Why getting lost makes you a better researcher

By Neil Pawley

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have a job that has taken me to many places around the world. Throughout these travels I’ve found there are a number of universal constants:

  • Long distance travel, particularly by air, always feels exciting for the first 5 minutes but is a drag from there on.
  • The first time you buy a beer in a new currency you’re left wondering if it cost you £4 or £40.
  • Hotels are never as large or as conveniently placed as they appear on their website.
  • Getting lost is inevitable.

If I could, I would change every one of the items on this list but the last. The last one is fun.

I enjoy getting lost, which is rather fortunate as I get lost a lot. It constantly happens to me from the first time I step outside of the hotel I’m staying in to the moment I get back to the airport on my way home. To some this may seem a little absent minded but it’s actually a trait that offers far more benefits than you might think.

This wayward ability of mine combined with a predilection towards guesswork and a natural self confidence that is far greater than my map reading capabilities suggest it should be, forces me to interact with the environment I suddenly find myself in. I’ve lost count of the number of passers-by that I’ve had interesting and sometimes challenging conversations with to try and establish where the train station is or where the nearest public toilet may be.

Going out in search of a recommended restaurant has proven to be an adventure in itself in more than one country. When working for an online gaming company I once ended up in completely the wrong part of Bangkok thanks to the fact that the best Mongolian barbeque in town was on a street that was not as uniquely named as I had initially supposed.

However, geographical cock-ups such as this often prove to be beneficial in the long-term. On this particular occasion I accidently discovered how easy it was to get to Bangkok’s Thai boxing arena and ended up attending a sporting event I would otherwise have missed. This allowed me to witness first-hand the number of spectators that took part in illegal gambling during fights and how these illicit transactions took place. It was quite an eye opener and helped inform valuable insight on the study I was working on.

My general state of being misplaced in a city is only accentuated by the fact that I hate using taxis. They are often cheap and convenient but they isolate you, transporting you within a protective bubble from point A to point B without exposing you to all the interesting elements in between.

All major cities have a public transport network of one sort or another, most offer a subway system (usually far superior to that found in London) which allows quick and easy access to all areas of the metropolis. This and the local bus services are most likely to be how the average Joe gets around on a daily basis, so for me it’s important to do the same.

Of course, finding the subway entry and exit points is only the first challenge, once there everything that the locals take for granted has to be learnt for the first time:

  • Does the system use tickets or tokens?
  • How do you purchase these from the automated machines?
  • Is there an Oyster or Octopus card and what are the benefits of buying into such a scheme?
  • How do you get through the barriers and get on the platforms?
  • What do all the different coloured lines mean?
  • Where do I stand to get on the train (this one’s easy in Asia as transit companies tend to paint lines on the floor illustrating where to wait)

It’s journeys such as this that much of a city’s population take to and from work/school/shops which in some small way influences many day-to-day decisions, from the schools their children attend to where they work and the products they buy. Everyone is assaulted on a daily basis with the marketing messages they walk past, the smells they sense or products they see as they pass shops or street vendors, the convenient facilities they use (ATM’s, vending machines), the free papers they read and the sights they see.

All form the backdrop for the international research the consultant is there to investigate so exposure to them is essential. Separating oneself from this dynamic can only reduce the consultant’s comprehension of social context and have an adverse impact upon their understanding of cultural nuances.

I have come across many professionals who like their hotels, I mean really like them, to the point that they prefer not to leave them unless absolutely necessary. They’re safe, comfortable and supply everything that anyone could need. For some the only reason to venture out into the great unknown is for a trip to a bar across town, and only then by taking a taxi from door-to-door.

It’s lazy to presume that everything you need to know about a specific destination can be picked up from a Rough Guide, an online resource or just watching some of the local television. The best and most informed consultant will immerse themselves in the location, walk the streets, ride the train and happily get lost. I fully believe that it‘s just as important to enjoy the journey as well as the destination, however convoluted and misguided that journey may at times appear.

I’m afraid I’m destined to forever be the foreigner abroad. Maybe the next time you’re out you’ll come across a man standing in a subway station with a slightly perplexed look on his face, holding a map upside down, trying to figure out what ticket is required and which way round it should go in the machine. If you do it’s probably just me trying to figure out how to get back to my hotel before it gets light again. Why not stop and say hello, it’ll make my day.

Neil Pawley

I joined W3C in 1995 working for six years on the formation of guidelines for HTML, CSS, RDF and WAI. I worked with some of the cleverest people around, lectured in the UK and US and authored and contributed to a number of technical publications. I’m also immensely proud of having contributed three entries to Roger’s Profanisaurus in 1998 and they are still there.

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