By Joy Ng, CNM Alumnus, Bachelor of Social Sciences, 2013
I didn’t know what I signed up for when we agreed to use Balestier Heritage Trail as the theme for this field-study by CNM’s Interactive and Digital Media Institute. This is by far the most tedious and intensive field-study I’ve undertaken. Walking up and down Balestier Road 22 times in a span of two weeks, orientating and interviewing 22 participants for an hour each, and pushing up to four study sessions per day. Now I fully understand why research textbooks discourage scheduling more than three interview sessions in a day. It’s so tiring that the interviewer just wants to end the interview as soon as possible instead of actively striking a conversation. Deadline was tight, and the sweltering heat this June was not helping for my cause. My objective was to find out how people experienced places in a trail using mediated device. We had two types of mediated devices, a mobile app that we designed from scratch (https://itunes.apple.com/sg/app/crowd-trails/id708195896?mt=8 in iTunes App Store), and the default National Heritage Board’s (NHB) paper brochure.
“So… how’s your experience?” was my first question to greet the unsuspecting participants as they walked through the door at McDonald’s Balestier Shaw Plaza. Honestly, I didn’t have an intelligent answer to what is experience. I had posed the question after participants had gotten their first sensation of cool air in an air-conditioned building after an hour in muggy weather. They usually say, “It was hot”; “Not too bad”; “Interesting”. To probe, I got participants to draw their experience. While some naturally took on the task, others were reluctant to use the pencil to describe their experience. Experience is complex, they said. But I wasn’t going to give up. With a little bit more pushing, three themes of drawing quickly emerged with 1) drawing how they feel and what they see/do on the trail 2) a mental map of their trail and 3) drawing about their connection with heritage. Besides drawing, participants had to talk-aloud to the GoPro camera that they wore on their chest. We had video footages of their trail experience, but due to privacy issues, I can’t share it here.
Serendipity and contradictions
“Yes, I will like a more guided path in the trail, but not so guided”. “Yes, getting lost is fun, but I don’t want to get lost”. were some of the contradicting statements that appeared from our findings. Through this study, we now understand how experiencing places is done through tensions and contradictions. We found out that memorable experience are usually made up of participant’s own discoveries beyond the designed trail. However, the most challenging part was people’s resistance to step beyond their comfort zone to seek that serendipity. How should trail makers then design such experience to lead visitors to make discoveries “on their own”? Moreover, was it the serendipitous discoveries or was it the participant’s aptitude for adventure that made up memorable experience? There were limitations in this field study and we can only learn from this to design a better study the next time.
Experiencing places through mediated devices
One of the differences between users of mobile app and users of brochure is that the latter tend not to read the description of the places. They choose to focus on the map section of the brochure instead. Mobile app facilitated reading on-the-go when user went from one place to another, but boredom kicked in when they were on the way to another place. Leaving “shout-out” comment on the app while doing the walk was undesirable as it took away the experience of immersion. The “check-in” function was a both a chore and thrill, depending on whether the place was deemed as boring or interesting.
Perhaps, the most interesting findings were on the issue of trust in a mediated device. Both group of participants trusted the devices, but the reason differed. The brochure was initially deemed trustworthy because participants could see a lot of research and money invested in the NHB brochure. The mobile app, on the other hand, was trustworthy because of the crowd-sourced content; it felt like other people were sharing their personal experiences having been on the trail. So far, we have been talking trust beliefs. And our designed trail had provided us an opportunity to test trust intentions.
There is an odd-interesting place with an old water kiosk in the trail. The water kiosk (the precedent of water cooler) has been around the area for three decades, serving free water and tea to poor labourers in the past. Curious passer-bys today continue to help themselves to its supplies. As one participant described it: “That is the equivalent of our modern Coke kiosk”. Honestly, the first sight of the stainless steel water canisters with a red mug at the side just look dodgy to me.
The description on the mobile app and brochure differs with the added sentence on the app: “In retrospect, I regret not trying the water”. That influenced the acceptance and tasting of the water for the mobile app users. And going back to the issue of serendipity, we found that the venturing out of comfort zone to try the water actually made more memorable experience.
Intuitively, we knew that our mobile app had the advantage of interactivity and the potency from crowd-sourced. However, we also got the sense that not all things technology is good. Brochure users rarely felt “lost” in the trail, because there wasn’t a GPS (global positioniing system) to consciously poke them to check their directions. It’s the same idea behind why time seems to pass slower when you keep looking at the watch. While technology is what we are pushing for, how t do we design for intelligent technology versus an intrusive technology? We started with one question in mind, and ended up more. The one question that I can answer for certain is probably my own experience of the trail.
“So… how’s my experience?”
The longest participant took six hours to walk the trail, and the shortest was 35 minutes. While they explored, I scouted the area too, spending a good 10 hours on average daily in the outdoors. My experience of Balestier was bitter-sweet. I saw heritage sites; both the modern over-renovated ones and the old, rundown ones. The old buildings have lost their meaning and people.
The former Shaw Brothers Malay Studio, especially, was memorable for me. It has been fenced-up and the gate is always locked. There was this one time when the doors were wide open and I spent a good 30 minutes talking to the Malay caretaker and looking at the studio antiques. Our conversation was in simple short English phrases and non-verbal language. Mostly non-verbal language actually, since I can only say, “Jalan jalan”(walk in Malay). The pak cik(uncle in Malay) showed me his flower pots and the little garden that he planted. He had adopted an abandoned peahen, which he affectionately named as Mina. According to him, Mina is not very friendly to any one female. In fact, she defecated in protest the moment she saw me.
Other than the buildings, the elderly population in Balestier left me a deep impression. This heritage area is 180 years old and has a fairly high ratio of aging population per square foot. I saw an 80 year-old uncle working as cleaner in the famous Whampoa Food Market. He was well dressed with long pants and shirt, neatly combed silver hair, and a Nokia 2G phone in his chest pocket. Without a belt, his pants hung loosely on his waist, and every step he took seemed to have taken a lot of effort.
The ongoing NHB’s Balestier Heritage Trail project is a success, but the people who are part of that heritage narrative are being neglected as are the buildings. If you haven’t been on the Balestier Heritage Trail, experience it for yourself! See the buildings and encounter the people. Try it this weekend! If you like, try it with our mobile app – Crowd Trails (available for both iOS and Android platforms). If you are lucky enough to see the Shaw Studio gate open, walk through and talk to its caretaker! This gentleman might just give you an exclusive tour of the place.