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XIV.6 November + December 2007
Page: 52
Digital Citation

The sun rises in the east

Aaron Marcus

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When I first visited China and Japan in 1975, I was there to lecture about the coming age of computer graphics to designers in Hong Kong and Tokyo. I gazed at China from a guarded border lookout at the northern edge of Hong Kong, which then still belonged to the British Empire, when the Japanese yen exchange was more than 300 per US dollar, almost three times the present number. But since then, much water has flowed under Asia's traditional curved bridges—the world has changed greatly. I recently spent a week in Tokyo and a week in Beijing. The teenagers in Tokyo's Shibuya area may still dress crazy, and the pollution seems worse than ever in Beijing, but I return convinced of a sea change around the Pacific Basin regarding HCI.

Throughout the past two decades of CHI and during the present history of <interactions>, Asian developments took a third seat to those in the U.S. and Europe. Based on my experiences visiting Asia for the past 32 years, I think CHI needs to recognize that major technology innovations are not only happening in Silicon Valley and other American centers, but also in Asia.

In Tokyo, the Human-Centered Design Network is now several years old. The organization has the backing of many Japanese corporations; its focus is on universal access and universal design of computer-based systems. Dr. Masaaki Kurosu, formerly one of the key people at the Hitachi Design Center and more recently a leader of the National Institute of Multimedia Education, has been prominent in founding and promoting the organization. The group has sponsored many conferences, lectures, get-togethers, and exchanges of communication in Japan, the U.S., and China, among other locations.

Japan produces many studies and information resources that may not be well-known to those not fluent in Japanese, which would include me. In my case, I use "informants" in my own firm from Japan, Taiwan, and Korea to find relevant literature discussing examples of new products, services, and technology developments. Yes, this is available on the Web through searches, if one knows the respective languages. Even though I have some knowledge of technology developments, it was an eye-opener to actually observe the high quality of a Fujitsu mobile phone receiving superior-quality broadcast television on a wide-screen handheld display, or a Sony television in the kitchen of a colleague receiving super-high-quality images of a baseball game.

Some of the previously untranslatable information is making its way into English for others in the West to discover. For example, Fujitsu's guidelines for Web design and color-selection tools that are oriented to universal design can be accessed online. Some companies and organizations have only recently developed user-centered software practices including user experience design, so literature is often not as extensive as Western resources. However, professional development in this area is expanding rapidly, and the level and quality are constantly and quickly rising.

I attended the 12th conference of Human-Computer Interaction International (HCII) held this past July in Beijing. This conference series is notable for eclectic programs, being less selective than CHI's conferences, and for being much more international in nature. In fact, HCII was a kind of shouk, or bazaar, of a broad spectrum of technology, products, and services. I was exposed to a wealth of new talent, insights, and developments. Absorbing all that is going on in China from more well-known centers of development in Beijing, Dalian, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and elsewhere is almost overwhelming. One notable theme was the awareness of culture differences between Western and Asian approaches, and even those within Asian cultures. At HCII 2007, of the three dozen sessions, approximately two dozen included cultural and universal access themes. There were even sessions focused specifically on user-interface design issues in Latin American countries and customizing the user experience for the Chinese market. I was impressed by the awakening of awareness and the public discussion of philosophies, principles, and techniques.

To cite one example: Professor Kun-Pyo Lee, head of the Industrial Design Department at the respected Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), and his colleagues reported on the results of comparing the way Korean and French users looked at websites. Their results show that Koreans move around the screen in a somewhat circular fashion, checking many relations among parts of the screen. The French viewers focused quickly on specific markers/monuments and then picked their goals. The differences seem to conform to the predictions of Nisbett as defined in his book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Europeans Think Differently... And Why.

One other example of the differences between the East and West is the user-interface attributes of Taobao, a Chinese auction website that is viewed more favorably than its competitor in China, eBay/China. Professor Zhengie Liu, director of the Sino-European Usability Center (SEUC) at Dalian Maritime University in China, and his colleagues reported on the differences in Taobao's payment method with respect to trust. The Chinese version's payment method (via AliPay, as opposed to eBay's PayPal) demands that payers put their payment into the hands of a mutually trusted third party that will release the payer's funds to the seller only when the buyer has confirmed that he/she has received the purchase, and it matches the agreed-upon conditions.

A paper from authors in Namibia was provocatively titled "Assumptions Considered Harmful: The Need to Redefine Usability." This attitude reflects sentiments among some that usability, usefulness, and appeal discussions have been too biased toward Western assumptions. Another notable theme of the hundreds of posters shown (one of the largest collections I have ever seen at a CHI, HCI, or user experience conference) was the attention to culture and international, global issues, such as studies of design for non-Western writing systems and pictograms.

One other significant attraction at this conference was the presence of at least a half-dozen usability consulting firms in the exhibit booths, not only from the U.S. and Europe, but also from China and Japan. Clearly, the usability business has discovered China as an important market that needs to be considered. In a country like China, where recent statistics show that there are more than 500 million mobile phone users, and 200 million people have been added to the growing middle class, the inevitabilities are evident.

Other future conferences will continue to explore CHI community issues in Asian, and specifically China-based, venues. User-friendly conferences have grown in just a few years from 50 to 500 participants. The next is to be held again in Beijing later this year from November 23 to 25, and is sponsored by UPA China, of which Jason Huang has taken charge. He is a key figure among new leaders in the organization, training, and consulting fields. An additional meeting of the International Association of Societies of Design Research is scheduled for November 12-15, 2007, at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which will be of interest to CHI community members.

Businesspeople and academics alike are realizing that China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea are sizable markets to be reckoned with. Likewise, the CHI community will encounter increasing depth and breadth from our colleagues in the East. We are likely to be in for many surprises and fresh insights in human-computer communication and interaction.

back to top  References

Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought, Why Asians and Europeans Think Differently. New York: The Free Press, 2003.

* URLs

Fujitsu Corporation (2007). ColorDoctor:

Fujitsu Corporation (2007). ColorSelector:

Fujitsu Corporation (2007). Fujitsu Accessibility Assistance (FAA):

PDF download:

Fujitsu Corporation (2007). Fujitsu Web Accessibility Guidelines:

Fujitsu Corporation (2007). Web Accessibility Inspector:

Human-Centered Design Network (HCD) (2007):

Human-Computer Interaction International (HCII) 2007 Conference in Beijing, 22-27 July. Conference program announcement:

International Association of Design Research (IASDR) 2007 Conference. Conference description:

User-Friendly 2007 Conference in Beijing, 23-27 November 2007 . Conference program announcement:

Usability Professionals Association (UPA) in China (2007). Organization website:

back to top  Author

Aaron Marcus
Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A)

About the author

Aaron Marcus is the founder and president of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A). He has degrees from both Princeton University and Yale University, in physics and graphic design, respectively. Mr. Marcus has published, lectured, tutored, and consulted internationally for more than 30 years.

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