DR2008_03_Reading: Calibrating Your Cultural Compass

Hidden In Plain Sight: How To Create Extraordinary Products For Tomorrow’s Customers (2013) by Jan Chipchase, Chapter 5: Calibrating Your Cultural Compass
Hidden in Plain Sight

The chapter talks about rapid cultural calibration, which is an observation method that does not only put ourselves in the local mindset but also putting local phenomena into global perspective. The method is used in conjunction with more structured techniques such as in-depth interviews, surveys and home visits to help deepen the understanding of a new cultures and compare it with others.

Some tips are given as well, firstly is to ‘wake up with the city’ at the beginning of the day as it tends to be more consistent and more regimented than the day’s end as the city finds its rhythm to the tune of the morning commute. In residential areas, we’ll find locals engaged in their pre-work activities of choice while in the hours before retail businesses open, we notice how people and businesses in the community protect themselves overnight. These simple rituals offer a sense of the strength of social and commercial relationships thus say a lot about levels of trust in a neighbourhood or city. Next is to ride local transportation to understand the stresses and pains a city inhabitants at the worst of its commute as an important aspect to understand the participants’ lives. Another way is to observe the travel-hub such as airports, train stations and intercity bus stations for the diverse crowds that pass through the halls. The observation tend to reveal norms and expectations about security and the level of government suspicion to ward its population. Another place to observe is the local hairdresser that allow social hub for people to come together and have conversations to figure out any topic we would like to know in the local context.

Other than the places, another aspect to observe is the breaching behaviours of the people to conform the perceptions and social norms. It is to explore and try out the line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” to test the malleability of the social norm in question. Then, it is about observing the international fast-food chain MacDonalds that tailored its offerings to particular setting and culture among the global hallmarks. Another aspect to observe is to read the signs, it will tell about social behaviour and value conflicts in public spaces. The existence of a sign reveals that the issue is important enough for someone to even produce it. The sign language also vary for multilingual countries, and it reveals the aspiration of its creator. On another hand, the lack of signage can just be as revealing to indicate the regulatory environment and assumption on the social fabric of society. Lastly, it is to capture the zeitgeist “time spirit” which is the mood, essence of a culture that help us to gain intuition if the design is congruous. It can be done through macro tours to capture the sensory experience within a setting.

Overall, the method encourage us to go and explore, find out the formal and informal rules of the environment to help us understand how the consumers live, daily challenges, as well as a balance between convenience, cost and comfort to augment our understanding of the things shared with us. So the tips is to find balance between formal and informal data collection in order to justify activities that feel like work and more like having fun. It is a method to help understand which of those experience can be applied to the task at hand to spot what’s hidden in plain sight.

Personally, I feel this is a very interesting way to observe the unseen. It makes me feel like there is so much more aspect in the city that actually shape a society. It is to capture  the lives a s a whole, not only on specific aspect of it and how they are interrelated to one another. It is a great method to consider especially when the observer is not local. It will really help to put point of view from local context in considering the different aspect before starting a design. While reading it, I unconsciously imagining the situation at my hometown instead of Singapore context which I have been living for the past 8 years. I realised that I personally haven’t really understand the ‘fabric’ of Singapore as I have never intentionally observing the mentioned aspect of it. I feel that it should be a method that everyone used in the start of their research context.

[1]  Chipchase, Jan., and Steinhardt, Simon. Hidden in Plain Sight : How to Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow’s Customers First edition. New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2013.

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