Author Archives: younghee

Digital imaging entrepreneurs

Affordable digital photography equipments have given birth to numerous street entrepreneurs. It is surprising how many applications of photographs people can come up with, when I recall the use of photographs merely 20 years ago. While I still hear the occasional question of “why do you take the photo of that?” – a habit from the past where photographs were reserved for special occasion only – it seems clear that we are marching towards the creative world of photography in our everyday lives.

In India, digital imaging entrepreneurs are still taking advantage of the fact that they can set up the business cheaply and majority of the population still do not own cameras of their own. Heavily decorated photograph booths, with the essential prop of a motorcycle or printouts of bollywood stars are the basic requirement – to create the special occasion for the customers. Below images were taken at a local fair ground in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.

More advanced photo studios may offer digitally re-touched imaging options, thanks to the development of easy-to-use photo editing software. This reduces the physical space burden of setting up a photo studio, as the owner is able to photoshop in a “desirable” background to the photo. Below photos were taken & photoshopped by a photo studio owner near Erode, Tamil Nadu.

In South Korea where the rate of digital camera ownership is relatively much higher, local entrepreneurs have to bring something more than a camera and a printer can do. He was selling a mobile phone strap personalized with your photograph. He took the photo, edited immediately on a computer with custom-made photoshop template reflecting the customer’s opinion, printed it, and used the hair dryer to fit the printout onto a little trinket that the customer has chosen. The whole process took about 20min, which is still a long time – I am not sure how scalable his business will be.

One sure fact is that our own images semi-eternalized by the photographs are increasingly influencing our memory, attitude to real-time experiences, and relationship with others.

Obvious physical constraints

Many countries utilize RFID cards at high way tollgates, ranging from free passes with which cars can simply drive through the gates, to transportation or credit cards. Replacing cash transactions alone can speed up the process of passing through the tollgate.

This tollgate in Seoul, on the way to Incheon airport, had 3 card scanners each accommodating the different height of the driver seat. Designers must have gone through several options before deciding on this solution: A stronger scanner? Material and manufacturing cost of the machine? Off-the-shelf components available on the market? Ergonomics of the driver reach on different vehicle types? Maintenance cost? Variations in the usage contexts where the scanner should be installed and used?

Cash is an incredible medium that has lived through centuries in human lives to facilitate exchange of values. Any attempts to replace cash were accompanied by the heavy investment in the infrastructure over a long period of time, such as transaction terminals that suit various contextual and business requirements. Similar to any communication technology where the real value is in exchanges among people, it could move very slowly till the minimal size of ‘majority’ starts to get equipped with the tool and people get convinced that there is a clear benefit for conversion.

This slow change, in turn, could also result in intermediate technology solution in order to accommodate the existing human processes. For instance this signature pad has become a very common tool at the checkout using credit cards in South Korea. This replaces a printed receipt for getting the customer’s signature for the shop to keep. The credit card payer signs on the pad and gets the final receipt with the signature captured on the pad printed on it, typically in low resolution. This allows the shop to keep the transaction record electronically, which simplifies the process of bookkeeping. Is this working better than ‘Chip & Pin’, requiring a 4-digit personal code with IC chip embedded on the card as is widespread in UK? Advantages and disadvantages are different between the two methods, but I guess that’s beside the point. South Koreans opted for a technology solution that produces an equivalent outcome to an existing process: a printed receipt with personal signature, while being able to record the data digitally at the same time.

The signature pads I have tried invariably made me write my signature distorted or cut due to the inadequate feedback and lack of personal calibration (I was not exactly given a practice run either), or simply I started with the wrong size for the given space. So most of the times, I get a receipt with my signature printed too small, too big, unrecognizable, or incomplete. Does this matter? In theory yes, but in practice no. People have embraced the ineffectiveness, the defect of the technology tool because it still allows them to comply with the existing rule and process to a degree.

In India, I sometimes have to hand over my credit card to my driver (yes, I have to rely on a driver to live in Bangalore) for transactions. First time I got the receipt with no signature, I asked him “Don’t I need to sign this?” His answer was clear and simple as he started the engine: “Anyone can sign.” A similar attitude, but a different behavioral solution from the South Korean example.

Will either of these solutions prevail in the future? I would say yes, until the evidences of failure becomes apparent to the majority. We are, after all, humans who embrace mistakes and learn from them. But still – can we really design for adoption, abuse, appropriation and degeneration? Is it a matter of trying, an attitude? This is an increasingly relevant topic for my work these days. If you are involved in designing an infrastructural service that will have to transcend time, space and a large body of population, the cost of ‘we will iterate the design after we deploy it and get the feedback’ can be huge, if not leading to the failure altogether. It becomes critical that the patch tests of contextual validation trigger a wide variety of scenarios to consider, for policy creation, changing the existing process (gradually), training personnels, and establishing the word-of-mouth concept propagation message – including the potential ‘myth’.

Bonus: The new equipment invested is a chance to add on other features. The highway tollgate receipt comes with advertisement and coupons; POS system with the signature pad often comes with a screen facing customers that play ad videos.

HIV prevention awareness signage in UP

HIV prevention awareness

HIV prevention awareness signage in UP

A signage for warning the danger of HIV and promoting the use of condoms, found across in Uttar Pradesh.

Rural health center in west Karnataka

Getting condoms however may not be an openly accepted behavior. In rural health centers, they try to distribute condoms for free, but people may not visit the center while others can see. One solution to the problem is to place the condom dispenser outside so that people can take them whenever they feel comfortable.

Condom dispenser outside the health center in west Karnataka

condom dispenser in a health center in west Karnataka

a rural health center waiting room in west Karnataka

I wish smart bollywood stars could do more on sexual education in India, given their influence and what they are selling, even though the reality in India is still quite harsh.

an instructional poster at a rural health center in west Karnataka

delhi train station

Standby affordance

A change in the plan of the fieldwork trip – we decided to take the train from Delhi to Bareilly. My suitcase was obviously a wrong form of luggage in the jam-packed Delhi train station on Sunday. We could not even dare to find the platform through the wall of people. A ‘coolie’ was found and I knew it from the moment I saw him that he was our savier for the journey: He not only carried our bags in 40+ degree temperature, but also made space for us to move forward, and guided us to find the platform and the right compartment. I could barely keep up the pace with him to follow. Without him, I am sure our 30-min spare time till the departure would have been a futile struggle.

Delhi train station

delhi train station

delhi train station

delhi train station

When we got near the train, it was even more difficult to move. There was a long queue of people waiting indefinitely to get into the 2nd class compartments. It was first-come, first-serve basis, so they had no idea whether they could possibly get in or not. When the train finally started to move my mind was racing through the indecisive emotion wave of relief, discomfort and pity – looking at the solid human line of those who were waiting patiently in standstill without the success of getting in.

delhi train station

delhi train station

indian train

delhi train station

indian train

What I found out later was that even for 1st class where passengers are given pre-assigned seats, if you are on waiting list, you have to wait at the station. Because there is no way for anyone or any online system to know which seats would actually be available in the train until the physical train arrives. The reserved seat passenger names are listed on a printout outside each compartment. The fact that you could make reservation online didn’t mean much unless you get the confirmed seats at the time of reservation. As there is no obligation to buy the ticket before the train leaves, people have the mentality of just booking the train first anyway. Cancellation fee is too small to make people cancel the reservation they no longer need. So everyone has to wait at the station if you want to travel. If the train gets late, the station officers would tell you ‘its coming in 5 minutes’. After hearing the ‘5 minutes’ answer for about 10 times and the actual waiting time of 2 hours, your romantic image associated with the train journey starts to diminish dramatically. ‘In 5 min’ in India is highly metaphorical. It is a lip service of the person who is in the position to answer you despite the uncertainty of the situation, or the lack of information source available to that person. Alternatively ‘In 5 min’ is an answer simply used by the person who has no sense of time or empathy to understand the urgency you are faced with. I often feel that I am silently mocked by those who watch me get frustrated with delays: “What’s the hurry? You can just watch the world goes by, like me.” I am learning to live with IST (Indian Standard Time) for my mental health.

indian train

What I also found out furthermore was that there is an exception to this reservation system. Our ‘luxury’ 1st class compartment had four full passengers to begin with. After a few stations, a family of 6 turned up, guided by a gunned guard in the train. According to the translation, the man heading the group told us in Hindi: “Make space for us”. He or any of his companions obviously did not say ‘sorry’ or ‘thank you’ for accommodating his family and himself, making the 4-person compartment a 10-person discomfort zone. All Indian passengers fell silent after they got on board. The compartment was only filled with two men’s loud voices of phone calls and conversations. When the baby of the family started to cry, the same guard came over, took the baby in his available arm that was not holding the gun and left.

Implications of dysfunctional infrastructure are multifold. The important question is whether the society and those who are in power both have shared motivations to improve it. Habits and everyday behaviors that people have become used to and take for granted are most difficult to change.

Saibaba on the window

you are not alone

Drivers in India – at least for commercial vehicles – are rarely alone in the car. There is always a companion or more in some form near the driving seat.

Saibaba on the window

An airport bus driving seat at Delhi airport with Saibaba’s face on the window.

pleasure principle

This rural neighborhood, Horsu, in Tamil Nadu near Bangalore has seen a growing number of green houses for flowers. As the city provides relatively constant consumption of flowers, they make a relatively low-risk yet high-margin business.

The wise farmer we talked to said: “It will be the mobile entertainment service that farmers will adopt first. Why do you think flower farming makes a good business?”

mobility of your existence

I was asked for my home address today – I could only say “I don’t have one at the moment, except my temporary address.” Have you realized the limited access to services you will experience when one of these is taken away, lost, or invalid: Home address, mobile phone number, governmental identification, credit/bank card?

The world is often not designed for, or accommodating to those who do not have a regular place to live. Or opted out of using the means that are typically used to prove where you live. When I wanted to register to eBay.co.uk while I lived in UK, it offered two options to confirm my existence so that I can become a member: A landline phone number or a credit card. I never had a landline phone number myself since 1998, and one and only credit card from Japanese bank was of course not accepted since they could not verify the address for the card, which was in Japanese.

Recently I stayed in South Korea for a while. Even though I am a citizen, I found myself constantly relying on other people’s identity: mobile phone, residential address, and credit card. With Korean Internet services, it becomes more evident – I felt like an underground citizen not having a mobile phone of my own. So the role of residential or ‘permanent’ addresses is becoming a shared one with the mobile number. Ironically, or naturally – our digital being is only acknowledged when it is verifiably linked to our physical being.

Socially and systematically our digital birth is not acknowledged. It only becomes valid when our physical and proven existence is linked to it. Will this change? Will we – digitally or physically – be freed from our permanent residence when so many of us are no longer in a position to claim a permanent residence?

Living out of suitcases quite often, my attention is always attracted by how people manage to live in the minimal space and things. Here are some taken in Osaka, Tokyo. I indulge in the clear visibility of what is essential for the living. The digital life of this home owner? – I am left to wonder.

new home in bangalore, india

I took on a new job to lead a research team since the beginning of this year. Along with it I moved to a new homebase, a city often referred to as ‘silicon valley of India’, or formerly as ‘garden city of India’. Compared to any other places I had taken on as my home city, moving to Bangalore seems to trigger varied reactions from people – with stronger emotional undertone. To me, to live in a place is to understand, experiencing the culture rather than being an observer.

For those of you who want to share my experience in Bangalore, I have several open positions in my team: exploratory user researcher, HCI researcher, and a couple of technical positions for developing prototypes, visualization and computational models.

The exploratory user researcher position requires you to speak the local language, as we do a lot of hands-on fieldwork within India. I am also looking for talented designers for internship or short-term contract positions. If you think you are a good match for this young & growing research team and are up for the opportunity to live in Bangalore, drop me a note with your CV, along with your motivation.

If you are interested in technical positions, job ads are found here and you can apply directly through the site. Use the following job number to search for them: SWA0000000F (super prototype developer) / ARC0000001Y (data modeling & visualization) / DES00000020 (HCI researcher). Kindly be pre-warned that using this site may require a lot of patience from you, unfortunately.