MDes Talks: From Knowing to Understanding Your Users - Experiences From Field Research

Hungover from too many beers and after too few hours of interrupted sleep, covered in mosquito bites, my Saturday morning seemed to start off as unfavourable as could be. I returned to the Shaolin hostel our class was staying at around 1 or 2am that night, having spent the evening with some of the classmates, observing the village of Tai O closing down and discussing our lives after these first weeks at PolyU.

It was the previous afternoon we arrived in this remote, picturesque and peaceful, but also seriously troubled nest on the coast of Lantau Island: The unbalanced tourism, demographic changes, pollution of the sea and the thus decreasing fish populations, which once served as the main source of income for many of the Tai O people weigh heavily on them.

MDes Talks: From Knowing to Understanding Your Users - Experiences From Field ResearchPhoto Credit: Emma Lee

We’ve been sent off here by Ilpo Koskinen and Philippe Casens within the context of the course Research and Analysis for Design, which Margaux Tan already wrote about in 2016. I would like to add to her experience by sketching how we took the first step into our research subject, hopefully giving some peace of mind to those designers who do not consider themselves qualified researchers, as there is a certain severity attached to the term (for good reasons, but this is design and this kind of research has a twist to it, see Margaux’ post).

For this years’ course, Master students of Design Practices and Interaction Design were brought together to join forces in finding innovative ways to reduce this pressure and help the society sustain their quality of life the best we, being outsiders with specific yet limited capabilities, possibly could. We already knew about the major problem from class discussion and individual brief web and literature research (you’d find these issues discussed on tv shows decades ago) – we knew, but how could we understand? Entrance: fieldwork.

Take a shot in the dark

For the duration of the project, the class was split in equally heterogenous groups of six. Upon arrival at the hostel, our team gathered to discuss further action. We weren’t especially well prepared, nor had we worked together in this constellation before, but we had this rough idea of the locals’ problems and were willing to get to the bottom of things. The most obvious method for gaining information is simply asking for it: We therefore agreed on a small set of questions as guidance for interviews with people of different age, occupation and personal situation and set out to find our interviewees.

We planned to start off with Veronica, a local and multilingual bedand- breakfast-owner, who initially introduced us to Tai O in class the week before, but found her café to already be closed as the evening was setting in and most tourists, her potential customers, heading to leave the village for Tung Chung or the city. Instead, we talked to a young lady next door, who was painting the folding door of a stray cat shelter. She was a non-local supporting the shelter by spending her Saturdays there, painting and raising awareness. She explained the stray animals issues to us and informed us about the owner’s plans to expand and educate people on how to take care of animals, as many were unable to maintain the care for a pet. As the owner himself was not in town that day, this conversation left us with an interesting and open track and the insight that talking to a group of six would not make people feel specifically comfortable — we decided to split up.

MDes Talks: From Knowing to Understanding Your Users - Experiences From Field Research

Subsequently we interviewed the owners of cafés and restaurants, locals and tourists, being welcomed warmly by everyone we talked to, but gaining little to no new information, mainly confirming what we already knew or learned from our own observations and earlier literature screening. Of course, we did not know what information we were looking for and were asking quite general questions – how could we even expect our interviewees to just present us with this one precious and unique insight? We were mostly new to this kind of field research and felt lost more than once. Despite having conducted dozens of interviews and shadowed just as many people in those few hours, our interim conclusion was torn: On the one hand, we were surprised to find the villagers to be such an open and approachable society, sharing their views and opinions with us, not questioning our scholarly intents. On the other hand, we set out for new insights, get information not openly accessible and were disappointed to have spent the time barely scratching the surface. We decided to call it a day and went to meet up with some members of the other teams for a beer.

MDes Talks: From Knowing to Understanding Your Users - Experiences From Field Research

Reflect, adapt and — go with the flow anyway

Fast forward to Saturday: After breakfast we’re finally having our talk with Veronica at her B&B, espace elastique. If I was to sum up this discussion in one sentence, it’d be: Stop being naive and find new ways to dig deeper. She gave us useful hints at persons and organizations, such as the organiser of the former Tai O Culture Club, the campaign of Hong Kong environmentalist and politician Paul Zimmerman and the Young Women’s Christian Association, presenting us with concrete starting points for further research. As we already knew about the important role of religious institutions within the Tai O society, we decided to pay a visit to the YWCA in the eastern part of the village, which, with its more spacious streets and squares, also serves as a popular meeting point for the residents.

It is right in front of the YWCA office where we met Miss Song, an elegant elderly lady, who moved to Tai O in 1981. Originating from Beijing, she used to teach English at the Catholic institutions of the village and quickly proved herself well established in the local society, becoming the starting point of a whole series of new and important acquaintances. She stopped a group of passers-by, roundabout our age, that turned out to be a class of social science students from Hong Kong University. Their teacher introduced us to Leslie, a local social worker and their guide around the village on that day. Leslie in turn quickly invited us to meet up at 3pm to follow their voluntary work, promising us to get a better understanding of the locals and the threats by natural disasters they’re facing.

Seize the opportunity

None of us actually planned to stay the whole day in Tai O; especially not me, almost out of money, dehydrated and sweating in the midday sun. Consequently, half of our team decided to leave for Hong Kong and attend the elective courses taking place that weekend, the other half holding out, having lunch and trying to convince each other that this might be just the access to the community we've been trying to find all the while. Our previous efforts barely seemed to result in actual findings. By now, we’d clutch at any straw.

As we still had some time to spend until 3pm, we met up with Leslie once more to learn about his work and get his opinion on our attempts to immerse in the Tai O community. He turned out to be a great resource of information on the daily village life, the neighbourhood relationships, governmental and non-governmental stakeholders and on-going social projects as well as yet unsatisfied needs and wishes of locals and frequent visitors. For us research-rookies, his awareness and understanding – both of the locals’ situation in Tai O as of our lack of understanding thereof – was key to finding and asking the right questions. We also got to talk about their 3pm-activity: Weeks before, a flood affected the houses at the waterfront, breaking many of the electrical devices and furniture such as beds and mattresses. Leslie, for the YWCA, together with Hong Kong-based NGOs, raised funds to order second-hand furniture and fixtures: some dozens washing machines, fans, beds and mattresses had been delivered to the village’s boundary and were awaiting transport for the last hundred meters.

MDes Talks: From Knowing to Understanding Your Users - Experiences From Field Research
Photo Credit: Emma Lee

In the afternoon sun, close to the YWCA building, a small crowd gathered, consisting of volunteers, locals, social workers and students — and we had the chance to have meaningful conversations with all of them, presenting us with the different perspectives of residents and frequent, occasional and first-time visitors, united in their care for the communal life! With every interview we conducted here, our rhetorical tools got more precise, the discussions went deeper and the overall technique therefore became more efficient. By accompanying some of the deliveries, we could retrace how transportation works under the specific architectural circumstances of Tai O, the locals would introduce us to their homes and explain the pros and cons of their architecture. Neighbours usually joined in on our discussions and we quickly got a comprehensive understanding of their individual living situations, the special value of community and how it all relates to the design of their houses, streets and village.

MDes Talks: From Knowing to Understanding Your Users - Experiences From Field Research
Photo Credit: Emma Lee

Embrace the Fragmentariness

This summary of course is a radically shortened version of what happened in those 24 hours we spent on field research in Tai O, but I think it roughly sketches the process we went through: From not knowing what we were doing to getting valuable answers, we grew and learned with the people and situations we encountered. It does not take a rocket scientist to take up the threads of your conversation partners. We just have to give ourselves and others time to find our place in this environment and be actively present. This time might be well spent getting familiar with your research fellows and the surroundings, adapting and adjusting your approach. And while interviewing and shadowing might not sound like very sophisticated methods, their results became the basis for our later work. Making use of the tools and methods we’ve been taught, we were able to distill and define justifiable problems, tasks and solutions, specifically fitted to the situation in Tai O. To me, this is the underlying value of research for design: We remain scientific amateurs, our research fragmentary and prone to subjectivity, but our creativity thrives on its fuzzy edges; it adds relevance to our solutions by serving as guidance in understanding our audience, users and their problems, while allowing transcending synthesis and artistic intervention. Or, as Margaux put it: "… it makes more sense to align our inspiration, ideas, implementation and feedback (in essence everything we do during the design process) open-mindedly, with their reality.“

From a personal point of view I appreciate the glimpse into just another facet of Hong Kong this assignment offers me – or demands from me. Surely Tai O, or ‘the Venice of Hong Kong’ as every other travel guide refers to it, is well-known for its stilt-houses, Pink Dolphins and panoramic views, but sometimes, a different view, a different approach to a place might make it disappoint any expectations and create a unique personal experience. I therefore hope this article does not raise any more expectations of Tai O, but rather inspires you to find your way to understand a place, its life, culture and atmosphere. It might be worth your while.

Image Credit: Dustin Stupp, except specified.

Posted by Dustin Stupp - Looking for fresh perspectives on interactive communication at the nexus of technology and design, Dustin joined the School of Design as a Master’s student of Interaction Design. His academic background in communication design and art and design sciences, as well as his professional experience in interaction and exhibition design nourish his interest in designing interactive spatial experiences.
MDes Talks is a series of Student Blogs contributed by students in different specialisms under the Master of Design Scheme. It is set out to share students’ first-hand experience in the d-school pedagogy, their projects, takeaways, and student life in general.