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Our cultural values are all the time influencing, and being influenced by, technological development, and the way we interact with technology will also strongly affect the way we interact across cultural borders.
Cultural values can be explained as our attitudes toward other attitudes, and in particular; general and commonly accepted attitudes within a population. To try and describe these attitudes in countries like Norway, Italy and Japan, is difficult, and the definitions become dependant on the comparison itself (comparing Norway to the USA, for instance, brings out a different perspective). I also want to avoid stereotypes, but probably some aspects will reflect them, even though I rely on research and my own experience from having lived in these cultures over a longer period of time.
Without going too much in depth on cultural psychology or anthropology, I would just like to outline some clear differences between the three cultures I`ve chosen as inspiration; Norway, Italy and Japan.
To condense in a few words what defines a style or a cultural identity in design and product development is difficult and dangerous, with the risk of stereotyping. It is obvious that today we have the possibility to find inspiration from everywhere, and this means that the concept of universal design perhaps does not only apply to objects designed for the optimal ease of use, it also applies to a universal sense of aesthetics somehow. Norwegian design has traditionally foucsed on being practical and solid, with a very clean cut look to objects; I interpret it as leaving a lot to the remaining space, the context of the object, like you would se a boat on the sea, or a tree on a snowclad field. Simple beauty. Minimalism became a mantra in the 90`s, strangely enough with the explosion of the internet, and when a new way of doing international trade got foothold. It gave the possibility to many smaller manufacturers and companies to do business across borders. Perhaps this context let people wanting to find that universally common aesthetic, in order to expand commercial reach. Japan on the other side of the world, has traditionally had geometric perfection and minimalistic shapes as the epitome of aesthetics, but because of it the japanese have been a lot more experimental and playful in designing and developing products in order to let it evolve. Great examples are the works of Naoto Fukasawa, who has designed many of Japan`s landmark objects of today, for japanese IDEO, Muji and manufacturers worldwide, including many italian. This is also curious, since Italy has a very strong tradition in designing classically beautiful objects, a serious type of beauty, that comes from a lot more maximalist and exponential aesthetic value. Now, Italy`s great designers aren`t young designers anymore; Sotsass, Castiglioni and Mendini for instance still are the names that tie italian design to great quality and innovation.
The tendency today, as I see it, is that the traditional national identity in design is no longer that; we do have a different approach because of our ways of communication and because so many have been open to different points of view, including them in their design. It`s much more important to make good stuff than it is to follow cultural dogma. (Yet, this is what we are told is necessary to understand the user and the user context. Ref. ZIBA`s Lenovo project in China.) Still, the values that define our cultural identity are very visible. Italian designers, having adopted much from both scandinavian and japanese design, still make classical beauty standards, and norwegian designers still think in a very practical way. Japan pays western designers a great deal more than their native ones, in order to get more western values incorporated in their products.
So what does this mean? We seem to have one eye on the world and another on culture. The future, it seems, is the global culture, where our cultural roots serve as inspiration and are visible only through bits and screens; the one in Japan the same as here. In Japan, the playful approach to design is visible in other cultural phenomena; movies, TV shows, karaoke, videogames and personalization of cell phones, fashion and street subcultures. In Italy, the street is culture, but the idea of classical idea of quality is the value that perforates everything. Norwegian behavior reflects much of the old, traditional values; the strong individual, high moral standards, and a sense of quality through nature. Quality is the key factor here. What defines quality in different cultural contexts? In Norway, it seems like quality is an untouchable value; there is only one way that is the best way, and there can be no discussion about it. Quality is quality. It is hard to pinpoint which value drives innovation in different cultures when what is being made is made for mass consumption on a global scale. I mentioned Lenovo`s project in China, where a year was spent doing cultural research to get a clear picture of the user context for a product innovation strategy specifically designed for chinese youth. The result of a research phase like that can spawn many project ideas and has value for Lenovo far beyond China.
It is well known that what is designed specifically for one user can be desirable for many others, especially when we talk about technology. Here, the cultural issue can be left out; we have almost a common technological culture throughout the world. What we are accustomed to in the developed world, is just as applicable elsewhere. Many products specifically designed for japanese consumers, like HD viedo cameras, MP3 players and cars work fantasticly in the west. A product designed specifically for a japanese context, like the keitai (cell phone w/internet connection/RFID), would be very interesting to western users had we had the same type of services connected to it. Here in the west the services connected to mobile phones aren`t that well developed yet; costs are different and subscriptions favor other solutions. Also, the software is developed for different use. Vodafone Europe, Nokia and Sony Ericsson make software for their phones based on models intended for various users, according to the research done on the european users. But do we know that, if mobile phone software were developed here for Nokia or Sony Ericsson that allowed you to send emails from your phone as easily as an sms, mobile internet wouldn`t be used as much as there? Would we not use our phones to pay our groceries at the supermarket instead of a creditcard? And would we not use a phone to pay our bills? And what happens when video communication becomes the norm? Will we make solutions based on global cultural standards or our traditional ones?
These days I am co-running a workshop at my old university in Milan, NABA. The workshop is focused on plastic product design for the young first graders, who have little or no knowlegde on production of plastic products, molding techniques or technical drawing, so my role here is important for them, they tell me, and for me it’s giving as I get to see the process from the other side of the desk. Confronting their problems from a teacher point of view is valuable as an experience, and I learn as much, if not more, than my students. Obviously this takes some time away from my thesis work, and I sit nights now trying to generate ideas and scenarios. Next week I will meet at ID Lab for a status review and further progress plan.
Designing an experience comes down to key factors based on values. In order to achieve a desired experience and implementing the triggers for it, one needs to decide on the type of values to represent. Are we talking about global values, like basic human wants, “specific user needs”, as services today are focused on, or culturally and traditionally determined values for a certain group? The famous example of the Sony Walkman was invented in Japan, where it is considered quite rude to talk on the metro, so giving people the possibility of listening to music and being able to enjoy the train ride in a completely new way was revolutionary. Many services are aimed at specific needs for a specific city, like transportation or real estate, but for the most part communication services all have a global perspective; the thing is that the services now used globally started extremely local. Facebook was invented by college students who wanted a new way to share photos and to send messages to eachother. Napster was also invented by a student who wanted to share music files for free with other friends. Of course, these are landmark inventions based on not only the desire of a small group of people, but the communication technology already in place. The technology in this case determines as much the desire as vice versa. So how will it be in the future? Will we adapt a whole new set of globally accepted values, or will particular cultural roots become more central to our attitudes defining behavior, and thereby product and service innovation? It seems obvious that we accept more and more a global point of view on many things, from privacy, to business models and communication, but how much will we really abandon tradition, or embrace local culture? The reality today is that we have learned from examples such as the Walkman and Facebook; that what works for one particular type of user group, will most likely be desirable for many others, and that is the basis for the global point of view. So what about the new old? Do we apply the same philosophy for them? Or do we emphasize traditional cultural values?
Another example of culturally defined behavior is the habit of using the street as a place of congregation and social interaction, very common among elderly in Italy. There bars and the street outside your house or the local piazza is the natural place to meet and talk about current events. Whereas in Norway talking on the street is basically short and hasty; obviously climate is a big factor, but there`s also a bigger, psychological factor. In Norway we tend to feel a bit timid and exposed in certain public situations, and we traditionally prefer a more private setting to talk with friends. In Japan the customs for politeness affect behavior in most types of social interaction, but they also give rise to more extreme ways of expression. Habits and attitudes such as these are not irrelevant factors to consider when thinking about service design, and how to define an experience within it.
So; which experience is the one to strive for in designing a service?
– which values are common for the user culture? (what are the tabus, what goes “without saying”, what`s unheard of?)
– Which type of positive experience should be the aim? (it is not enough to say “a positive experience”) Can a culturally specific experience be used as an analogy, or as a template? (for instance, the japanese tradition to write wishes on paper and tie them to the temple tree.)
– What are the key factors in this experience? (touchpoints, visibility/prescence, location, grafic interface, physical interface)
– Is there one main defining element to this experience? (the action itself and its significance, the result of the action)
For the new old attention to cultural and traditional values could be a key to creating a positive experience; for instance as a reminder of past events or as an ironic play on them. The example of the temple tree could serve as basis for a new way to use a communication device to express wishes, or a very personal way to send messages, for instance.
I found this setup of an experience design process, explaining step by step a good approach to designing a concept with the focus on customer experience.
Elderly and technology in a future scenario predicts a vast number of research fields ranging from ergonomics, physical and mental aspects of ageing, emerging technologies, and the many sociopolitical, environmental and cultural factors to describe a vision of the future. I told myself in the beginning of this project that I wouldn`t become lost in research (as I have before, finding more and more interesting fields to immerse myself in), but set a end date for this phase. It`s almost mid February, and I still find lots of data indicating different views of the future that could be of relevance for my project. However, I try to work in parallel with ideas and to sketch out possible solutions for a future service. From these thoughts I can go back to find research data relevant in a more specific manner.
Of the reflections I find most interesting while thinking about scenarios, are the visions related to ubiquitous computing, as visualized by major actors like Microsoft, Nokia, Sony and Motorola and discussed more in depth by visionaries like Adam Greenfield and Bruce Sterling. My research report will discuss my other findings related to population growth, current trends in technology and interface development, concepts already thought for the future elderly etc. But few of these adress the cultural values that will have to be imbedded in the design of these systems or services. This continues to be a goal for this project, because as solutions and services become more focused on a globally integrated network technology, the cultural value will decide the shaping of these systems where they are available. In Italy, for instance, they would probably not consider a solution like the “Care Bears” for the elderly as welcome as in Japan, where they are now being experimented with in the world`s first high-tech retirement home, much less the robots intended to lift elders in and out of bed, and help with other basic needs like feeding. And in Norway a custom like gathering outside coffeeshops for daily social interaction among retirees is not the custom.
Another interesting field of interest is the way that ubiquitous computing will change the way we use our cities and public spaces. If RFID readers and transmitters are everywhere, and can respond to your walking by them in a specific way, this offers interesting possibilities for a kind of a “physical browsing” of the city. Services could also be aimed at this new and pervasive technology, using it as beacons, touchpoints or keys to augmenting a service experience. One could also imagine city wide, even world wide games aimed at using these “beacons” spread around the city. Elderly could make good use of them walking around, at the supermarket or in a new place, to get information and help to understand the background of a certain product or place. The only problem I see with this route with regard to my thesis is that the technology seems to ready at hand today, and perhaps not a viable alternative for a future setting in 2020.
W hat happens when the virtual mixes with the physical?
I have to admit; the act of publishing my own reflections on this blog is a lot stranger and more challenging than I first thought. When trying to design a concept for the future elderly, this is helpful. They will live with their mindset and values of today in a ubiquitous computing world, given the option of being “always on” through a vast variety of products and services, all wirelessly connected. And if even for me this is somewhat of a strange notion, what will it be like for people older than me? It could become a nightmare scenario, or they could be the first generation to actually set a standard for this type of everyday, “Everyware” , life, with a traditional set of values I think are to be well respected. I have been talking to people of my chosen user group, and gotten some indication as to what they think their future as retired might be, and while most are optimistic and open as to what kind of activities and lifestyle they will enjoy, no one so far has put the finger on the technological development taking place, and how they think this will influence their lives. This tells me that they could be in for a great deal of surprises, given that today, we might hear of some new development and within a few days it might be here. When visionaries like Adam Greenfield talks about ubiquitous computing, he puts it into a timeframe of a few years. And this I thought of when starting this project; the thing I`m designing could be realistic way before I think it is.
Today my grandmother got her first email account, joining in her own small way an online life I take for granted by now, and would not know what to do without. For her it was a nice experience getting her first email from me with a link to a Youtube video about her hometown; a simple slideshow of its history, some very nice “danceband” music on top, and of course flagging the patriotism of the local football team. It will be exciting to see how she will continue to use this new window to the world, and although she has already indicated many difficulties with the pc and browser interface, she is very openminded and welcomes its many possibilities.
For a user like my grandmother, the many ethical aspects of being online aren`t as imposing as much as we will think for a ubiquitous computing (UC) scenario. She is in complete control of when she`s online, and what she will use of online services. In the future in which I imagine my design concept, we will be surrounded by interconnected products and services, and the boundary of being ON/OFF line will be a lot more evasive. Designing a concept for the future use of UC, the most important thing for me would be exactly this; we have to be able to unplug, and to be in control of, or at least aware of how we interact with this type of service.
The service design approach teaches us to consider the emotional aspect of using a service, over a certain period of time. The feelgood factor. Your design should provoke good feelings through aesthetics and ease of use (which studies show are strongly interrelated; the perceived aesthetics of a system and its perceived ease of use). A service with several touchpoints today seem to want to give you the same good feeling every time at every touchpoint; it`s recognizable and reliable. But the experience can become dull very fast that way. Nathan Shedroff says in his experience design blog; “…everything, technically, is an experience of some sort..”, and it consists of certain key factors, which makes it designable. A good experience, however, is never self-repeating. Variation within the service`s visual and sensorial language is necessary in order to give depth and personality.
Reading elderly bloggers` blogs I realize that there`s really many out there among our senior citizens already fluent in the language of the internet, using it as an outlet for political opinions, philosophy discussions, and sharing their life experiences with their peers. But not only; many have readers of younger generations as well. Ronni Bennet, a former CBS producer and CBSNews.com managing editor, has to be considered a forefigure for elderblogging, and is herself an active speaker at conventions talking about better designing the internet interface for elderly users. Her blog has a list of links to elderblogs long as a good year, a clear sign that today`s elders are ready to come out online, guns blazing. But what about tomorrow`s elders? Will they be as interested in blogs as their parents..?