Cultural Differences

Words, Language, Influence, & Design

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of language. Sure, there have been a lot of news relating to language (election, after all, is only a few months away): legitimate rape is one example of powerful words/phrases in the news. But I would like to briefly explore how words and language can influence the design and use of a product. Language Development It might be interesting to start really early (or to look to unusual cases of individuals without language). The following program by RadioLab does a wonderful job of introducing language and the development of comprehension: Words that Change the World. This half-hour audio show presents the work of Susan Schaller, Charles Fernyhough, Elizabeth Spelke, and James Shapiro. Susan describes a case of a deaf 27 year old man who was never taught language and his journey to comprehension. Charles describes an experiment where babies, kids, and rats are asked to find items in a blank room after a brief disorientation. He discovers that language is essential to linking concepts in our brain. Elizabeth explores the benefits of language farther. And James, a Shakespeare scholar at Columbia University, talks about the use of language to communicate complex…

Design and the Olympic Games

Aerial Shot of the London Olympic Stadium

The Olympic Games are coming to a close and there are some interesting design decisions that seem worth mentioning. But let’s start with a cursory set of design requirements: safety, transportation, visibility and observability of events, entertainment, fairness, cultural sensitivity and appropriateness, and so much more. As with all design problems, divide and concur is a good approach: who are the audiences; what are their needs; what are the time, budget, and personal resources of the project; and what are the considerations (goals) of the sponsoring country. These are the basics of product design. From these variables, we can set priorities and deduce probabilities of errors and failures and how to accommodate them with design. Clearly, this is too much to cover in one blog, but here are a few thoughts… Safety There are many safety concerns in staging big, multinational events. Let’s first consider the different groups of individuals: safety for the participants, organizers, audience, supporting staff. We can break this down even more (by country, by sex, by religion, by location, by celebrity, etc.), but these are the large categories. It’s important to consider the safety for each group separately and provide supports as necessary. There are different…

Designing an Optimum Nudge

Tornado Exhibit at the Exploratorium

I’m sitting by a window looking out at a rainy Paris street, thinking of cultural differences between Paris and San Francisco, taking advantage of bad weather to do some writing. Over two decades ago, I did some ethnographic research a Exploratorium, looking at how different visitors interacted with the museum’s hands-on exhibits. I was looking for ways to improve the visitors’ experience, raise understanding of the phenomena they were observing. What I saw was different ways in which visitors experienced failure: p-prims that got in a way; folksy wisdom that caused confusion; lack of affordances that led to bottlenecks; permission giving that set up strange expectations; etc. The results of this study turned into a Master Thesis for UC Berkeley. Now, I would like to explore some of the ideas that surfaced during my Exploratorium research and apply them to design of nudging — carefully crafted affordances and perceptual cues that manipulated users into acting a certain way while maintaining the illusion of freedom of action. Let me start with a bit of history — a quick summary of some of the results of Exploratorium study. Permission Giving Two decades ago, “hands-on” exhibits were still novel in the museum world.…

Cultural Barriers to Success

Tim Buton Exhibition at La Cinémathèque in Paris

Man-made Disasters in a Wake of Tsunami This month, The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission issued its final report on the disaster: It was man-made! Here’s a quote from the report: What must be admitted — very painfully — is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.” Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program”; our groupism; and our insularity. Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same. The last sentence is particular insightful — the blame was not rested on the shoulders of a particular individual, as tempting as that might be, or even on the shoulders of some manager. The fault was places on the cultural context in which the incident played out. Museums in Paris We just got back from seeing a Tim Burton exhibit at the La Cinémathèque, in Paris. The content of the exhibit, as one could imagine, is quite wonderful. But there were many, many human failures in making the visit an enjoyable experience. And yes,…

Foie Gras on Child’s Menu and Other Cultural Differences

2012-06-28 School Menu in France

We are staying in a tiny village of Cenac, in a beautiful Dordogne Valley in France — the valley of foie gras (duck liver). The other day, when we went out for dinner in a local restaurant, we saw a great little item on the Child’s Menu: foie gras! Imagine a duck liver pate on a child’s menu anywhere in US? Here, it’s a common item — if not duck liver, than some other pate is often on the menu for kids. Check out the photo we took of the elementary school menu, posted on the door of the school: Notice the rabbit, duck, olives, salad and vegetables, and, of course, the pate on the menu! I think the families and children in this small village would be shocked by the menu offerings at our schools in San Francisco! This is a cultural difference! Cultural differences affect how we think about problem solving — how we approach the problem and how we go about looking for solutions. Consider a few images below. They are from India and show a cultural difference in imaginative solutions to every day problems: The motorcycle bus and the home-made flotation device show creativity within a…

30,000 Years of Logo Evolution

Logos have undergone an amazing amount of visual change in the last 30,000 years — obvious statement, isn’t it? But if you look at the change, all grouped together, what we are seeing is the evolution of visual language. The way we relate to icons and what we want them to be is changing continuously. From “I was here” hand print on the wall of an ancient cave to the modern version of Apple logo, we are just trying to make a brand that the current generation of users finds visually appealing.

Flattery — the Social Lubricant

Gentle Readers, As you have been undoubtably aware for some time, this blog aims for audience with well above average vocabulary and IQ. You and your fellow readers are a very select group with strong interest in science and product design. You are scientists, engineers, and intellectuals. You have an amazing sense of style and fashion. You are able to see patterns and spot details that escape most of those around you. How do I know? I can see the strong engagement with the material on this blog — it’s all there in black and white numbers provided helpfully by Google day in and out. Some of you might think this letter cynical. But all of you know that this content appeals directly your amygdala — you are as happy to be recognized for your brilliance as I’m for your continued readership of my writing. You all know you are special, and you want to be acknowledged as such by those around you. And not only are you all above average, you are also extraordinarily lucky. Some might call this the “optimism bias”, but you and I know that your chances of success are much higher than the average Joe…