Tag Archives: ethnography

Life & lemons

14 Jan

When life gives you lemons, you don’t have to make lemonade! Sometimes we can’t choose what the cards we’re dealt, but we can ask if we even want to play (instead of the usual ‘wise’ latter part of that phrase where “we can choose how we want to play”). When things go wrong (they inadvertently always do), how differently would you want to play (or not)?


Beta test-cum-ethnographic experiment FAIL

OK, so I had planned to take the 2 prototypes of the Book Bag to the public library and do a little social experiment-cum beta testing.

It was meant to be ethnographic in nature – I place the Book Bag next to the book check-out counter with some instructions printed on a sheet of paper on how to use the Book Bag. I walk away but hover nearby to observe, camcorder in hand. Library user comes along, oblivious to the little experiment. Library user checks out books. Library user sees Book Bag, and reads the instructions. Library user curious, then takes Book Bag and fiddles with it. Lastly library user tries to borrow Book Bag, like other library books, by placing it on the sensor tray of the check-out computer. At this precise moment, I step in, inform the library user that you can’t really borrow that Book Bag as it’s not [RFID-] tagged yet, and go on to explain what I’m doing.

OK so it’s a little devious to trick harmless ordinary citizens into having false hope of actually being able to borrow the Book Bag to help ease the burden of carrying the books home. It even smells like something “Candid Camera” or “Just For Laughs Gags”. But believe me – no humans were harmed in the process! I came up with this experiment as there’s only so much you can get from interviewing people by showing and telling them about the Book Bag, like what I did with my friends. Useful nonetheless, but the totally unaware user would be the best way to show if the design is effective – it’s just simply a really effective way to test if people get it easily; getting the idea of the Book Bag being a bag that can be borrowed like the other library books. If they get it,  then the obstacles to ‘consumer market acceptance’ would be small.

Haha but before you hammer me for pulling such gags in the name of scientific research, let me say that I didn’t quite even manage to test it properly. True I got the set up done nicely and all. But as I was standing back waiting for the first ‘bait’, a librarian in charge of shelving/re-shelving books passed by, saw at a distance something of a left-behind book at the check-out counter, and promptly went to the counter in attempt to take the Book Bag to be re-shelved. Only to be intercepted by poor me, explaining my intentions. But alas! I would need official permission to do something like that! Red tape had be drawn, and now my little social experiment falls into tatters. Realising that there’s nothing much I can do now (I have to write in “somewhere” to get official permission it seems), I gently concede, and go off sulking in a corner. Hahah ok I wasn;t exactly sulking, but wondering how else I can proceed. There’s really no point in walking around the library and interviewing people about it – I could do that outside the library and that wasn’t the whole point of the experiment. Well…. I pondered and thought that instead of making do and getting by with interviews, I don’t really have to ‘play’, do I?

So I didn’t!

Not in defiance of authority, but in fact just not making it an issue of ego, but instead to “flow like water” through it. Well I figured it’s also good to not to put NLB in a difficult position, since they might not wish to be represented in any way through the experiment. The librarian had also been nice and she was simply doing her job, so I didn’t want to make her day difficult.


Finding a natural home in the library for the Book Bag

When stuck, do something else; something different altogether.

So rather than stubborning try to do the experiment head-on, I decided to just do something different and went to a quiet bookshelf in the library where I won’t obstruct reader traffic, and took some pictures of the Book Bag prototypes ‘being at home’. And true enough, they look very part of the book landscape! (If you’re reading this, NLB, please rest assured I did arrange the other books back neatly!)

This also got me thinking about the librarian who saw the Book Bag (first prototype that is, the folded one) and thought it was a book. When even a librarian can mistake the Book Bag for a book – now that’s pretty telling about how ‘naturally’ the Book Bag fits into the library environment, isn’t it? So this trip was not for nought, after all! One data point, but a good one at that! Hahahah… 😀

I also went to browse through the CD section to check out the range of sizes and shapes of the CD covers, as I’m also adding on a CD inner pocket in the Book Bag. Seems that all the CDs comes in standard covers, so I borrowed 2 which I liked (and would try reading!) to use as references for the inner CD pocket.

Just before I left, I managed to sneak in a quick picture (while I was borrowing my CDs) of how the Book Bag would look like if placed at the check-out counter to facilitate ease of loan. I believe being next to the check-out computer would be best ‘home’ for the Book Bag.  The pictures of the Book Bag being shelved together with other books also made me wonder if that is the other natural place where the library can ‘stock’ the bags, so that readers can easily and simply just take the Book Bags off the shelf where they are, use the Book Bag to carry the books around the library and out after check-out.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Well! So the final design is confirmed – the folded one! (by virtue of the librarian’s perception). Not utterly scientific again I know, but what to do when there are on-site constraints to user testing? Sometimes for certain products there may not be luxury of complete user testing (for reasons like confidentiality, high danger to test users, or red tape…), but move ahead we have to and we shall! 🙂


Next – finalised design for submission! The deadline (15 Jan 2011) is approaching! Stressed!



Library ethnography 101, part II

5 Jan

Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder (& more accurately)…


Observations from the Book Drop

To readers who may not know what the book drop is, it’s really something which you should get your library to start having! Don’t we all have slightly traumatic memories of anxiously rushing to the library on the due date to return books in order not to get fined? Only to get there 5 minutes before closing to see a very long queue snaking its way out of the library… on days like these, it feels like the whole world is determined to make things difficult for you, and every single library user had chosen the very same day to return their books as you did. And to add insult to injury, the indifferent librarian is taking her own sweet time scanning those books for return, and the bar-code scanner is acting up again… Well, those days are truly behind us now – it’s so easy now, even ducks know how to use the book drop!

I won’t bore you with the details of my observations at the book drop area, since most of what I saw were most or less similar to what I had previously mentioned at the check-out counters, except in reverse – man arrives with bag of book(s), man fiddles with bag, man takes out book(s), man drops them into slot, man walks away. Though I’m not sure why many seemed to take pride in very forcefully pushing the books through the book drop door…


Mapping the reader’s journey

Just for fun, I mapped out an illustrated journey of the library user. Visualising a customer’s journey through space and time is helpful for discovering touch-points where good design can come in to enhance the customer’s experience.

If you scrutinise the “man” in the slideshow, the only time he is burdened with books is after the check-out to getting home, and from home to book drop. These are the opportunities for the library bag to come in to help the reader. But what happens to the bag in between? Probably chucked away somewhere with a pile of other shopping bags, forgotten and lost. With high likelihood, a bag provided by the library to the reader will not be returned as the bag will be inconvenient to find (a needle among the haystack of shopping bags) or impossible to find (simply lost).

So how can I design a library bag which helps the reader and enhance his experience with the library? How can the bag find a natural place within the reader’s environment at the same time, so that it won’t be lost/forgotten?

Other interesting behaviour and mannerisms

It was also pretty interesting to cast the ethnographer’s eye on the everyday behaviour of readers in the library. There are really all manner of mannerisms, some not so pretty like propping legs up on the sofa, readers dozing off with their mouths wide open, picking their noses while reading (euuwwww!)…. hahaha. But what drawn my interest as inspiration for design were the mannerisms of people while in the middle of reading, and how some of these visual images of reading are situated in our everyday collective memories. Take for example the visual scene of a reader with an open book vs a closed book:

Everything in the picture is the same, and the only difference lies in the state of the book. When you look at the 2 pictures, which one depicts that the reader is reading, and which one depicts that he is not (or finished reading)? No prizes for guessing…. but you get the picture….

I mention this in particular because NLB’s objectives (or any public library for that matter) is to nurture reading. I remember this slogan from NLB about “Nurturing a Nation of Readers” some time back.

Can the bag design incorporate some “reading” element or get people to read more? If the design can do that, it would elevate the library bag above and beyond mere utility – of being “just another shopping bag” – to something which serves a greater cause!

Library ethnography 101, part I

4 Jan Image from www.businessweek.com

Sometimes people are the best inspiration……


One of my design thinking heroes whom I had already introduced in an earlier post, Tim Brown from the renowned design firm IDEO, mentions this about design thinking,

“Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

After so much online musing and research, it’s time to get started on the “people’s needs” aspect of design thinking. Design thinking advocates an interesting method of ethnographic observation of the human user, through the open-mindedness of an anthropologist, in order to really see how people behave in their natural settings. As we know from the Hawthorne effect, people may say one thing but do another thing when caught in context, thus ethnographic observation helps to dig deeper into customer behaviour and minimises any armchair presumptions we may have about why people act they way they do.

While the tech and design worlds are still finding it difficult to agree on the power of ethnographic research as a serious discipline for innovation (see Don Norman’s controversial article, and further discussions [1, 2] on Business Week), I believe there’s still value in observing how library users go about their activities in the library – which translates to more personal experiences and visual material for musing and inspiration for conceptualising the new library bag.

I’m also pretty excited to get re-acquainted with those participant observational skills and methods I learnt in university through my anthropology modules. What an interesting way to bridge what we had studied in school with real-life problems! Not forgetting to mention that there’s also an ‘almost-wrong’ kind of voyeuristic excitement from hiding behind bookshelves to ‘spy’ on people, which I won’t explain too much here… hahah.

The ethnographic excursion starts!

So off I went to the Central Library. Thankfully the book check-out counters were located close to some bookshelves which made for good spying fortress. Next, find a book to ‘pretend-read’ while discretely observing library users check their books out. Then quickly jot down observations on notepad hidden on bookshelf. Resume ‘reading’ posture to observe. Wash, rinse, repeat till satisfied. But why the extra effort at pretense? Just so that people are unaware and can behave at their truest – remember the Hawthorne effect? But also because I’m having so much fun being almost 007-ish…haha.

I took a few minutes to get into the groove of observing and noting, and very soon, observational details were coming in fast and furious. It’s almost strange to self-witness that, since this scene (people checking books out) was something I see so often (I visit the library pretty often) and I’m pleasantly surprised to be able to pick out many facts to note which will help scope the design of the library bag. I split the observations into 3 categories: 1) People, 2) Books, 3) Bags.

I found that bringing along one’s own tote bag solely to carry the loaned books was already a common practice, especially with the ladies. Mothers with their kids are most definitely seen with their own tote bags, as they usually borrow stacks of children’s books. Otherwise, most other users stuffed the books into their own handbags/backpacks/slingbags. The ones who walked off with book in hand and no bag were mostly men. The users who brought their own bags even used them to carry books around the library while browsing.

Really, books of ALL sizes were loaned, including magazines and CDs.  These days with these other forms of media available for loan, the new library bag would have to be designed for these items as well. Children’s books, which are a hit with mothers with kids (they borrow stacks of it), are usually thinner but in unusual sizes.

What materials made up the tote bags people brought along? Polyfabric tote bags seemed most popular, especially the ones used for groceries since they are built for holding heavy items. Otherwise people used shopping bags of hybrid paper/plastic quality. Many of the bags people brought along were also pretty fashionable and well-designed (not your average sloppy plastic bag) – a sign that people are more conscious of how bags looked with them.

Other observations
Receipts – many people fiddled with the receipts, finding all sorts of places to keep them (folded into wallets, slotted in between pages of the book, or simply tossed into the bag). Some even printed individual receipts for individual books, a practice which I confess to doing as well. Why? ‘Cause it’s much easier to check on the return due date if each book had its own receipt, than to hunt down the correct book and page. But the slotting the receipts into books also made many fall out of the books, even right after people had borrowed them.

Space – many users lingered on at the counter after the checking out the books, in order to bag the books properly, stuff them into backpack, re-arrange things in backpack and then stuff them in, fiddle with receipts and folded them and took out wallets/books to keep them. So having enough space for them to do all that was crucial – thankfully the check-out counters at the Central Library were widely spaced apart, allowing for this ‘transitional’ space.


So that was pretty productive for a start! More to come next – spying “thoughtless acts” (no, not the ugly type) during book drop and other natural library user mannerisms.