A Glimpse of China’s Future at User Friendly 2005

February 20, 2006

The taxi jerked to the left suddenly, and my life flashed before my eyes—yet again. Narrowly missing a truck’s bumper, we careened past it at 60 mph and dashed into a small opening between two vans. In the back seat, Daniel and Jo from Apogee exhaled with relief as we burst into an empty stretch of highway for a few moments and could relax our grip on our seats. Before long, however, our taxi driver plunged back into the fray, driving at breakneck speed away from the Pudong airport toward downtown Shanghai.

Upon reflection, this was an incredibly appropriate introduction to one of the most dynamic cities in the world and the setting for the User Friendly 2005 conference. Shanghai is reportedly one of the world’s top five most populous cities—and is developing so rapidly that locals sometimes find its changing landscape disorienting. After participating in UF2005, I’m left with the impression that the design and usability professions in China are developing at a similar rate.

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UF2005, shown in Figure 1, occurred on December 17 and 18 and was the third conference UPA China has hosted. It attracted more than 300 of the estimated 400 people practicing usability in China, with attendees also coming from neighboring countries such as Korea and Taiwan. Invited guest speakers came from North America, Europe, and Australia. “UF2005 is a truly international conference,” observed Jason Huang, president of UPA China and director of the conference committee. “It’s also the biggest in China. When I say biggest, first I mean it has the most attendees; second, those attendees came from more than 60 local and international companies; and finally, it has the best content and most presentations.”

Figure 1—UF2005

The organizing team of UF2005 deserves congratulations for hosting a very successful event. Every seat was filled with an eager participant. The organizers did everything possible to help jet-lagged speakers orient themselves and get prepared for their presentations. From the moment I collected my bags at the airport to the moment I packed up for the trip home, the organizing team had taken care of everything, from transportation to food. And oh, the food! It deserves a review of its own. Suffice it to say that every meal was marvelous: an explosion of color and fragrances from a host of dishes spinning lazily in the center of a giant round table. Now that I’ve returned home to Canada, the local restaurants pale in comparison.

The conference opened with a day of 45-minute presentations by invited speakers. Whitney Quesenbery, president of the UPA, shown in Figure 2, kicked things off with her opening keynote on “The Politics of Usability.” This topic seemed to capture the attention of the crowd. Attendees described their main challenge as one of getting business owners to buy into the value of usability and user-centered design. Daniel Szuc, principal consultant at Apogee in Hong Kong, said, “Usability is still in its infant stages in China, as business learns more about its value. But that will change quickly!” Judging by the impassioned and insightful discussions that followed Whitney’s presentation, it will change quickly indeed.

Figure 2—Whitney Quesenbery giving the opening keynote address
Whitney  Quesenbery

For me, the experience of speaking at UF2005 was unique, because it was my first time having a simultaneous translation accompanying my talk. Stepping up to the podium, I couldn’t help feeling impressed by the setup. I noticed people with headsets sprinkled throughout the crowd, tuning into the interpreters sitting at a table near the front of the room. English was the official language of the conference and communication flowed easily at most times; attendees put me to shame with their fluency in two, three, or more languages. A few challenges arose with translations, but someone was always ready to jump in and help clarify both questions and comments.

Day one saw a good variety of speakers. Following Whitney’s keynote, I discussed how to align usability with marketing and branding, resulting in easy-to-use products that differentiate you from the competition. Figure 3 shows me in full flow. Amy Nicholls, from StyleVision, described an intriguing model for segmenting customers based on “mood theory” and shared successes they’ve had with clients in Europe. Then, in a shrewd move by the organizing committee, Michael Summers took to the podium after lunch. He shook the room from its food-induced stupor with an engaging presentation on how everyone benefits when you design for older and lower-literacy users. “I’m from New York,” Michael warned us. “So that means I’M LOUD.” He was. It was just what we needed.

Figure 3—Robert Barlow-Busch giving his presentation
Robert Barlow-Busch

With the crowd re-energized, Jared Braiterman presented some preliminary findings from his ongoing ethnographic study of mobile technology and youth trends in China, which he illustrated with fun video clips from interviews with people on the street. Then, in the first Mandarin presentation of the day, Jianming Dong and Paul Fu of eBay described how both qualitative and quantitative research helps to inform their work. The DNA, a design agency, closed the day with a lovely case study, showing their efforts in designing a special refrigerator for kimchee, a popular pickled vegetable in Korea.

Several of the invited speakers—myself included—were struck by how young the attendees were. During his presentation on designing for older users, Michael asked for a show of hands, “How many of us are over 30 years of age?” I raised my hand and turned to glance at the crowd of 300. Perhaps ten hands were raised. Gerry Gaffney, of Information & Design in Australia, said, “This is an indication of two things, in my mind: the usability profession is young, and it’s going to get really good, really quickly.” Gerry is surely right. The quality of talent evident at UF2005 was stellar. Attendees were curious, clever, determined, and highly energized. I must admit to being impressed by the energy of everyone I met in China, from my psychotic taxi driver to the hotel staff who rang me with six wakeup calls within a 30-minute period on my first morning—even though I hadn’t ordered even one wakeup call. I suppose they were concerned I might miss something exciting, which is likely to happen if you sleep late in Shanghai.

On the agenda for day two was a collection of full- and half-day workshops. This was an excellent opportunity to spend time discussing specific topics in depth. From my own experience leading a workshop on personas—and based on feedback from other speakers and attendees—discussions were lively and everyone came away having learned something new.

UF2005 ended at a restaurant, where the organizing committee and invited speakers shared an enormous feast. People sometimes complain that North American Chinese food fills you up quickly, but leaves you hungry shortly afterward. I can’t say that’s true of the food in Shanghai, but the expression accurately describes my experience at UF2005. After that night at the restaurant, I left with my stomach full and my brain full, but I’m already hungry for more and hope to return next year.

Jason Huang, president of UPA China and director of the conference committee, who is shown in Figure 4, shared some of UPA China’s plans for the 2006 conference, which will be extended to three or four days, cover a wider range of countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and include more speakers from local industries.

Figure 4—Jason Huang, director of the conference committee
Jason Huang

They’ll certainly need to host a larger event next year, as the usability profession continues to grow rapidly in China. “There’s a generation of usability professionals out there who are hungry to learn and eager to make the lives of their target audiences easier,” concluded Amy Nicholls. “I’ll drink to that!” And we did. 

UX Design Lead at Google

Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

Robert Barlow-BuschAt Quarry, Robert led projects for clients who want to distinguish themselves through products that are well designed, usable, and deliver an outstanding customer experience. As Practice Director of Interaction Design, he also worked with teammates to develop Quarry’s design methods. For instance, Robert introduced the use of personas to Quarry and has since then employed personas for projects in a variety of industries. He has also helped develop methods for better aligning usability with the goals and practices of marketing and branding. Some of this expertise is captured in Robert’s invited chapter about “Marketing Versus Design Personas,” in The Persona Lifecycle, a book Morgan Kaufmann will publish in 2006. With over 14 years of experience designing software and Web applications, Robert has worked throughout North America and Europe, at companies with familiar names such as Sony and FedEx.  Read More

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