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.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Scenes of Wenzhou, Zhejiang

As I mentioned before, for now I'll refrain from commenting much on the recent high-speed rail train crash in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province.   A simple online search will uncover plenty of news.  However, if this is accurate you may not find too much new information in major Chinese papers.

Instead, I'll share some photos from when I visited Wenzhou for about a week late last year.  Wenzhou is a 4-5 hour high-speed train ride from Shanghai, although if you want to get downtown you'll still have a bit to go since the high-speed trains stop at the not-so-central South Train Station.  What caught my eye the most about the city was its mix of older alleys, new apartment high rises, and hilly parks.

Based on some informal impressions, the people of Wenzhou stood out from those in other cities I had visited around the same time in an unexpected way -- especially in the shopping districts, many wore clothing that was mostly or all black.  I met several design students at Wenzhou University, most of whom were not dressed in the black clothing style.  They said they want to be different and felt that many others were wearing black because it was "safe".  If there are any Wenzhou fashion experts out there who can provide more of an explanation for the black clothing phenomenon, I'd be happy to hear from you.

Like many of my earlier photos, some of the following photos show a side of China far removed from high-speed trains.  There are two obvious exceptions, though.

Very empty high-speed rail car while departing Shanghai on the way to Wenzhou.  The peacefulness was enjoyable.

An ordinary street

Central pedestrian shopping street

Some of the black-colored fashion

A mix of old and new as seen from Jiangxin Island

Joys Booty Bar.  Looked like a typical bar for Zhejiang province.  I passed it up, though, so I can't provide a review.

Traffic jams are common as the bike rickshaws travel down narrow alleys

Downtown Wenzhou

One of the more interesting tall buildings in Wenzhou

A typical alley

Little girl having a snack on the side of the street

Student dormitory at Wenzhou University

Piano practice room at Wenzhou University.

Waiting to depart Wenzhou by high-speed rail at the South Train Station.  This time the train was much fuller.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

And Now a Word from the Blogger

It's been a bit since my last post.  In fact, I think this is the longest I've gone without posting since I started this blog.  In short, it was a perfect storm of sorts.

But, looking at the news from around the world, my storm was immensely trivial compared to what many other have gone through or are going through.  Whether it was the terrorism attacks in Norway or the train crash in Wenzhou, China, not only were the events themselves saddening, but so was how some reacted to them.

Right now, I have nothing to add on a grander scale that hasn't been said elsewhere so just a few words on the crash in Wenzhou simply because I've visited the city and arrived & departed on high-speed rail.

While the train I rode to Wenzhou had many empty cars when pulling out of Shanghai, on later segments the high-speed trains I rode on that line seemed full of people.  In Xiapu, a city to the south of Wenzhou in Fujian province, I arrived at the station hoping to simply board the next train (all the trains that go through Xiapu are high-speed) and was disappointed to discover that I'd have to watch several trains go through the station until there was one with an available seat 6 hours later -- very different from the experience in departing Shanghai.

My memories of the train rides included marveling at the wonderful convenience it was providing me and viewing some incredible scenery on China's east coast in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces.  As I look at scenes of the crash those memories feel ever so dissonant.

Even in the best of circumstances, accidents happen and getting accurate information about disasters such as the one in Wenzhou can take time.  We'll see.

I have a lot of stuff in the works.  Soon back to the regularly scheduled programming.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Researching Behavior: A Tale of Cats and Dogs

An experience of mine from quite a few years ago is relevant to the challenges in understanding how people think and behave in another culture.  It's not about China, but instead involves a different culture that was foreign to me in many ways at the time -- the US Marines.

My first job after graduate school was at a consulting company which focused on the development of PC-based training system prototypes for the United States Armed Forces.  My work wasn't only conducting research to guide the design of useful and useable systems but also designing the intelligent agents that would mimic human behavior in a virtual environment and interact with real humans.  In short, I had to detail both typical and ideal decision-making at a fine level in very complex environments.  The projects covered domains ranging from the Air Force Space Command to Navy air wing strike teams.

One project brought me to Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina.  While sitting next to a large table used for tactical planning, an experienced Marine who was assisting the project and considered to be an expert in his domain suddenly began screaming at me.  The short (and cleansed) version was that he wanted to know how it was that I, fresh out of college and without a shred of military experience, could be playing such a key role in mapping out the decision-making in their activities.  Didn't they already know how they did things much better than I possibly could?

I simply wrote down a word and asked him to read it.

He was a bit surprised by my response.  After a brief moment of stunned silence he correctly said "cats".

I then wrote down another word and asked him to read it as well.  He correctly said "dogs".

I pointed out that they both ended with the written letter "s".  He didn't appear to be impressed by that insight, but I still had his attention.

I then pointed out that despite both ending with the written letter "s" he said the word "dogs" ending with a z sound and "cats" ending with an s sound.

I asked him how he decided which sound to use.

He thought for a while before saying he had no idea how he made the decision.

I used this example to show how being an expert in something doesn't mean you know how you do it.  Despite him probably being able to correctly pronounce the final sound in words such as "dogs" and "cats" nearly 100% of the time, he had no explicit awareness of the decisions he was making.  In fact, this was likely advantageous as "thinking about it" while speaking would probably interfere with performance.  As he could well appreciate in the military where the quickness of decisions could mean life or death, much of the value in gaining certain types of expertise is in reducing the need for conscious decision making so choices can be made more expediently and automatically.  This can hold true for a variety of activities, whether it's speaking a language, riding a bike, or playing a video game.

Figuring out how people think and behave is not at all simple.  In my work I need to apply a variety of methods borrowed from fields ranging from cognitive psychology to anthropology to ensure I best address various research questions.  I made it clear to the Marine that the skills I possessed in researching human cognition that better enabled me to ascertain how he was making certain decisions didn't necessarily mean I could effectively make those decisions myself in a "real world" situation.  My expertise was in figuring out how and why he did certain things.  His expertise was in doing them.

He appreciated my explanation and there were no further issues.  It helped him to better understand our respective roles, and he proved to be an invaluable member of the project.

While my research since that first job, and certainly in China, has not at all been military oriented, I continue to work with people who in their own way are experts in a particular field or activity.  Often, it is a part of their daily lives -- whether it's how to use their mobile phone to organize a gathering of friends, how to purchase an item that's not fake online, how to communicate differently with work colleagues and friends, or how to be unique without being too different.  Occasionally in China, people have posed questions similar those of the Marine (though in a far less aggressive fashion).  Like my conversation with the Marine, I've sought appropriate ways to explain that their "expertise" doesn't necessarily translate to fully understanding how they behave and why they behave that way.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Different Languages of China

My previous post touched on the immense variety one can find in China's places & people and how that can impact research.

One of the more obvious of China's variations can be found in language.  The official spoken language in China, Standard Chinese, is based on dialect found in the Beijing area and is commonly referred to as Mandarin or Putonghua.  While Mandarin is becoming more widespread in China, in many regions other local dialects are still commonly spoken.  These local dialects can be completely unintelligible to speakers of other dialects, including Mandarin.

One of the many examples I've seen in how this can matter for research involved a previous colleague of mine who is fluent in Mandarin.  Regardless of her native Chinese speaking skills, when we conducted a project several years ago in Wuhan, Hubei province we ran into significant language issues.  While the participants could speak Mandarin, some were far more comfortable speaking in the local Wuhan dialect.  Sometimes this lead to participants expressing frustration with the need to speak in Mandarin.  Other times it meant that people would frequently slip into the Wuhan dialect.  While the Wuhan dialect is more similar to Mandarin than many other dialects, it was not always comprehensible to my colleague -- obviously a problem for research purposes.

It's not only an issue of whether someone can speak Mandarin at an acceptable level.  If a person doesn't feel genuinely comfortable using Mandarin they may be less likely to open up and share details that could be extremely important. Choosing a dialect for an interview in China may be as simple as determining which dialect people use most.  However, for people who speak multiple dialects it may be more important to identify when they use each dialect.  If the research is focused on work-related issues, it may be better for interviews to be conducted using whatever dialect is most commonly used at work, and not what is used at home with family and friends.  Previous research has indicated that memory can be dependent both upon context and language.  Furthermore, research suggests that people who are fluent in multiple languages can exhibit different personalities and provide different answers to questions depending on the language being used.  In other words, the choice of language used in interviews could impact research results even when people are fluent in both languages.   

In a city such as Shanghai there are many people from a variety of regions, so for any research studies conducted there it may not be practical to conduct each interview in a different dialect if research participants are diverse.  For a number of research purposes it can be appropriate to only use Mandarin given that it is commonly used at work places and in social settings in Shanghai.  Such decisions depend on who and what is being researched.  However, particularly when conducting research in other cities in China which may be more homogenous and where Mandarin is less often used, including an interpreter or researcher who can speak the local dialect can be crucial.  For example, one large project I conducted at Microsoft included 5 different interpreters -- one for each of the cities we were exploring.  Although this may mean sacrificing in terms of the quality of the interpretation (finding a top-notch translator for some local dialects can be much more challenging than finding one for Mandarin), for some types of research allowing people to speak in the most appropriate language is paramount.

While Mandarin is certainly becoming more widespread in China, particularly in younger people, it may not only be a barrier for research, but prove to be entirely unusable.  Companies can't necessarily do away with needing interpreters for research work simply because they have a single Chinese-speaking researcher.  It may mean some extra-challenges in managing and conducting research projects, but it also means a better chance of making meaningful discoveries in a country that is diverse in many ways.

Language matters, a lot.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Different Colors of China

Last year while raveling with a friend in remote Mingshi, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in China we came across this scene:

colored streamers on vertical sticks stuck in the ground

Neither of us had seen these "streamers on a stick" before.

Especially since my friend is Hong Kong Chinese, very well traveled, and experienced in professionally writing about China, I was curious to hear her impressions.  She strongly believed that they were for wedding ceremonies.  When I shared my very different suspicion that they were for graves she disagreed and said colors like the ones seen here would never be used this way on items related to death.

Although I recognized that my friend possessed much knowledge about China, from a research perspective I wasn't convinced she really knew the answer, particularly since she was not from this part of China.  So, when we later saw someone who appeared to be a local we asked him about the streamers on sticks.  He said they were for graves.  My friend was surprised and as we walked onwards I had the sense she wasn't entirely convinced.

Not far from there we came across another site that proved to be more compelling.  Here you can see her soaking it in:

Not only are the streamers even more brightly colored, but there are more obvious (well, more obvious to an American and Hongkonger) markers for the graves.  She was now completely convinced.

This is one of the many examples of China's diversity.   Often, what you find in Shanghai or Hong Kong will not apply in other places in China -- even when you're looking at something so seemingly fundamental as associations for colors.  This has an immense impact on how to best conduct research in China -- whether for driving the design of technology or developing effective marketing campaigns.  For example, if business goals aren't limited to a specific region in China, conducting research in multiple regions can be critical to ensuring any results will apply to the range of people being targeted.  It doesn't necessarily mean the resulting product, marketing campaign, etc. will need to be tailored to each region, but it could mean finding the best single solution that can apply to multiple regions.

It's not only just about what differs.  In some of my research, I've seen unifying threads across China and its people.  But depending on what you're looking at it may be related to factors such as region, size of the city, prosperity of the city, income level, personal interests, age, etc.  For example, I've seen some surprising similarities in people living in very different parts of China -- such as Changsha, Hunan province and Changchun, Jilin province.  However, there were other ways in which they differed that were largely related to regional issues.  Identifying these patterns and understanding them can be key to applying any findings in an effective and meaningful manner.

Finally, in the experience with the graves in Guangxi my friend had a more difficult time than I did in questioning her initial beliefs.  In part, this is likely because her cultural associations with the colors were very strong and she assumed they would apply elsewhere in China.  As an outsider I had fewer (or at least different) biases that made it easier for me to question whether I really knew the answer and also made it more likely I'd seek additional input.

This leads to another topic I'll address in an upcoming post:  How being an outsider to a culture can be advantageous for certain types of research.  In many ways it holds true for all cultures, but I have found it to be especially true in China.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bing Maps and Google Maps: The China-India Border

In my earlier post, I pointed out that both Bing Maps and Google Maps appear to explicitly indicate China's border surrounding the regions of the South China Sea and Taiwan in their China-based versions but do not do so in their US-based versions.  Leon White, who is working on his master's degree in international relations, commented on another disputed border of China that shows a similar pattern in how it is represented, but with a slight twist:
"I am currently writing my thesis on the 60 year old China-India border conflict, and the images of whole China at the end struck me as interesting...

... my main reason for writing is to highlight the differences in how these different mapping services portray the disputed border between China and India. The area most sensitive to China is the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as Southern Tibet. China has not exercised control over this area since it briefly advanced to its own claim lines in the border war of 1962 - the current Line of Actual Control (LAC) runs along the controversial McMahon Line, which connects Bhutan to Myanmar starting just north of Tawang town, roughly at the north-east point of the roughly rectangular shape of Bhutan.

All of these mapping services show the border according to China's claim, i.e. at the SOUTH-east point of Bhutan's border:,92.60376&spn=7.979828,14.27124&z=7&brcurrent=3,0x3761317e9c4a2cc1:0x1fc12c628413da99,1%3B5,0,1,2907956&cc=&s=tpl%3ACity&sc=0

China does NOT actually control this territory, and both parties recognise it as under dispute!

Bing appears to be trying to have it both ways, according to their Indian mapping service:

Only Google Maps US, which loads sporadically for me here in Beijing with the VPN off, is honest about the border dispute. Note the second part of the dispute in the west, confused up with the whole Kashmir issue:,94.152832&spn=16.273866,28.54248&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=58.076329,114.169922&z=6

And, just for laughs, the Chinese government's official mapping service:

Because every mapping services needs a flashy splash screen. I couldn't seem to find a link function on that site, but it did kindly provide me with a little red car in the middle of Sichuan for some reason. Reshma Patil, the correspondent for the Hindustan Times in Beijing, had the following to say about this service:

Sorry for the barrage of links. I suppose the conclusions to be drawn from this are fairly obvious. In order to operate in China, you must toe the line on where the government says the borders are, even though there is no hope in hell they are getting all of that territory back, just as India will never control the Aksai Chin under dispute in the west. Most academics and even the press in China realise this, although Tawang (birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama and potential reincarnation site of the next one) is still under serious dispute."
Based on what I found before, I'm not surprised by the variations in representing the disputed border between China and India.

That Google Maps US clearly represents this border as disputed but does not do so for Taiwan or the South China Sea is worth notice.  I suspect at least part of the reason is due to how Google Maps US represents the borders for islands that have no internal international borders - for example, Taiwan, Madagascar, and Hawaii.  In short, there is nothing explicitly indicating whether islands are part of another country or independent -- for example, no country border lines around Madagascar and no dashed line to explicitly show that Hawaii is part of the US.  However, one could infer Hawaii is part of the US due to it being labeled with its state abbreviation (HI) at certain zoom levels similar to other US states.  One could also infer that Taiwan is not a part of China according to Google Maps US.  At a zoom level where China's provinces are only labeled in Chinese, Taiwan is labeled in both Chinese and English (it is peculiar that Google Maps US does not provide the names of China's provinces in English).

The details provided by Leon White regarding the disputed border between China and India brought to mind something I've been pondering recently.  What is the difference between censoring information according to government rules and providing maps of disputed regions that conform to government rules?  Both can have great impact on how people see the world around them.  I'll share some of my thoughts on this topic later.