over-the-top drama/soap-opera than sport.

The main  reason I share this is that the video reminded me that no matter how "interesting" some of Chinese TV may be, I've seen nothing that can touch the likes of the Macho Man and his cohorts.  Apparently some Chinese agree.  It is not rare that while in a city unfamiliar to most people outside of China I will see the TV in a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant tuned into American pro-wrestling.

"And the beat goes on, yeah.  And the beat goes on..."