Anita's Leaves: A UX Adventure in China

Anita sits on the ground in Beijing. The late afternoon sunlight in Diaoyutai Ginko Avenue park makes the trees around her glow as if from within. A hundred or more gingko trees stand in two straight rows. Their thin round trunks rise two stories without branching then fan out to create dreamlike yellow-orange archways with their neighbors. The gingko tree promenade stretches from horizon to horizon. Its leafy nimbus contrasts the bland, styleless buildings nearby. The November air is crisp and restless. Alongside the promenade cyclists and scooter riders race down Maolinju West Street with quilted mittens on their hands and blankets tied across their laps. Last week an early rainstorm drew leaves from the trees and reminded the city that colder weather is creeping down the mountainsides to take up winter residence. Yet despite the chill the sky is blue and cloudless. This is rare for Beijing and has enticed her people outside to enjoy a lucky day at Autumn's end.

The people of Beijing stroll and stand in small groups beneath the gingko trees. Fashionably dressed teenage girls strike youthful, optimistic poses and photograph each other with mobile phones. After a few moments they huddle to give brutal critiques of the photos and try again.  A love-drowned couple kisses passionately beside a tree, oblivious to everyone around them. Elders walk small white and brown windblown dogs wrapped in canine jackets of auspicious green, silver, and blue. The gingko leaves lie flat and still on the ground. They are the color of blanched corn and luminescent in the fading light- delicate and lovely. When Anita moves they make the sound of brooms sweeping summer into memory.

Anita is wearing a grey jacket buttoned tightly around her. Her hair is short and dark and cups her face like hands holding water. She is still for a moment then looks upward- smiles a broad, mischievous smile. She scoops her hands into the gingko leaves and grabs two handfuls. The leaves sigh and crackle. She counts breathlessly to the small crowd around her: "1...2...3!" When she says "3" she throws her arms above her head and fills the air about her with a flurry of gingko leaves. From within the flurry she smiles and smiles and her laughter spreads to our band of travelers. She makes "Victory!" fingers and we try to photograph her as the leaves shimmer and surrender to the wind.

Anita reviews our photos which are blurry and mis-timed. She laughs. "Again!" she says. Her enthusiasm draws us in- we release the branches of our solemnity and begin scooping up leaves and photographing each other again and again trying to capture the perfect picture of our selves surrounded by flying gingko leaves. Where a few moments ago we were grown women and men, now we are as loud as school children, as serious as teenage girls, and without embarrassment as we sit and then lie on the ground to take photos. We make Victory fingers, funny faces, make face fists, give thumbs ups, strike video game poses. Passers by stop to photograph us. Inspired, they too throw leaves and photograph each other. Then we all throw leaves and photograph ourselves. We are strangers turned friends on a lucky day. When we rise, laughter and leaves hide in the women's hair.

A young couple, dark haired and smiling walks by at a toddler's pace with their one and a half year old daughter. They are both bent at the waist as mother and father each hold one of their daughter's hands. They are dressed in quiet style- browns, greys and blacks- with scarves and hats and boots. In local fashion the man wears artful square, black-rimmed glasses and carries his wife's purse. Their daughter is wearing a pink quilted jacket with pink pom-poms, a green and black scarf, and a polka-dot hood. Her clothing is so thick she looks like a stylish fire hydrant. She swings from side to side from her parents' hands- an Autumn leaf not quite ready to leave its branch. She is watching the leaves intently as she walks. She watches us with great puzzlement. Her parents try to entice her to throw leaves herself, but she is doubtful. After a gentle moment we are all demonstrating and providing encouragement- new uncles and aunts to this unsteady leaf. Her face is serious and round, pink-cheeked and willing at last to believe that if her parents say it is so then it is important to learn to throw leaves. Her attempts are charming and potent but do not make her smile.

Watching this daughter of Beijing learn to play, watching us rediscover playfulness, seeing how seamlessly we become a part of each other's afternoon, I am reminded of how good it is to laugh. How rarely I surrender to silliness. The feeling is the color of a gingko leaf. I resolve never to forget the yellow of this day despite a half-certainty even as I make the promise that its color will soon fade.

Anita, when she is not throwing gingko leaves into the air and inspiring visitors to her city to behave like children, is a user experience professional. In her daily work she seeks to examine the way things are and to imagine the way they could be. She improves the world one screen, one product, one process at a time. Today she and other Beijing chapter members are representing the User Experience Professionals' Association's China Chapter by showing guests of the ninth annual User Friendly conference the sights of Beijing. Her flock, now happily plucking gingko leaves from jacket pockets and brushing dust from trousers, is a multinational group of designers and researchers from countries as near to China as Singapore and Taiwan, as far away as the United States. We have spent the day as tourists, hearing Anita and her friends share local legends, facts, and stories of historical wonder and sadness.  Here at the end of a long day of walking we are playful as we rarely are, as open as the sky.

We are not often silly. The work we do is serious. Ian from Taiwan, when he is not dancing Gangnam style with conference volunteers, is working to understand how eye-care clinics work, taking a holistic view of how people enter into and journey through his country's medical system. From the medical forms, to the waiting areas, to the ways patients interact with their physicians, Ian will, through observation and creativity find quiet and powerful ways to improve the lives of countless patients and make nurses' work easier. Amy from the United States works to perfect educational software used throughout the world to simulate materials construction and utilize complex mathematics for structural engineering. Another traveler is a professor teaching applied physics and conducts research that informs aircraft design. For my part I am helping regional hospitals help their patients to make better personal health decisions. This week we have compared notes, weighed techniques, shared successes and challenges.

Anita, when her hair is not full of leaves, is representative of usability experience designers in China. She is young, energetic, and brings both skill and a playfulness to her work. Designers attending the User Friendly conference are young as "UX" is young in China. They strive to help their companies accept the value of user centered design. To communicate it's value and its promise. Many work for corporations, many more are students finishing their undergraduate or graduate work. A large proportion of the gathering have Masters degrees and PhDs. Yet as they are learning, the difference between academic theory and business practice can be as stark as a winter wind blowing down from the mountains.

Watching China's UX future this past week as they listened to keynote speakers, interacted between sessions, and explored new skills in workshops, the Westerners frequently remarked on how young these designers and researchers are. So young! And yet, so powerful! Full of energy and passion for enhancing the future of business, healthcare, and commerce, and with so many years ahead of them to make their mark. They are eager to learn what has come before them so that they may make greater change and discover on their own the magic connecting interfaces, people, gingko leaves, and the world.

At the end of a full, serious week and a long, inspiring day Anita and I strike silly poses together along Diaoyutai Ginko Avenue. Me with my two phrases of Chinese and her with little English but a gift for pantomime, laughing with colleagues from as many countries as there are leaves on the wind. I can't help but wonder at the path that led me here. At all the amazing new people I've met. In the future I will encounter other UX professionals from other countries. They will be studying new problems, solving old problems, and envisioning new and more inspiring solutions. And when the opportunities arise, now in more corners of the world, in more areas of expertise, I know to whom I can turn to to seek guidance, ask questions, see how others solve design problems and share ideas.

This week we have connected East to West, North to South and learned that in our professional lives the paths we walk are much the same.  The challenges we face are shared worldwide. This magnifies our power. Yet we also learned that we are different in our lives, the stories we tell, how we see the world. This makes us children at heart and unites us as a family.

As the sun sets on Beijing, and the rising wind urges us back indoors, I am thankful that when I began my career I happened upon this path, this organization, never knowing it would lead me to this gingko colored, leaf-strewn, windblown day in Beijing. You may find UXPA also, or you may find- or make- another group to engage you, educate you, and most of all connect you. And when you do, may your present inspire your future with a handful of gingko leaves and laughter.


By: Chris Hass

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