Story matters. That’s one of the most important lessons I have learnt from Saul and our group.
Earlier this year I built a ‘visionary’ mobile browser that concentrates the essences from my thesis. The basic idea is: in that browser, tabs, bookmarks and menu items are conceptually placed on and around a person’s body. For example, imagine all the opened tabs (look up at your browser) are instead placed on a circular plane around your waist.
I know. It’s difficult to get the idea. What is more difficult is to convince people it’s a good one.
What is the story that would make this idea looks good? I had no clues until I had some *funny* experience that inspired me to base that story on my own:
That actually happened to me! I was sitting in the train painfully using my phone to search for Kendo equipment stores when I realized, hey, this might be the scenario that can ‘sell’ my wacky browser prototype. The pressing demand of using a browser on-the-go, and the hopeless suckiness of current mobile browser all together make room for an alternate idea, albeit, as the cliché goes, still needs formal user study to ensure its usability.
Story matters. Both to the storyteller and the audience.
I brought up this topic primarily because of the recent on-and-off discussion of Google’s Project Glass, especially a (what I think is) tirade from Cooper. Let’s just focus on the storytelling part. Cooper’s article thinks the Google video didn’t get the story right: while the coolness is pervasive in the video, the story behind it doesn’t fully make sense. The article enumerates a wealth of such examples which are almost given at a ‘frame-by-frame’ basis.
I feel bad for Google. Yes, we are being too harsh.
To summarize my take, I quote Steve Jobs: people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. I think this characterizes the essence of telling a story in a visionary video. Of course, there is always a dilemma – as seen from Project Glass: when we can do X, some people would kinda miss the time when we can’t; and they start to criticize X. For example, when we can straightly know the way to the ‘Music’ section from our glasses, some people would miss the time when we have to ask a salesperson; and they start to criticize this feature as ‘anti-social’.
I didn’t mean they are wrong. To me this is pretty normal. As one of our beloved researchers likes to repeat: everything is best for something and worst for something else. Of course so is your video. To me, what really matters is, as researchers (storytellers), by having to tell a compelling story in the video, we are forced to think really hard whether our idea is a good idea, and if not how we can make it a good and better one. When producing the story and the video, I always find all kinds of doubts, problems, weaknesses, flaws, misunderstandings… all which would never come to me if I simply keep my idea away from approaching how it would be perceived and used by real people in their real lives. Having used stories to elicit this useful information, I then re-shape my idea accordingly. As a result, the story and the idea improve mutually. Originally stimulated by the idea, the story now becomes a medium that bridges the idea to its audience.
In short, the pursuit of a good story makes us think hard, and in so doing it drives the quality of our idea and our research.
I have noticed most senior Kendo members’ hachimaki (headband) has four Kanjis: 交劍知愛. Literally, it means “when your swords cross, remember to love each other”. The spirit is that one should be grateful to her opponents even though she is meant to defeat that person. Because opponents help us improve ourselves. They are indispensable in our way towards perfecting ourselves. It is required in Kendo etiquette to respect your opponents. That comes to a basic greeting before/after practice, to applying ‘tenouchi’ (gripping the shinai to avoid hitting the opponent too hard), and to the deeper mentality of orienting the game to mutual practice and improvement as opposed to the pursuit of victory.
I believe East Asian people (Mainland/Hong Kong/Taiwan Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.), while very different from each other, share a unique kind of emotion. In this post, I try to characterize this emotion by bringing up and studying five cases. However, as I am not an expert in such sociological/cultural research, most contents below are based more on my personal experiences or opinions, than on scientific evidence or methodology (as of what humanity research recognizes).
Before I dip down into the cases, I present the conclusions upfront – to capture such Oriental Emotion, one might (or might not) notice the following when interacting with East Asian people (be they real or fictitious):
‘The Sight of Father’s Back‘ is written by Zhu Ziqing – one of the best Chinese writers in the last century. In the story (based on his real experience), the son sees the father’s back as he clumsily climbs across the railway to buy some tangerines for his departing son.
“The next moment when I looked out of the window again, father was already on the way back, holding bright red tangerines in both hands. In crossing the railway track, he first put the tangerines on the ground, climbed down slowly and then picked them up again. When he came near the train, I hurried out to help him by the hand. After boarding the train with me, he laid all the tangerines on my overcoat, and patting the dirt off his clothes, he looked somewhat relieved and said after a while,” I must be going now. Don’t forget to write me from Beijing!” I gazed after his back retreating out of the carriage. After a few steps, he looked back at me and said, ”Go back to your seat. Don’t leave your things alone.” I, however, did not go back to my seat until his figure was lost among crowds of people hurrying to and fro and no longer visible. My eyes were again wet with tears.”
I studied this essay in my early junior high school. Even as a teenage boy, I had no difficulty feeling the father’s love to his son. But note that not a single word is said such as ‘I will miss you dad/son’, ‘take care’, ‘I love you’. Everything is implicitly embodied in small details of actions: buying tangerines for the son’s trip, overcoming the railway, making himself look ‘relieved’ (to make his son feel better for the departure), reminding the son of his belongings (always thinking for the son), etc.
A Chinese proverb says: father’s love is like a mountain; mother’s love is like water. It means fathers, no matter how they love you, always look somewhat serious and cold, never releasing any emotions; all they will do is always being there and quietly supporting you from behind. This has a lot to do with the hierarchical social structure of China. For thousands of years, ‘male responsibility’ was recognized and emphasized from managing to rule an ancient kingdom, to deciding which restaurant to go for the family get-together. Any male character is assumed to carry deciding responsibility, resulting in a local hierarchy (father->the entire family, husband->wife, brother->younger siblings, etc.). It seems that such local hierarchy contradicts an equal emotional communication. Hence, the father, as portrayed in Zhu’s essay, has his unique way of showing ‘love’, and the son has his way of getting it. The love never really weakens; it is simply hidden, deciphered, and concealed.
I describe Ann Hui as a director who films people’s real lives. She always reminds us that our life itself is a drama that worth our attention, observation, and empathy.
My favorite movie from her is ‘Summer Snow’ (or ‘Nu Ren Si Shi’ as appeared in imdb). The movie is about Mrs Sun – a middle-aged woman mediating between family, career, marriage, etc. Her family lives in a small, shabby, crowded apartment. Her father-in-law’s alzheimers is getting out of control, making him doing all sorts of silly things to the other family members. Her career is shaking – new and young employees, as well as the computers brought with them, are replacing her positions. Her husband is fed up with his driver trainer job and the embarrassing family situation, and seems to lose his directions in life. Mrs Sun is squeezed by such pressing mid-aged life, yet, always somehow stubbornly struggling to keep that life running, keep the family happy and together, keep her job well done. But life never shows any leniency to Mrs Sun’s efforts. When everything seems about to fall apart, the sudden death of her father-in-law brings back her nerves. At last, the old man remembers Mrs Sun. He gives her flowers and thanks her for everything she has done. Finally, he tells her, life, is actually an exciting experience. Mrs Sun returns to the rooftop of her home where the old man used to stay in his spare time. She seems to realize something and begins to re-embrace life, no matter how hard it is.
This movie received critical acclaims both domestically and internationally. One might wonder: is it because the character Mrs Sun is so special? No, Mrs Sun is just one of the hundreds of thousands of women struggling in low/middle class in Hong Kong. But why the success of such an ordinary story? My interpretation is: it wins the audience simply by telling the story. It tells the story that the public never realized could be a story at all. It shows us the many small touching details in Mrs Sun’s life, which, though do exist in real lives around us, are usually ignored by us. The spirit, the passion, the talent, and the love in Mrs Sun’s life, are seemingly replaced by all the responsibilities she has to carry. Is she not a funny, smart and romantic person? She sure is. But these many sides of her are just gone in the face of the never satisfactory reality. And remember, Mrs Sun is not meant to be a fictitious character. There are many, many Mrs Sun’s in our real life, – maybe your mom, your wife, your daughter(in-law), your employee.
I was born as a Teochew (or Chaozhou-nese) – a much more precise identity than ‘Chinese’. Teochew people have been incredibly successful as individuals (Li Ka-shing, the richest person in Asia, is Teochew), yet they as a whole (e.g., the Chaozhou city) is falling behind in the Canton (or Guangdong) province. Why? I have been observing it for over 20 years and have come up with a theory: Teochew people are the Chinese extreme of resisting the reality to pursue individual interests. In around 1900’s, to fight against poverty, many Teochew people crossed the ocean and made a living in Southeast Asia (my great-grandfather did, and never came back). To protect themselves in the foreign lands, they ran townsmen associations (sometimes gangs). Later, some of them became so successful that their family business could influence a country’s economy.
I believe none of this success would be possible without what I call an ‘confronting situation’. In my recollection, I have never heard of Teochew people being grateful to their lives, be they rich or poor. The Teochew people seem never satisfied with the reality. And we somehow always form a confronting situation between us as individuals and the rest as reality. The dissatisfaction of one’s personal interest serves as a profoundly powerful motivation, driving Teochew people to fight for a better life. On the flip side, once the sides are set (individuals vs. reality), people are usually unwilling to give in, which impedes success at a more holistic level. For example, a factory (as a union of individuals) might succeed; an industry is likely not (simply because individual factories won’t trade off their own interest). This example sounds like an economic phenomenon; yet I think it’s more about the mentality.
Being a ‘Chinese extreme’, the ‘Teochew Spirit’ might shed light on some Chinese phenomenon. For example, consider Tiger Mom (from her last name I suspect she’s a Teochew descendent), why did she keep banging on her daughter’s every single performance? Because such dissatisfaction spurs on her and can always bring her more (though at the risk of jeopardizing the parents-children relationship).
For many of my western friends, Japanese food strikes them as ‘weird’, ‘small portion’, ‘should go to McDonald’s instead’, etc. Me, having never been to Japan, probably should not speak for its food culture. But I believe such culture is somehow mutual between China and Japan (foremost, given that some Japanese were once Chinese). And I do want to discuss my understanding of Japanese food cultures, focusing on the emotional aspects.
I believe Japanese food cultures carry at least two types of emotion: dedication and reminiscence.
In Japanese Kanji (Chinese characters), making food is called 料理 (or りょうり). Though maybe imprecise, these two characters, in Chinese, literally means ‘taking care of’, ‘process with care’, ‘organize and manage’, etc. In fact, its Chinese counterpart has been used more widely with these meanings. Whenever I see or hear this word, I couldn’t help forming an image wherein the chef is so dedicated to making delicious food for the customers that he or she is ‘organizing’ the many food materials, ‘managing’ the cooking process, and ‘taking care’ of the details and favors. Such utmost respect to the customers is fully embodied in the process of producing tastefully pleasing cuisines, which are then mildly presented with deliberately humble remarks such as ‘please have a try if you don’t mind’, ‘very rough cooking, please put up with it’. The dedication is as strong as it is subtly embedded in the food-making itself.
But how about home cooking? I believe reminiscence plays a more important role here. As is known, Japan is also the country famous for pre-made food (e.g., instant noodles). Recently, some voices were heard of calling people to treasure the taste of cooked food, which could be inherited and delivered across generations and eventually becomes a medium that connects people in the ever-complicating world. Even my family in China share similar ‘food complex’. I remember when eating steamed sweet potato with my grandparents, they sometimes recalled an old story of a friendly neighbor who invited the teenage grandpa to this food as his family was usually short of food back then. I guess, for esp. Japanese people, food matters. It is not just for filling the stomach or pleasing the taste bud; it records information, and tells stories about one’s past, and his or her social/cultural identity.
Recently, a Taiwan movie became so popular across the Greater China areas. The story is about in high school, a group of boys fall in *love* with a girl and try to win over each other for her. Such a story might sound stereotypical, even cheesy. But why did so many people (albeit mostly young people) fall for it? What is the magic? I believe this movie is less about a love story but more about a youth story. I mean, people like it not because the story is so unusual, touching and romantic, but because the story represents and reflects what once happened to them when they were this young. The magic is the reminiscences of the past, the past wherein we hadn’t grown up, wherein we possessed the mindsets that were lost when we were growing up.
One might ask: is this so unique for East Asian people, don’t Western people recollect their good old days as well? I would say (at least for me) the ‘oriental youth’ is much more complicated. Foremost, the youth of each generation was defined by that particular historical period. I remember when I was a kid, I used to watch a TV drama with my mom where she was so touched by its story about the ‘Rusticated Youth‘ – something which she witnessed happening to her family and friends, yet which I could never have experienced in my youth. And since most East Asian countries (esp. China) had such a turbulent history in the last 100 years or so, each of its generation happened to have a youth period that was primarily defined, not by themselves, but by the historical situations. Hence history and individuals always conflicted, compromises were made, lives were changed, and dreams were never realized. I believe that was always the motivation of peoples’ ‘youth complex’. Even in my generation, though embraced by the Economic Reform period with a much more open and free society (relatively), we seem to continue such complex. Maybe we simply inherited it from the elders. Maybe our youth still rarely satisfied us that something always needs to be regretted – words wished could have been spoken, risks wished could have been taken, girls wished could have been loved.
This is a debate between two streams of user interface research: direct manipulation of interface objects versus delegation of tasks to software agents.
Shneiderman believes an interface should be evaluated by the performance of its users; this begs the creation of an environment where the users can “comprehend the display”, “feel in control”, and “take responsibility for their actions”.
Maes concerns about the ever increasing complexity of the computing world; this has brought forward the ideas that much of what people do can be delegated to software agents, thus easing users’ burden in carrying out these somewhat difficult or tedious tasks on their own.
Direct manipulation is not everything. Reading this debate dawns on me that it could triggers so much interesting thought simply by comparing our domain with others’. It forces us to ponder several questions: what exactly is direct manipulation? What does direct manipulation do compared to software agents? What are the advantages can disadvantages of direct manipulation? What will become the future of direct manipulation and software agents – one wins over the other, in symbiosis, or blend into a new concept?
16. Be clear.
* When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh.
* When you say something, make sure you said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.
17. Do not inject opinion
18. Use figures of speech sparingly
19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity
The longest way round is usually the shortest way home, …
20. Avoid foreign languages
21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat
It is now necessary to warn the writer that his concern for the reader must be pure: he must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble half the time).
Recently I was inspired by some things I heard and saw. One of them is from a video of Prof. Paul Dourish’s speech in Stanford. It is not his speech but Prof. Klemmer’s introduction that moved me. He said, and as I paraphrase, the smartest people are not those who know the most maths, but those who see the world more clearly. He meant Prof. Dourish’s contribution to HCI lies exactly on helping the others have a better understand of the problems they deal with. The other inspiration comes from a Japanese Drama called “おせん”. It is about an old restaurant, regardless of how the world is changing, stubbornly sticking to its traditional way of “料理” (simply put, making food). Even though the restaurant is eventually sold and dead, the spirit is not – the owner and staff still believe in preserving old and delicious cuisines and making food purely based on the purpose of offering customers the best dining experience.
Simply put, we live in a world with too fast changes and too many fancy things around. Even though most of us claim we can adapt to it or even lead it (since we are the new generation), we have no idea what and how much we have lost when doing so. As much as in the Drama the Japanese boy no longer appreciates the taste of radish, most of us unconsciously lost the ability to appreciate things our ancestors once valued a lot. For example, how many of us can excitedly spend a night at home, simply reading books and more importantly, for no particular purposes but having fun? For books, honestly, most of us might already be “too evolved“ to make ourselves happy from reading it. Further, even in research, in HCI, we are sometimes overwhelmed and controlled by all the “fancy stuff” while forgetting what is really fundamental or important about the subject, the problem, the project and the field. For example, earlier this year, people were excited about the emergence of Microsoft Kinect and the SDKs and demos that came along with it. Many developed amazing projects using it such as Kinect-based browser, Kinect-based navigation system, Kinect-based robot, just to name a few. Most of the focuses come down to “what can I do with this cool device and technology?” And the following ideas showcase themselves and compete with the others. Here I am not rejecting the idea of using new technology like Kinect – in fact I am actively involved in it. My question, as always, comes to: with so many cool stuff (e.g., Kinect) coming all the time, how can we deal with it? Ready for battle all the time? Completely ignoring them? Selectively and continuously learning them? The reason I ask is I sometimes have the concern that many of us are driven by or anchored to one particular technology and its popularity while later on such effort spent are challenged or even disproved by another piece of newer and fancier technology. Another example is iPhone. Programming with iPhone has become a popular practice in HCI papers – even I usually start my sketches with drawing an iPhone. In some sense we are kind of “controlled” by this product from Apple. We sometimes say “hey, iPhone has this. Maybe we can do something with it.” This, however, is not necessarily bad; what I wonder is: can we not be controlled and limited by it? Without a direct answer to the question, I envision a way of doing research where the ideas control the technology, regardless of whether that technology is old or new, available or not, popular or not. In other words, we understand things from building stuff using technology. Then such understanding goes beyond the built stuff and forms itself into a shape where any technology or device becomes just a way of expressing and illustrating the understanding. Finally, it does not matter whether we have Kinect or not, or whether we are holding an iPhone: they are just some of the ways we can use to illustrate our ideas.
To sum up, be it life or research, from what I gained recently, I am thinking about moving myself towards a pure, fundamental and quality notion. “Pure” means being able to see things clearly and have in mind what is your idea and what you want to do. “Fundamental” means focusing on the more essential elements of what you are doing – try to understand, appreciate and enjoy such fundamentals. And “quality” means a pursuit toward better and better process without distracted or obfuscated by those that are less important.
In general, styles can barely be taught or even ‘learned’. It is more of a mysterious process where one has to fumble a lot before realizing what his/her own style is.
“All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation”
“The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity”
“Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.” This means to approach styles, start with “affecting none”. Care more about the “sense and substance” of the writing per se rather than “how I can write it to distinguish myself”, etc.
“Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaw.”
“Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good.”
Design matters. Design is about holistically thinking what your writing would be like instead of dipping down to the first sentence right away.
“Columbus didn’t just sail, he sailed west, and the New World took shape from this simple and, we now think, sensible design”.
Generally the nouns and verbs are more essential than adjectives and adverbs.
Few writers can have perfect writing at the first try. Revising and rewriting is common among writers, especially the best of them.