Category Archives: public space

Behaviour-shaping public signs

Public signs are good indicators of the prevalent behaviours, concerns, or ideal norms in the society. Here are a small collection of such public signs collected randomly during my travels in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Switzerland, India, China, Ghana, Vietnam, Denmark, and UK. I compiled these photos for THEME magazine article in 2008 (unfortunately the magazine is no longer in publication).

A few public signs are culturally unique. Most of them demonstrate the nuances of the expected norms of the public behaviours. One of my pet interests to write and dig more about in the future.

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.

Expanding the boundary of your space

In Chengdu, you see various objects are hanging or arranged to be used in what some of you and I might call public space. Without the familiar layer of protection that is common in other places, like an extra glass wall or plastic wrap. I could not help thinking of the word ‘exposed’ for these objects: Exposed to the open air, exposed to potential germs and dirts, exposed to public eyes, exposed to theft. But obviously my perception is contrived – as I spent the whole of my life living in densely populated cities where houses did not include much of outdoor or semi-public space. Where do you draw the boundary of where your ‘private’ space ends?

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hanging_rooftop

hanging_tops

hanging_mirror

hanging_wokpan

hanging_sausagecourtyard

hanging_sausagelaundry

hanging_meatmarket

hanging_meatmarket2

animals in our lives

Domesticating animals is a long part of human history. It is speculated that there are and will be more pet dogs than children in some parts of the world. My sister declared that her lifetime partner will be a Russian blue cat, not another human being. Her mother, in the hope of persuading her, argued: “imagine you will get sick one day – your cat cannot help you with anything.” My concern for her is more about the discrepancy of the life expectancy between humans and cats. One of major reasons why modern city dwellers have pets is for emotional attachment. In that sense, you may say their roles will not change much, but here are two provocative scenarios of ‘useful pets’:

Networked dog in Brinkland: my ex-colleague and design ‘futurescaper’ anab worked on a concept of networked dogs with implanted chips that turn them into mobile hotspots and digital data storage (you may remember Anab from her yellow chair story as i did, from ubicomp 2005 in tokyo).
Life support: Using human-friendly animals for life support, replacing the role of non-functional organs in human bodies through the ones in living animals, was shown in last year’s graduation show in RCA designing interaction, by revital cohen.

Did you think about the lives of these animals when reading through these scenarios? Would you argue that this may make their lives ever more meaningful for them and their owners? How would you compare this to the currently wide-spread practice of castrating house pets? Human race has genetically modified or influenced the evolutionary development of domesticated animals for a long time. Furthermore, we have started to see genetically cloned animals. I cannot yet form my opinion around the topic of modified and ‘enhanced’ non-human life forms, but it will surely be a space to watch.

Back to the present, I found some photos of animal-related signage that highlight public behavioral issues living with pets.

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Warning of potentially hostile dogs can be an important safety issue – or ensuring the effectiveness of employing the dog. In Japan, each household is asked to put a sticker indicating there is a dog in the house. A new sticker is issued every year, so you can guess the age of the dog by looking at the number of stickers.

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dogs_3_notallowed
The most common sign about dogs is to indicate whether dogs are allowed or not in that space, in an attempt to promote the right behavioral norm suitable for the space.

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dogs_4_notallowed

dogs_5_guidedog
Sometimes, dogs are conditionally allowed if they are kept on a leash. Service or ‘working’ dogs are typical exceptions. I once saw a ‘working’ dog in the underground helping a blind person. He was impressively calm and controlled in the extremely crowded tube. I don’t know how they are trained and qualified, but they certainly seemed to deserve a special treatment.

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In Helsinki, public parks have dogs’ playgrounds. These playgrounds are usually divided into two different kinds: Big dogs’ and small dogs’. There are a huge variety of dogs people have domesticated, and many of them still have the perfectly preserved instinct to kill.

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It is not so common but there are occasional facilities prepared for dogs. Some Helsinki supermarkets have hooks on the wall to tie your dogs or metal cages outside the entrance. In Tokyo, I saw a water fountain named “dog bar”.

dogs_9_dogwasteonly
Dog waste disposal might have had a leaping progress over decades but I don’t think I have witnessed it in my lifetime yet. Considering the elevated level of hygiene standard, it is unbelievable that some dog owners let their dog soil the neighborhood under their surveillance. After all, it’s the density that makes the waste disposal a real problem. So as pet dog population increases, we may see stricter rules about this in more places around the world. In places where dog walking is popular, you will see dedicated bins only for dog waste.

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Perhaps your dog will one day be your guide to behave properly in public space?

dogs_13_dontletdogmarking
The text-heavy orange sign below is a request from the district health center asking residents to forbid dogs from marking in the neighborhood. Considering that marking is a fundamentally instinctive behavior of a normal dog, it is an indirect message to tell the residents that they should either not walk in the neighborhood, or seek surgical solution.

dogs_12_donotthrowpetsaway
A disturbing phenomenon of all this is that there are a lot of pets that are discarded by humans. In Kamakura, a quiet neighborhood outside of Tokyo, I found this sign saying that throwing pets away is a crime subjected to a fine of 300,000 yen (~1800 pounds).

I recently watched the movie A.I. (artificial intelligence) with bitterness. As appearance can be deceiving, robots that perfectly replicate human children would always spark up much more debate and emotional reaction than (hypothetically) equally-able teddy bears, thus making it humane vulnerability. A mighty robot engineered to pursue its dream without any constraint subjected to the rules of its environment seems fundamentally violating the basic rules of the robot engineering, or the very virtue of all ‘beings’. More so, if the appearance had no bearing on what it can be capable of, as it will defy our own human instinct that we developed over the long path of evolution. Will our relationship with pets change? Will the functions of the pets get ‘enhanced’? Will we adopt new species of pets of our own creation? How will we evolve our notion of ‘the right thing’ to do when it comes to treating and living with non-human beings?

dogs_15_puppyseller
This last photo was taken in Seoul a few years ago. She is selling puppies on the street. She didn’t have much business going on, but surely playing with all her puppies kept her busy.

I am looking forward to my sister’s cat, Summer, next week in Seoul. Even though I have cat allergy, I always look forward to having him lounging around me.

phone booth

Have you used a public phone booth with a door for purposes other than using the public phone? It is used as a shelter from a sudden rain, using mobile phones inside, changing clothes, rearranging the bag, or even crying for a while if you must, though being inside a phone booth proper is becoming a faded memory for many. With mobile phones, choosing the physical environment in which we make a call is often up to us. In the early phase of adoption of public phones, phone booths were advertised as essential tool for privacy, making the caller feel more comfortable. Now, some places force mobile phone users to use the phone booth for the comfort of others around the caller.

bell_public_phone

In any case, I reckon that designing a phone booth is a challenging task, satisfying the need for privacy as a comfort zone for a voice call (regardless of whose comfort that is) while minimizing the opportunity for exploitation and valdalism by making it too private and comfortable at the same time. With the vast diversity of the telecommunication culture, I always feel that the design of the surviving phone booths still communicates the attitude of the space that they reside in.

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200804_meguro_02

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This booth, in front of Meguro station in Tokyo, has semi-ransparent brown walls. It is complete with emergency numbers and a printed phonebook. On the door is a sticker that bears a warning to those attempting to place pinkupira*, issued by the police.
* pinkupira: the kind of advertisements you would find in London’s landmark phonebooths, like this – though it seems to have become significantly less as sexual advertisement became illegal in 2001 in UK.

200812_londonoldstreettube

This is from London’s old street tube station. With space constraints and the heavy traffic of people, these public phones do not resonate with the concept of comfort or privacy, but serve the necessity of anyone who needs to reach out to someone quickly and efficiently (especially tourists, nowadays).

200903_paris_phonebooth

This phone booth design in Paris seemed fairly new, very spacious inside and totally transparent.

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200812_surreyphone2

These pictures were taken in New Molden, Surrey – London’s suburbia. I never saw anyone using the email / text function in public phone. Booths for silent communication – through keyboards, gestures, screens, would probably require a whole new set of design brief.

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The classic London phone booths, in Smithfield market.

service availability / discovery

By the entrance of a convenience store in Seoul, stickers indicating the service offerings available in the store are shown – all printed in a standardized size. The potential to make the service availability indication digital, making them searchable and discoverable remotely? Who would be the right organization / institution/corporation to take up the role to issue such a standardized service availability database?
kor_sel_combini011

Stickers are:
A brand of newspaper
A mobile phone charging service; Payment options called pre-p
Door-to-door delivery service; Bill payment
Cash receipt for taxation; Loyalty membership scheme
Cigarettes

Listing that, I realize how much I miss these always nearby, always available convenience stores in Korea and Japan…

sharing resources: street car

I don’t and can’t drive a car. And I do not wish to change that ever. But the concept of Streetcar: self-service pay-as-you-go-car is still intriguing. I don’t know how successful they are, but it does sound like they found a niche market for city dwellers that need a car just occasionally for those unavoidable ikea trips, or big grocery shopping days – considering most regular car rental companies have their pick-up and drop-off locations for out-of-city travelers or foreign visitors. It is a business model that is made possible because of the substantial percentage of their customers booking their cars through internet and mobile phone calls, micro-managing their rental duration, location, reservation changes, and post-payment with credit cards. Streetcar states that it takes just 60 seconds for the booking information to reach the specific car, and charges are made by the hour.

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Having witnessed all the failed examples of free city bikes where bikes ended up miserably valdalized, I was surprised to see that the condition of the streetcars was really good, without any sign of coercion present in the car itself like cctv, or sensor monitoring any damage to the car.

This business model does have the potential to increase the inherent value of the resource, provided that it is helped by tools for effectively managing and negotiating its utility and the supply-demand is on balance. What other commodities could we expect to adopt this model? Chain saw? People’s excess leisure time and skills? Storage space?

Streetcar membership card is indeed another near field communication device. As people’s wallets are getting populated with more than one of these cards now, I wonder how the industry will cope with the presence of multiple NFC-enabled devices at the point of input.

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Better pictures and videos of UK’s streetcar are found on the company’s website: http://www.streetcar.co.uk/

flexible sign board

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Pictured is a truck covered with LED boards displaying ads on four sides (though one of them was experiencing a technical problem). It is an effective medium especially in cities where traffic jams are expected throughout the day. I can also see that it would be valuable for services that require on-the-spot advertising in context when/where people need it rather than relying on people to take the responsibility of remembering the brand or the phone number.

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The service being advertised in the truck is offering a driver for taking you home in your car when you are drunk: You avoid drunk driving, and at the same time your car is back in your garage for your use the next morning. This is, again, a socially relevant service in a culture where involuntary and social drinking is prevalent.
With so much discussion on the ecologically sustainable solutions – flexible display infrastructure catches my attention nowadays.

flexiblesigns_truck2

Pictures taken in Seoul, South Korea, November 2008.