What A Mundane Object Can Teach Us About China’s Digital Culture

Field researcher Jan Chipchase develops an experiment that test China’s online services that centers around the country’s ubiquitous red welcome mats.

Jan Chipchase is a field researcher that has led numerous innovation-consulting projects for multi-national brands. He’s been involved with work in China since 2004. His recent project, Red Mat: A Design Experiment is an exploratory research project that seeks to convey the nuances of how Chinese identity and digital services will continue to evolve in the global economy.

The experiment is made of several creative tasks that abide by the following rules:

1. It must engage people from across China.

2. Every Chinese person can recognise the final thing that is made.

3. None of the people taking part should understand what is being made.

4. Only Chinese services can be used.

5. That the experiment goal and process is reviewed after each step.

6. The process must be transparent.

Many tasks leveraged homegrown digital services like chatting service QQ, crowdsourcing site Zhubajie and Sandaha, video site Yukou, e-commerce site Taobao and others.

Chipchase and his team used widespread Chinese iconography (specifically the welcome mat found at the entrance of restaurants) as a central symbol for the tasks they assigned their research participants. They investigated the materials used to make the red mats, where they are made, and situated them at the center of tasks that make up his design experiment.

Check out additional photos from the project below:

One interesting task was to source 100 mats from 100 locations across China. Using Weibo, they identified their suppliers by relying on Chinese users who were paid for finding retailers. This task was designed to probe whether social dynamics and geography influenced the design of the red wlcome mats in any way.

What fascinates us most about this experiment is how Chipchase pinpointed a mundane, everyday object and mobilized hundreds of participants by recognizing the symbolism that underlies it. These tasks not only enabled the experimenters to penetrate into the diverse geographies and psychographics that make up Chinese culture today, but it also provided a way for Chipchase’s team to better understand the country’s rather self-contained Internet culture.

Download a PDF of the design experiment’s booklet here.

Jan Chipchase

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