Posts tagged “face”

Michael’s War Story: All About Face (Sichuan Adventures)

Michael. B Griffiths is the Director of Ethnography for Ogilvy & Mather, Greater China.

I’m in Sichuan province, at a small town called Anxian. I’m with a US film producer and a Chinese research assistant. We are documenting lower-tier city lifestyles in terms of the human condition as well as how people consume. We’ve just finished up our morning session with a man who shared emotional stories about the impact of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

We were operating in two groups, doing home visits at different sites. It was time to pick up the other team from the town center and head off to Mianyang, our next destination.

But the other team called in late. There was a problem. The primary informant’s mother had returned home and reacted badly to their presence. While we didn’t have the details at this point, it seemed that the team could not easily leave the field site. On the phone, I could hear an intense argument in the background.

I had the driver park up around the corner from the site. The junior member of the team came round to meet us, shaking her head and heaving with frustration. Apparently the situation in the home had turned nasty and the senior member was trying to deal with it.

The primary informant, aged nineteen, had not told her mother about our research, although she had given us her formal consent. And now her mother was furious with her daughter for not seeking permission, and worse, she suspected us of being cheats or swindlers. We later learned she had been the victim of an identity-theft crime in similar circumstances.

An hour and more passed without a resolution. It seemed ridiculous that we were wasting so much time on this. Could we not just explain the situation, apologize for the inconvenience, and leave? I was inclined to intervene in person but various team members advised that a foreigner’s presence might exacerbate an already inflammatory situation.

Another phone call came through-

The argument was by now on the street outside the home. The mother was ferociously lashing out and forcibly preventing the senior team member from leaving. Concerned for her safety, I advised that she run around the corner and come over to the car – the site was only 30 meters away.

Once in the car, I proposed that we just leave. We had done nothing wrong, and were increasingly sure this fractious episode was symptomatic of a pre-existing tension between the mother and daughter. Right?

Right! So, let’s hit it, driver!

We sped off in the direction of the Mianyang highway.

As we cut through the breeze with the sun in our faces, the team members answered rapid-fire questions and shared their perspectives as they eased themselves out of the tension. We thought we were home free.

Not by a long shot.

Not long had passed before our phones started to ring. Representatives of the local recruitment agency with which we had partnered were with the enraged mother and phoning to ascertain our whereabouts. This was the agency who had recruited the daughter for our research and I wondered why it seemed beyond their capacity to handle the communication deficit.

We agreed that our overall objectives demanded that we press on with our schedule. Too much time had been wasted and we were quite clear were we stood in terms of our legal agreement with the informants; the local recruitment agency were better placed and, as we saw it, obligated to resolve any misunderstanding about our identity and purposes.

As solution, we agreed that the rest of the team would switch off their phones while I would use my phone to call the recruitment agency bosses we dealt with back in Shanghai headquarters. Better to have just one channel of communication open rather than several at the same time.

This we did, but before any intervention could be launched our driver started to get the same calls from the local recruitment agency. One of our team took the call on the driver’s phone and tried to explain our position on the situation and that we just wanted to continue with our schedule. The agency had also helped us plan for further research in Mianyang and Chengdu, so they were well aware of our tight schedule.

If only the situation could have been so simple! Our driver insisted on keeping his phone switched on since this made him available should his employer need to call. Presumably alerted by the local agency representatives, the driver’s employer did call and insisted he return to Anxian at once. We were unwilling to return with him since we were sure that the two hour return journey would be followed by further time wasted on senseless arguing. Could the situation not be resolved via the proper channels?

Unfortunately, the driver’s open line of communication meant that he could be contacted by people other than his boss. He began to get calls from an unfamiliar number over and over again.

Perhaps the driver should switch his phone off too!?

Then the real shock came.

What? The Public Security Bureau was on the phone? The mother had called the police before we had left. We had left the mother baying for our blood in the street and now the police had arrived to find us gone!

Things went rapidly downhill from here, as arguments erupted about what to do next. Returning to the site would not be an option, the local staff felt, since we would get in trouble for leaving the scene. My explaining things to the local police would not help either, they felt, since the police would not “take my side” because I was a foreigner. Any interaction with the police was bound to be long and protracted anyway, and there was also some notion about market researchers needing to obtain local police permission in advance, which the local recruitment agency had neglected to mention!

Tempers flared and leadership was called for. But leadership on this project was the same woman who got into the argument with the mother in the first place. She now called her father in a panic!

The idea that the police were actually pursuing us over this seemed ridiculous but it was very real. We were still driving up the highway away from Anxian, and with visions of flashing blue lights at every intersection it felt like we were on the run from the law.

It was decision time: the driver had to return to Anxian and could not avoid answering his phone when the police called. We asked him to pull in at a remote roadside restaurant and unload our bags. He would remain with us to get some lunch; it was late afternoon already. Then he would return to Anxian and his boss would send an alternative driver to take us onto Mianyang.

We ate a meal and for a while believed the heat in the situation had burned itself out. I called in to update our superiors. Apparently, the bosses at the recruitment agency were starting to get a handle on it. There was still disagreement about our next move, but at least the police were not calling us every few minutes. They were probably having lunch too.

With our phones all back on and the driver gone, the police began calling us directly. Several hours had passed since the original incident and the mother’s demands had become more specific: she wanted the tapes we had recorded in her home. This presented a problem for our research and our film producer was particularly against this: his movie would be incomplete without these tapes. Moreover, even if we returned the tapes to the mother, she the professional format meant she wouldn’t be able to play them.

Our conversations thus became more practical and technical as the police sought to broker a mutually satisfactory solution to the problem. An agreement was struck whereby the majority of the team would proceed to Mianyang while two personnel would return to Anxian with the tapes and play these for the mother at the local police station.

It was well into the evening when we arrived in Mianyang, about the same time as our team representatives arrived back in Anxian. After a torrid day, they had to sit and play through the entire 4 hours of footage for the purposes of the mother’s verification. With the police there with her, she gradually adjusted herself to the idea we were not crooks or foreign spies and found a way to climb down from her rage whilst saving face.

Exhausted, we spared a thought for the daughter who was probably going to get the raw end of whatever remaining anger could not now be justifiably directed anywhere else. Our analysis of the film footage revealed a wealth of insights into a specific tension between the daughter’s almost angelic nature and her mother’s oppressive, almost ogre-ish nature. It appeared our fieldwork had exposed an underlying tension after all.

Fumiko’s War Story: Goodbye cruel world

Design researcher Fumiko Ichikawa offers this devastating tale about losing face.

In May 2008, I coordinated what I call an inspiration study concerning healthy eating. What do Japanese people eat and drink? Why? Is there a particular tradition or habit that people have developed around eating? How are the perceptions of eating and health related in Japanese culture? My mission was to make sure that my client’s researchers had all the exposure they could imagine around how Japanese people buy, cook, and eat, through interviews, observations, and own experiences.

One day, our interview took place in the residential area of East Kanagawa, an hour-and-a-half from Tokyo. Our informant was a housewife in her late 40s. She expressed a clear preference about her choice of vegetables, for the sake of the wellbeing of her husband and two children. She offered us pickled vegetables and soft bamboo shoots, all homemade and requiring time and dedication to prepare. She also allowed us to see what is inside her refrigerator, which some would consider a brave act, as many housewives whom I met considered this far more private than their bedroom or toilet!

The interview went fairly well. She was very relaxed and open, and I felt that we got more than what we came for. But there was one minor glitch: the interpreter we hired was not quite the person we hoped her to be.

The interpreter came from an agency, arranged by my fellow researcher. An hour before the interview she appeared at the meeting point and we had a chat. She was a lady in her late 30s with a soft, elegant smile. Dressed in a white jacket with a stitched Camellia flower, she appeared to me to be very sophisticated. The way she spoke to us prior to the interview was soft but confident, and until the actual interview started, I had no doubts.

As the interview progressed, I noticed that my clients appeared confused. The interpretation concentrated on facts and did not convey the emotion and the passion that we were clearly seeing from the housewife, with her big smiles and gestures. Thirty minutes passed by and after some struggle, my client asked in a very polite way that the interpreter stop. From that point on, the client asked the questions, and I became the interpreter. This change of setup was done quite discreetly, and I do not think that the housewife noticed much.

Dismissing someone on the spot is not an easy thing. It is awkward and challenging. But I felt my client addressed the matter in a very professional way. After we left the informant’s home, I saw that my client stepped away from the rest of the group and approached the interpreter, to talk with her about why she had done that. From a distance, the interpreter appeared calm. I assumed that despite the situation, she took things well.

Soon after this interview the study was complete and my clients went back to the States. But four days later, in the middle of the night, I received an international call: it was my client. I called her back. She told me that she received an email from that interpreter and I should read this as soon as possible. In the email, the interpreter has written eloquently about how humiliated she was on that day. This email was in fact a suicide note, telling us “I have no choice but to kill myself.”

I felt like someone had hit my head real hard. There was a tremendous rush of anxiety, anger, and confusion. How could this happen? What did we do wrong? Why is she reacting this way? Despite of the odd hours, we frantically called her and her agency. After three or four hours we confirmed there was nothing wrong with her. We learned it was simply her way of expressing her anger and making sure we felt sorry for her.

“Lip! Lip my stockings!” a Japanese call girl shouts in the film Lost in Translation, as she forces the American celebrity actor played by Bill Murray to ‘rip’ her stockings in his hotel room. The combination of an exposure to foreign culture and the wrong interpretation can generate confusion, frustration, and often times, laughter. But on that day, it was mostly confusion that the experience brought me. Sometimes we experience foreignness in our own culture.

Easy Listening

[Note: I was asked by a national print publication to join their crowded roster of design bloggers; Over a few months we worked together on my pitch and eventually I wrote and shared my first post. They were quite keen and ran me through all the technical and style guidelines for using their site. But then they asked me at the last minute to hold as they relaunched their blog. Then, silence. The discussion of my series fell down a hole. Given that almost a year has gone by, I’ve realized that it ain’t happening anytime soon. So here’s the piece!]

Rahul turned to Amanda, his eyes sparkling with excitement. “Hey, I saw a very strange dog today. You wouldn’t believe it!”
Amanda placed a finger in her novel and looked up. “What?”
“A strange dog. I saw a strange dog today.”
“Oh yeah-?” Amanda trailed off, her eyes dipping back to her book.

This is how we live today (I’m not saying it was always this way; did loquacious primitive Thag grunt enthusiastically while Klag scratched drawings upon the cave wall?). Sometimes we’re distracted, busy, tired, or just not that interested. Hearing these stories takes energy (isn’t that right, introverts?) or maybe we’d rather share our own story (isn’t that right, extroverts?). Even when we do engage in conversation, we’re often thinking about what we want to say next, and listening for those breathing cues that indicate it’s our turn to speak. Listening is a limited resource. No wonder we pay people to listen to us talk about ourselves!

And while companies acknowledge the value of listening to customers (what new feature, good or bad, isn’t announced without mealy-mouthed PR justification that “We listened to our customers and they told us-“), even at best that’s often just lip-service. As an individual skill that is crucial is so many business interactions, it’s woefully underdeveloped. While we’d all likely check off “good listener” on a self-assessment, it’s something we should probably get better at.

We don’t have the space (nor the qualifications) to help you get to a point where you care about what your client, customer, colleague or loved one has to say, so let’s just take that as read. But once you’re in the conversation, how do you stay in? One tactic involves your body.

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “act as if” from the worlds of life coaching, personal growth, or therapy (i.e., acting as if you aren’t anxious is a tool for dealing with anxiety). By the same token, if we act as if we are listening, we’ll find it easier to listen.

The body language of good listening

Not so much

In The Naked Face Malcolm Gladwell describes the work of psychologists who developed a coding system for facial expressions. As they identified the muscle groups and what different combinations signified, they realized that in moving those muscles, they were inducing the actual feelings. He writes

Emotion doesn’t just go from the inside out. It goes from the outside in-In the facial-feedback system, an expression you do not even know that you have can create an emotion you did not choose to feel.

It’s a likely extension of this finding to imagine bodily expressions that demonstrate emotion and intent similarly creating those matching feelings in us. Even if it isn’t true, these postures send strong signals to our interlocutor, further encouraging them to share with us.

One of my favorite ways to practice listening is via serendipitous encounters with loquacious taxi drivers, airplane neighbors, or social-cue-missing party chatters. Even if we can’t repair society’s listening inequity, we can use it to provide endless practice space.

For more about listening, you should check out

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] – [Technology continues to trickle down, where image processing and digital printing previously associated with movie special effects and commercial printing now enable little businesses to crop up, offering fairly unique types of products] Gifts with personalized faces, including custom action figures, celebrity action figures, 3D portraits, masks, jewelry, papercraft, and ornamental heads.
  • [from steve_portigal] How to Have an Idea [Frank Chimero] – [A little comic that amuses as it inspires and teaches, suggesting that creativity is tied to doing, not just thinking or (gulp) talking. Manifests so adroitly while we believe user research really comes alive when you use it to start generating concepts for things to make and do] No one crumples a blank sheet of paper.
  • [from steve_portigal] The Medium – E-Readers Collective [] – [A Kindle feature takes advantage of the inherently digital nature of the medium, but has consequences for the experience] But many writers don’t write aphoristically, and many readers don’t read for aphorisms. In a popularly highlighted world, we all may begin to. The dotted line, like the distinctive hue or underscore that signals a word is clickable on the Web, may be a new kind of punctuation that affects contemporary style. (Amazon's most heavily highlighted books include Gladwell’s “Outliers” and Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture”) Readers coming to e-books freshly purchased from Amazon might be taken aback to find them already marked up. Stumbling on a passage that other people care about, framed as though you should care about it too, can seem like a violation of virgin text. It’s bad enough that vandals have gotten to your “new” edition before you have and added emphases unendorsed by author or publisher. What’s worse is that they invariably choose the most Polonius-like passages.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] Rent a White Guy [The Atlantic] – And so I became a fake businessman in China, an often lucrative gig for underworked expatriates here. One friend, an American who works in film, was paid to represent a Canadian company and give a speech espousing a low-carbon future. Another was flown to Shanghai to act as a seasonal-gifts buyer. Recruiting fake businessmen is one way to create the image—particularly, the image of connection—that Chinese companies crave. My Chinese-language tutor, at first aghast about how much we were getting paid, put it this way: “Having foreigners in nice suits gives the company face.” We were supposedly representing a California-based company that was building a facility in Dongying. Our responsibilities would include making daily trips to the construction site, attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and hobnobbing. During the ceremony, one of us would have to give a speech as the company’s director. That duty fell to my friend Ernie. His business cards had already been made. (via @Kottke)
  • [from julienorvaisas] Hey Facebook! Here’s your privacy redesign [] – [The community is now literally begging Facebook to fix this issue. Free design!] We asked several leading user experience designers how they'd overhaul the social network's obtuse privacy settings interface if given the chance. Here, in their own words, are their innovative solutions.
  • [from steve_portigal] For Forgetful, Cash Helps the Medicine Go Down [] – [The challenge of marketing, design & other forms of corporate persuasion is revealed when you see that people need incentive/motivation to take medication] One-third to one-half of all patients do not take medication as prescribed, and up to one-quarter never fill prescriptions at all, experts say. Such lapses fuel more than $100 billion dollars in health costs annually because those patients often get sicker. Now, a controversial, and seemingly counterintuitive, effort to tackle the problem is gaining ground: paying people money to take medicine or to comply with prescribed treatment. The idea, which is being embraced by doctors, pharmacy companies, insurers and researchers, is that paying modest financial incentives up front can save much larger costs of hospitalization…Although “economically irrational,” Dr. Corrigan said, small sums might work better than bigger ones because otherwise patients might think, “ ‘I’m only doing this for the money,’ and it would undermine treatment.”
  • [from steve_portigal] Creativity thrives in Pixar’s animated workplace [SF Chronicle] – At another company, the employee in Payne's position might be a feared corporate rules-enforcer – the guy who tells you not to put tack holes in the plaster or forbids you from painting over the white walls next to your cubicle. But the architect and 14-year Pixar veteran embraces the madness. Among the more creative additions on the campus: One animator built a bookcase with a secret panel – which opens up into a speakeasy-style sitting area with a card table, bar and security monitor. Other employees work in modified Tuff Sheds, tricked out to look like little houses with front porches and chandeliers. "Sometimes I just have to let go," Payne says with an amused sigh, as he walks into a newer building with a high ceiling – where someone has interrupted the clean sightlines with a wooden loft. A couch and a mini-refrigerator are balanced 10 feet above the floor. [Did a mini-ethnography of Pixar a few years ago and the cultural factors around creativity and community were outstanding]

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • The Product Is You, No. 12 – Rob Walker does a series of advertisements that reveal a customer segmentation and the associated characteristics. Similar vein to my postings about personas leaking outside the enterprise
  • Please vote for our SXSW panel "Culture Kicks Our Ass: How To Kick Back" – The conference lineup is chosen partially based on input (i.e., voting) from the community. Even if you don't attend, you still have a voice about what the discourse should be in our various fields, so please vote for this panel from Steve Portigal and D. P. Haine, of Obvious Design.

    We’ll explore the different cultural challenges that breakthrough products must overcome: emergent usage behaviors that are impossible to predict, a global customer base and cultural barriers inside the corporation that suffocate innovation. We’ll also share best practices for addressing each challenge.

  • Please vote for our SXSW panel "FAIL: When User Research Goes Horribly, Horribly Wrong" – The conference lineup is chosen partially based on input (i.e., voting) from the community. Even if you don't attend, you still have a voice about what the discourse should be in our various fields, so please vote for this panel from
    Steve Portigal, Portigal Consulting
    Nate Bolt, Bolt|Peters
    Dan Saffer, Kicker Studio
    Aviva Rosenstein,
    Mark Trammell, Digg

    Best practices for user research are not hard to come by, but experience is the ideal way to develop mastery. And with experience inevitably comes failure. Embarrassing, awkward, hilarious failure that gives the gift of self-improvement. We’ll share our own unvarnished examples and what they taught us.

  • Do programmers still buy printed books? | Zen and the Art of Programming – Likewise, when I’m holding a book or have it open on my desk, I’m in “book reading mode”, which makes it far easier to immerse myself in it. This means that I’m focused on the task and can proceed quickly. The only context switch that happens is between the book and the editor/shell, if it’s the kind of book that warrants typing along. If you are reading a book in a browser tab, it’s very easy to think, “I’ll just check my email for a second”, or introduce similar distractions. I’m sure I’m not alone in this respect.

    When I buy a physical copy of a book, I feel psychologically more obliged to at least try to get through it. Online I experience a paradox of choice of sort. With hundreds of interesting books available there in front of me, I’m more inclined to excessively multitask, and end up checking out different books while I should still be reading the current one.

    (Thanks @onwardparam and @chirag_mehta)

  • New study suggests people from different cultures read facial expressions differently – East Asian participants in the study focused mostly on the eyes, but those from the West scanned the whole face.
    They were more likely than Westerners to read the expression for "fear" as "surprise", and "disgust" as "anger".

    The researchers say the confusion arises because people from different cultural groups observe different parts of the face when interpreting expression.


Japan pictures – part 3 of 3

I’ve uploaded nearly 1300 of my Japan pictures to Flickr. For reasons I’m sure you’ll understand, I haven’t added titles or tags or descriptions proactively, but please add comments or questions on flickr and I’ll gladly offer a story or explanation.

Meanwhile, I’m including some of my faves here, as well as part 1 and part 2.


Japan pictures – part 2 of 3

I’ve uploaded nearly 1300 of my Japan pictures to Flickr. For reasons I’m sure you’ll understand, I haven’t added titles or tags or descriptions proactively, but please add comments or questions on flickr and I’ll gladly offer a story or explanation.

Meanwhile, I’m including some of my faves here, as well as part 1 and part 3.


Burger causes embarrassment? Burger ad brings shame!

A friend sent me this horrifying online ad. What is happening to that poor woman? Burger-inappropriate pain? Or pleasure? Or is she gazing overhead at an incoming phalanx of special-sauce laden pelicans?

Of course, this is a company known for letting ridiculous advertising stuff get through, so this is maybe par for the course?

You can see another in the series here and a funny rant about the complexity of their product naming system is at Naming a Chicken Sandwich in Thirteen Syllables or Fewer.



Turning a price into a symbol of good will…somehow seems very Chinese, with the small but crucial focus on symbolism. Other items were priced and decorated the same way. Selling it for $1.02 or $0.99 wouldn’t provide the same visual/communication opportunity.

In the Chinatown marketplace in Honolulu.


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