Meet the EchoUsers: Steven Liang

This month we had the opportunity to get to know our user experience researcher Steven and learn how different cultures experience UIs differently.

This month we had the opportunity to get to know our user experience researcher Steven and learn how different cultures experience UIs differently.
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Tell us a little about the path you took to get where you are today.

I care about efficiency, I’m well organized, and I always see room for improvement in daily life. When I first learned about the concept of reducing the expenditure of money, materials, man hours, energy, and other resources that do not generate value, I knew Industrial Engineering was the perfect match for me. That exposed me to human factors, specifically the manufacturing side and how workers can be more efficient on the production line. I worked at Isar User Interface in Guangzhou, China as a usability engineer/research intern, testing mobile apps in the telecommunications industry. I really liked it. It exposed me to lots of users and gave me a window into what they’re thinking. It’s great knowing that you’re making an impact on a product based on findings.

I participated in an exchange program in the U.S during college, and had a positive experience, so I came back for grad school to continue my education in Industrial Engineering. Here, I learned about HCI and found a passion for technology because it can change lives in a big way. Having experienced frustration with the inadequate affordances of products such as elevator buttons and door handles in daily life, I wanted to make users happy and save them from having to do lots of thinking. It was clear at the time that the field was not yet mature and there were opportunities for both the field and myself to grow, so I decided this was the path I wanted to take.

How did you know you wanted to work in research?

I find it very interesting that people behave in unexpected ways, but data points help you make sense of it and design differently. I’m very detail oriented and enjoy connecting the dots, which are invisible at first. For example, researchers at Walmart discovered that fathers tend to buy diapers and beer together when they are asked to buy diapers. Equipped with this information, they placed the two items together, resulting in increased sales of both.

What is your process in interpreting what users need?

I listen, but don’t solely rely on what users say. I’ve found it useful to dig deeper into the meaning behind their words to find what drives them to say what they say.

When it comes to design solutions, I find my inspiration in the outdoors, life experiences, and new experiences, such as scuba diving.

We’re intrigued by the 5th Annual Bad Design Competition you planned at Penn State. Tell us a little about that.

We wanted to encourage students in the Industrial Engineering department to pay attention to bad products they encounter in life. The idea was that exposing these designs would give students a better sense of how it would feel to encounter a bad design as a user, so they come away with a sense of empathy as they design. For each entry, participants took a picture of the problem, explained the impact on users’ behaviors, and provided solutions. Our design committee evaluated the entries based on the complexity of the problem, viability of the solution, and whether it was evident that the participant had the user in mind as they devised solutions

What are some of the differences in you’ve observed in UIs in China and the U.S.?

They are very different! UIs in China can be overwhelming. There is lots of content and an abundance of choice. In China, you can use WeChat to pay your bills, hail a taxi, and get your shopping done; there’s one place for it all. DiDi Dache is like China’s Uber. Though Uber provides many solutions for users, DiDi Dache provides even more. You can use it to hail a taxi, arrange a ride on a shuttle, take a bus, test drive other people’s cars, and redeem points for rewards.

On the other hand, in the U.S. people prefer minimalist simplicity: targeted apps that focus on doing one thing. For example, Messenger is a separate app from Facebook for chatting with Facebook friends. And Foursquare unbundled its check-in functionality into a separate app called Swarm to build on the post-check in experience, while leaving Foursquare for local exploration and discovery.

East Asians and Americans also perceive websites differently. East Asians read discrete pieces of information on webpages with lots of text and only 1-2 images, up and down, left and right. They’re not bothered by that. Americans are focused on a few big themes, consuming one large chunk at a time.

As you can see, people in Asia are used to being presented with many choices. The interesting thing is they don’t tend to feel overwhelmed, probably because they are accustomed to it. If a page on a website is too empty, they think it’s useless.

It’s a matter of feeling confident in what you’re doing right away without much instruction (U.S model) vs deciding what to do from a smorgasbord of efficient choices (Chinese model).

Can you offer some insight into why the two countries have such different approaches?

My impression is that the ‘one-stop shop’ approach fits the Chinese mindset. You’ve already paid for something, so you want to get the most out of it. It’s convenient, efficient, and easy.

As a Chinese person living in the US, what would you say is your inclination between the two?

Generally, I prefer simplicity. It’s easier for me because then I know what I’m doing, rather than having to figure out what I need.

When I first went back to China to visit, I felt overwhelmed at first, having to figure things out by myself. But then I adjusted, and I saw that all these things actually work. I could transfer money using WeChat and was blown away by how convenient it was. I could see myself using it everyday, now that I knew what I wanted to do. I kind of like the idea of having multiple functions. I haven’t heard anyone complain that they just want to do one thing. Another huge advantage is that everyone uses the same app, so small merchants all accept Alipay (similar to PayPal) or WeChat Pay. This is in stark contrast to the situation you see here with Android Pay and Apple Pay.

When I came back to the U.S., I wasn’t used to seeing one thing at a time. But after you get used to it again, as long as you have room on your phone for all the apps, it’s pretty nice.

At the end of the day it’s about how you perceive things and what you expect. Would you ever go to a flea market that sells only one thing?

Where do you see the future of UX going?

Most people are still thinking of the digital side, the software side. I think we should focus on the other side. As long as you’re interacting with the world, you’re having an experience. That’s the experience we need to be talking about.

Take traditional industries that people engage with only a handful of times in their life, such as buying a car, house, or bed. Each of these is a big purchase. It’s a mystery and perhaps you feel a bit anxious going into it. You may have lots of question marks in your head, and the existing way of doing it can be easier. Traditional industries don’t have this mindset yet when devising products for users. The time is ripe for change in these industries that helps people do things more efficiently and confidently, so that they feel happy tackling the unknown on their own.

What makes EchoUser special to you?

The diversity. Everyone comes from different backgrounds, so I can learn from them. People here enjoy life a lot. We’re not workaholics; we don’t just do work, we go out and do things together.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love going outdoors. I just got certified in scuba diving in Monterey. I like rock climbing, surfing… I’m very open to trying things I haven’t done before. Indoors, I love karaoke and cooking. Cooking feels creative; I get to taste and adjust, experimenting to see what combination would work best.

What are some fun facts that not everyone knows about you?

  • I have an obsession with cookware. Last time I moved, half of my moving boxes were full of kitchen stuff.
  • I once sang Karaoke alone for 3 hours.
  • I’ve always wished I could have a doppelgänger.
  • I super love watching mindfuck movies, or reading mindfuck novels. I watch them again and again and again (I watched Inception in the theater four times in 1 week).