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Usability Practice in China: An Update

By Zhengjie Liu

About three years ago, I wrote an article for User Experience (Spring/Summer 2003) entitled “East Meets West,” on usability in China. In the intervening years, usability has become a popular topic in Chinese industry. The Sino-European Usability Center that I founded has now been involved in many usability projects. The experiences have deepened our organization’s understanding of the usability process and corroborated the essential views in the earlier article, but they have also caused us to update some of our opinions. Here I would like to share some of my new thoughts about usability practice in China.

Status of Usability in China

It could be said that usability emerged as a field in China only after 2000 and especially since 2003. The lag is due mainly to these

With the rapid growth of the Chinese economy and the process of globalization in recent years, however, Chinese enterprises realized that they had to strengthen their competitive edge to be able to survive and compete in the future. At the same time, more and more multinational companies have entered the Chinese market. These two factors have brought about a rapid increase in demand for usability.

It should be said that usability practice in China started from activities conducted by multinational companies. Since 2000, foreign companies such as Siemens, Microsoft, IBM, Nokia, Motorola, and eBay have been conducting various user-research projects in China. Some of them even set up usability groups.

Increasingly stiff international competition and the desire for development have also made user experience an important issue for many leading Chinese companies, including Lenovo, Huawei, Sina.com, Tongfang, ZTE, Kingdee, and Alibaba.com. Some maintain usability groups of over twenty people and have integrated user-centered design (UCD) into their processes.

The growth of the usability field and a community of interest has led to the formation of professional organizations. Founded in 2004, ACM SIGCHI China (www.hci.org.cn), which consists of the major leading HCI and usability players from academia and industry in China, sponsors an annual national conference. ChinaUI (www.chinaui.com), founded in 2003, is China’s most popular user interface design and usability website with some 85,000 registered members nationwide. UPA China (www.upachna.org) was set up in 2004 in Shanghai and organizes the User Friendly conference every year. The European Union-funded Sino-European Systems Usability Network project (www.sesun-usability.org) will be organizing five seminar and workshop tours around China and conducts joint usability studies in China. The first Harmonic Human Machine Environment conference (HHME) was held in October 2005; approximately 200 people, mainly from computer academia around China, attended. There have also been usability-related activities in the Chinese design and psychology communities. In addition, several websites run by individuals support information exchange on usability topics.

Although the number of people in China dedicated full-time to usability practice is still small, maybe around 400, many product designers and developers are interested in usability. They are young, full of enthusiasm, and eager to learn. Of the people who are most interested in usability, quite a few are from design backgrounds, probably because many companies employ design-trained people for user-interface design jobs.

At the first Sino-European Usability Seminar Tour held in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, more than 200 people attended, with 80 percent from industry. Several companies sent more than ten of their employees to the event.

A survey we conducted during the tour revealed that most of these companies have set up usability-related positions and departments. The respondents said they believed that usability would become more important in their organizations and that the major challenges at the moment are to master usability practices and skills and then to get their work recognized by their bosses and product-line units. Therefore, they wanted to attend training courses and learn from case studies so as to be able to start practicing usability in their daily work quickly.

We also found that current interest in usability is mainly coming from consumer electronics producers, website companies, and vendors of off-the-shelf software. People in the digital entertainment sector have just started to talk about usability and playability. But in the domain of customized software solutions and applications widely used in people’s daily lives, usability has not yet become a regular topic.

Usability Practice by Natives vs. Non-natives

In the past, both non-native and native Chinese have practiced usability in China. The former were mainly involved in projects conducted by multinational companies and their projects were usually supported by local Chinese recruiters, translators, moderators, and facilities.

However, valuable information is sometimes hidden in subtle cues or deeply rooted in the social and cultural background, so barriers of language and culture can make a difference in usability studies. With the growth of local usability expertise, the “localization” of usability practice in China is an inevitable trend, and it will be reinforced by a difference in personnel costs.

In the process of developing local expertise, it is, of course, necessary for Chinese to learn from the experiences accumulated over the past twenty years in the West. Nevertheless, there has long been a discussion as to whether the usability methods developed in the West can be suitably used in other cultures. Based on our experiences doing usability studies and consulting in China, the fundamental principles undoubtedly work well for China. However, the operational details—for example, participant recruitment and scheduling, the use of informed consent agreements, and manners and behavior when interacting with participants—need to be adjusted for the Chinese culture. All these kinds of details can best be handled by native Chinese who are familiar with usability methods.

Developing Local Expertise: The Future of Usability in China

The fast growth in demand for usability has been driven by the Chinese economic development and the market globalization process. However, the obstacles and challenges I described three years ago (development teams with no multidisciplinary background and a shortage of UCD skills and experience) still exist.

In a technology-centered culture, technologies and technologists are often at the core of product development. Industrial design has been an established specialty in Chinese universities for the past ten years. In the prevailing culture, user-interface design is viewed as being concerned with the products’ appearance and use—the “external side” of products—so, until now, interest in, and enthusiasm for, usability has not come from the technological core of product design and development but rather from the visual designers. However, even visual designers are unaware of user-centered design and expect their inspirations to come from so-called “good” design examples, not realizing that usable products only come from a user-centered design process.

We need to make a fundamental change. There is no doubt that the future of usability in China lies in the growth of local usability expertise. The most important thing at the moment is to train enthusiastic designers and developers so that they can practice basic usability in their daily work and promote UCD in their organizations. They need training in cost-benefit ratios, practical usability methods, planning methods, and UCD case studies. Through experience accumulated from their usability activities and with some help from experts and books, many have the potential to become full-time usability practitioners.

When a company is starting to practice usability, some guidance from experienced usability professionals and consultants is very helpful. Guidance can help the company master usability methods and apply them appropriately. Also, a successful pilot or showcase project helps an organization gain confidence in pursuing usability. Implementing such a project should fit the company culture, as different types of companies have different expectations for the outcomes. For example, companies that practice quality management processes like ISO 9000, CMM, and Six Sigma might prefer to see something measurable, as they believe in “No measurement, no management.” They might want usability activities to be integrated into their existing processes and require that the documentation and conduct of activities be consistent with the existing quality system.

The HCI curriculum is another area in which we need to make great efforts. Although there are over a thousand computer-science departments in Chinese universities, only ten offer HCI courses to undergraduate students. By providing such courses in more IT and design departments, we could have a new generation of designers and developers who are aware of human-factors issues and who can act as advocates for usability development in China. Some HCI and usability engineering textbooks have already been translated and published in China. ACM SIGCHI China and the Sino-European Systems Usability Network project are also planning to provide HCI training for teachers.

As the biggest consumer market in the world and a giant in product manufacturing, China needs to make the phrase “Made in China” mean “better user experience.” Although China is called “the world factory,” we still have a long way to go to become as strong in design and innovation as we are in manufacturing.

Realizing this, the Chinese government launched a nationwide initiative in 2005 to improve the possibilities for independent innovations. In the recently published National Science and Technology Plan for 2006-2020, we have seen for the first time, phrases like “human-centered” and “ease of use” appearing in several places. Since the study of user experience is an important source for technological innovation and for building a human-centered society, we have every reason to expect an even brighter future for usability in China.

Zhengjie Liu is founder and director of the Sino-European Usability Center (SEUC) (www.usabilitychina.com), professor at Dalian Maritime University, China, and chair of the Academic Committee of ACM SIGCHI China. He led SEUC in providing consultancy to many multinational companies and conducting research funded by the European Union and the Chinese government. He holds advanced degrees in computer science from Xian Jiaotong University, China, and worked as a guest professor in Germany and the UK from 1992 to 1994.

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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 2, 2006.
http://www.usabilityprofessionals.org/upa_publications/past_issues/2006-2.html.

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