Upended cans line the shelves at this rest stop, illustrating a simple way to have a customer’s first contact with a beverage not also include a mouthful of accumulated dust from the adjacent dusty road. In this context of roadside rest-stops along backcountry roads in Yunnan Province, China, the temperature of the beverages being sold is not the most important thing for conveying comfort, however. Putting aside the implications (morally for the store, societally for the belief in the rule of law, legally for the consumer, and fate-wise for others sharing this steep and narrow road with the imbiber that day) of the display/sale of beer and baijiu alongside soft drinks here, consider what makes this succeed as a rest stop for its customers, and why it would fail for you.
So although container cleanliness is important, beverage temperature does not appear to be of paramount concern to the owners (or customers) of this roadside establishment. In the same way, while you might view the presence of a water pipe as inconsequential (if you happened to notice it), in this context its presence borders upon the non-negotiable. Across rural Yunnan, whenever a service requires conveying the appearance of hospitality (particularly when seated periods of waiting and group social interaction are part of the experience, such as in restaurants or hotel lobbies, or at an event such as a wedding or funeral) one will undoubtedly find a water pipe close at hand. As my research assistant said when I asked after their relative importance, “a restaurant in a traditional rural place like this would sooner have no tables or no food than have no water pipe.” Thus, a fixation upon our own standards of what makes a rest stop “restful” would cause one to miss the cues and behaviors that matter most to consumers in this context.
Should the designers of white goods targeting this market diversify into smoking accessories as well? No, probably not. Noticing the water pipe, though, is the first step towards embracing the empathy required to design a relevant product or service for this context. In remembering that your needs are absolutely not the same as the user’s, it helps to have a physical reminder that what you may care most about (say, that your Coca-Cola is frosty cool) is not necessarily what the context’s customer may care most about (the presence of a functional water pipe). Thus, consider the pipe a totem of difference – physical proof of a stark contrast in priorities around philosophies of comfort and hosting practices between your home context and your customers’. If you felt particularly ambitious (and had time and budget on your side), observe the challenges inherent in the use, storage, and display of said pipes while while pondering whether a solution lies in a future design (keeping in mind that any additional feature is useless without contextually-appropriate explanation/marketing). Good research informs good design, and good research (particularly in China, seemingly) takes time. As an example of just such research, see Reboot, who recently re-shared some posts around their excellent report on mobile money and savings behaviors in China.