After IBM announced last December that it would sell its PC division to Chinese electronics titan Lenovo, some U.S. officials worried that the deal could be a front for some big commie espionage operation. As it happens, the only ones doing any spying (that we know of) are Americans.
Lenovo, which became the world's third-largest PC maker when the deal went through in May, hired Portland, Oregon-based design consultancy ZIBA to study how Chinese consumers use electronics. A team of five U.S.-based designers and researchers won highly unusual access to private homes where they were able to document Chinese attitudes toward the use of technology. The goal? To give Lenovo, historically a copycat manufacturer, fresh perspective on cultural traits that could inspire new designs.
One of the first things the designers noticed was the extreme care Chinese consumers took of their electronics. Remote controls were tucked away in plastic sleeves, while cloth doilies covered televisions and computer monitors. "They still regard electronics as very precious items," says Doug Cooke, a senior design planner at ZIBA who ran the ethnographic study. "They treat them the way our grandparents might have thought about that stuff."
ZIBA also found that relationship-centered Chinese consumers were so obsessed with being available to family and coworkers that many leave wireless phones turned on by their bedsides; they also carried extra phones and batteries to ensure they're never out of touch. Children often operated computer mouses for their less tech-savvy parents as the two sat together at computers.
Some of these ideas will be reflected in planned products. Chinese consumers' fascination with the new — they replace their cell phones every three to six months, for example — was incorporated into a desktop computer that was divided into interchangeable quadrants that can be easily replaced and updated. And consumers' preoccupation with glitz and detail — they shun Apple's simplicity as "toylike" — shows up in the chrome trim and the multifaceted surface of one PDA/cell-phone design. Says Cooke: "There's definitely a bling factor there." And Lenovo's surely hoping where there's bling, there's kaching.
A version of this article appeared in the July 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.