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The Handbag Paradox

Beijing: what lies within

Been tracking the contents of people’s bags, pockets and car boots for a while now, to understand how people equip themselves for what lies out there.

Bag mapping is a useful method to get a sense of activities and priorities when people transition between their home space and what lies outside – the participant is asked to bring their ‘most often carried bag’ and lay the objects they carry on a flat surface, talking through the purpose and last-use of each item. Things to look out for – where the bag is kept in the home and what is clustered around it, what is packed/repacked on arrival/departure, and the use of different bags for different activities.

Women tend to be far more sophisticated bag carriers than men, in part because they utilise pockets less and because the social pressures to carry more, such as appearance related objects (make-up, mirror, tissues) or sanitary products is greater. But this sophistication sometimes comes at a cost – handbags carriers (and to a lesser extent other carriers of daily-use bags) are confronted with the handbag paradox that states: it is nearly always easier to add additional items to the bag than to sort through items to be removed, with the net result being that people walk around with significantly more stuff than they need. The moment when the bag carrier appreciates that the bag is over packed is often when they are in a hurry to step out the door (with no time to unpack) or when they are out and about (with nowhere to place and retrieve) what is taken out. It is common for the carrier of an over-filled bag to switch priorities on returning home – deprioritizing the ‘empty bag’ task with something else – such as the ‘empty bladder’ task or ‘make tea’ task, until they are again confronted with an overfilled bag when out and about. The handbag paradox also applies to other everyday bags, hard drives and car boots (trunks). In private-car ownership cultures e.g. the United States, the car (not just the car boot) becomes the overfilled container. (There’s also useful lessons in prioritisation switching depending on context that can apply to many situations).

Bag mapping is a useful exercise to become acquainted with the norms of a society – what we do or don’t decide to carry being a reflection of our selves and the environment in which we live and work.

See also: Scott Mainwaring’s paper on Living for the Global City – Mobile Kits, Urban Interface and Ubicomp and Mobile Essentials: Field Study and Concepting by myself and a number of ex-colleagues at Nokia.