HCI/UX in China: A trip report

Authors: Aaron Marcus
Posted: Fri, June 14, 2013 - 12:04:13

How are product/service human-computer interaction design and user-experience design doing in China, you ask? Well, as they say, we live in interesting times. I shall give you a personal update based on recent experiences.

I have just spent a week in China in three cities, Yangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing, attending two design conferences in the first and third cities and viewing the building where my new Center for User-Experience Design Innovation (CUXI) plans to open in September 2013. Please let me explain.

The Dragon Design Foundation (DDF), one of the largest design organizations in China, with close connections to the Chinese government (a must for any successful organization or business in China), invited me to give presentations at the Third World Green Design Forum in Yangzhou, a “small city,” I was told, with only 4.6 million inhabitants. Surprisingly, even Chinese participants were not too familiar with the city, although it has an illustrious past as a center for theaters, poets, artists, and, presumably, designers. A fleet of people attended to our needs as overseas invited presenters. Most attendees came from China and Europe. There were about 700 people from 20 countries. Ministers of the European Parliament attended.

The conference presentations on May 28 and 29, 2013 seemed to focus on a wide variety of topics, primarily on international standards, urban-scale projects, architectural projects, industrial products, new 3-D printing technologies, intellectual property and investments, and projects dealing with rural development, which seemed appropriate for a nation for which most of the land is still rural. Although many of the presentations were interesting, they did not specifically focus on HCI/UX products/services, as I thought they might.

One of the most amazing presentations was that by Mr. Peter Woolsey, the head of a company that has invented a patented process for turning pig manure and chicken manure (China is the largest grower of pigs and chickens in the world), plus the left-over body parts from food production, into edible substances for two kinds of fly larvae, which in turn grow into massive numbers in a short time. These fly larvae, in turn, are harvested, processed, and turned into a safe, healthful, nutritious meal (“maggot meal”!), which is then fed back to the next generation of pigs and chickens. As you might imagine, a significant amount of energy is saved, and one is left with an unusual example of recycling. One can only imagine what will happen when future humanity decides it should end the “wasteful” use of cemeteries and simply let people eat the previous people as a source of nutritious, tasty, and low-cost food. Somehow, I feel there is a lesson in sustainability for HCI/UX people, and I don’t mean grinding them up for the next generation of professionals.

Although interesting, the conference did not enlighten me that much about green apps, for example, that can help save energy at home, at work, traveling, etc. I did have an opportunity to present our own Green Machine project, which was a useful opportunity to discuss these issues.

Author in his “tribal hat” (actually his CHI 1999 “Sci-Fi at CHI” panel hat)
that he used for his DDF presentations.

There are conferences that focus on HCI/UX developments in China.

One is the User-Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) conference, also called User Friendly. The last one was held in Beijing in November 2012. I was fortunate to be able to give a keynote lecture about UX in science-fiction movies and television over the past 100 years (the subject of my CHI 2013 tutorial) to about 700 people. The presentations and attendees came from many major sites of advanced development in China as well as abroad. The next conference is scheduled for November 2013 in Shanghai. Now that is a conference for HCI/UX.

There are also the Asia Pacific CHI (APCHI) conferences that bounce around Asian locations. They have taken place in China, but not consistently. I was also fortunate to present my sci-fi tutorial at the APCHI 2012 conference in Japan. The attendance was primarily Japanese. The next, APCHI 2013, will take place in Bangalore.

Another source of HCI/UX developments is the SIGGRAPH Asia conference, which has taken place in Hong Kong in the past (2011) and is scheduled again for that city in November 2013. I have found it to have extremely interesting and exotic HCI/UX exhibits. It was in 2011, I believe, that I discovered a Japanese R+D project to create knives and forks with sensors and sound displays that enabled food to become “musical.”

The second DDF conference was called the Dragon Design Festival on May 31 and June 1. This conference was much more oriented to teachers, researchers, and professionals reporting on their current projects and curricula. Unfortunately, again, there was minimal HCI/UX content in most of the presentations. This situation seems to suggest a disconnect from the high-tech developers and the regular Chinese design community. Most of the product-design presentations were really more industrial design than device-HCI design. This low-level of content was disappointing, and I hope that the DDF/DDF will feature more HCI/UX content in the future. One of the major components, and more interesting aspects, of the DDF/DDF conference featured the planned development of a “Design Valley” in south Beijing, similar to other large urban developments rising in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and other locations in China. These government-supported centers are seeking to create their own combination of Silicon Valley and design centers at a scale and speed that is unheard of in the US. One of five complexes in the Beijing site features six multi-story buildings that will house 2,000 high-tech companies.

I did have an opportunity to present at the DDF/DDF conference my own plans for my new Center for User-Experience Innovation in Shanghai, being funded by the De Tao Group, on the campus of the Shanghai Institute for Visual Arts. I plan to provide a year-long “executive user-experience master’s course,” like an eMBA, to Chinese professionals, executives, or students wishing to learn “all there is to know” about HCI/UX in one year, as well as frequent one-week short courses for US and European executives and professionals who would like to learn about mobile UX design and the China context in a short time and have Shanghai as the venue. The CUXI will also carry out UX design, research, and evaluation projects for Chinese companies or foreign companies having or interested in developing China UX offices. One surprising result from my brief presentation about the CUXI was that a developer of one of the high-technology centers came up to me and stated that what I was doing in Shanghai was exactly what he needed in his own center, and he needed it now! He even arranged for me on the spot to meet with the regional government representative who must authorize and permit all such activities. That was a fortunate and productive moment at the conference.

Recent studies of HCI/UX professionals in most high tech companies in China show that the professionals are young and lack the years of experience that their peers in other countries have. Universities and institutions like CUXI are trying to help them catch up. It is clear that China is making a strong, concerted effort to ensure that future high-tech gadgets and apps are not only made in China, but designed in China. Stay tuned...

Posted in: on Fri, June 14, 2013 - 12:04:13

Aaron Marcus

Aaron Marcus is principal at Aaron Marcus and Associates (AM+A) in Berkeley, California.
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