Kopi Chat Deep Dive: Designing for the East

Kopi Chat Deep Dive is a series of talks organised for the start-up community, served specially by NUS Enterprise alongside a good fresh brew of local coffee.

In this edition of Kopi Chat Deep Dive (Designing for the East), we explore how start-ups can use customer-centric designs to capture and gain traction from the different markets in the East. Our esteemed panel include:

  • Meera Adhia ( Senior Product Designer, Grab)
  • Abhinav Srivastava (Senior Product Designer, DBS Bank)
  • Harville Tan (Senior Manager, IMDA)
  • Vasu Kolla (Transformation Lead, PebbleRoad)

And moderated by BLOCK71’s startup’s UX/UI designer, Rakhi Khialani from YoRipe.

Moderator: Rakhi Khialani (UX/UI Designer, YoRipe)
Panelist: Meera Adhia ( Senior Product Designer, Grab), Abhinav Srivastava (Senior Product Designer, DBS Bank), Harville Tan (Senior Manager, IMDA), Vasu Kolla (Transformation Lead, PebbleRoad)

What are the design-thinking trends in the East?

Vasu: I just came back from Vietnam last Saturday. I don’t think there is a specific trend in the region, but I think there are some very unique differences between each of these markets, especially in a country like Vietnam. I was really baffled to see none of the Singapore-based companies surviving. Most of the Singapore-based start-ups actually struggle in Vietnam, because of the logistics that they are not used to. Singapore-based companies successfully deploy in Malaysia and Indonesia, but once they enter Vietnam it’s a totally different ball game altogether. Most of the successful local start-ups – none of them have their applications in English. All of them are just in Vietnamese and they are happy with that. Unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, Vietnam is not ‘one Vietnam’ – whether they are doing it in the South, Central, or North makes a difference as the users are different. The expectations are different, so the start-ups are also struggling to understand how to build unique experiences with 3 parts of Vietnam. 

Abhinav: I have been designing from the tech perspective of global application, which is how tech can serve global content. From a component point of view, because it is part of my job to ensure the components can work across countries, technical stuff like language and currency, because SGD is a large value in Indonesia. So, keeping those things in mind, trend-wise it is not really specific – there are not many specific trends, you just have to do market research to find out the needs of your consumers. 

Meera: Perhaps I could add on. In terms of the question, yes, there is no specific design thinking trend. Start-ups or companies which work starting with the users and customers have been able to flourish better, and it does work based on both my opinion and numbers. Designing for Southeast Asia – every country is different. For Grab, we are in 8 countries and 500 cities. The strains and content – designing for the information is critical. I’m at the regional HQ, design HQ is in Singapore. We tend to start our mock-ups in English, and then we bring out other languages such as Thai. What we intend to do is to keep in touch with the local or regional languages, and split information such that the key information is not broken. When designing for different information, such as Indonesian currencies which might be longer, we need to design in a way that we can still present it in a small screen. 

Key points:

  • Unique differences with each market in the East
  • Be consumer centric, not trends driven
  • Build for the masses, localise with insights

What are the methods used in research? 

Meera: That is completely dependent on the kind of problem you are trying to tackle. In Singapore, English speakers are there, but for other countries we would need moderators and translators. That becomes a challenge because although the moderators and translators are professional, there is always a loss of context somewhere, and it becomes a challenge to translate that. 

How do you overcome that challenge?

Meera: Body language does play a part. If you are an experienced user researcher, you’re engaged by a lot of movements of hands, and tone of voice. What also helped, because we have a very diverse team in design, is to get someone local from the team to be there and help improvise during the interview or user validity test.

Vasu: For us, we do not have local teams. We usually work with professionals that we can find, and if we cannot find them we end up hiring university students as part of our project so that they understand the language as well as pick up the skills and help us translate the different parts. Generally, the experience in Malaysia and Indonesia has been generally okay, but even finding talent in this design space in Thailand and Vietnam has been quite a challenge. Quite a lot gets lost in translation.

Harville: Maybe I will just add on. Many times, when we think of the topic of designing for the east, and looking at things like the recent research methodology and all that, we always have this perception from a consumer’s point of view. All of us are consumers, so we think about how apps designed for the East, especially the Chinese market, are very different from the West. We come with the perspective, so we think “Okay, we really have to understand user-research methodology” and all that, which is very true, but I would just say that a large part of the app still says the same, for most of the companies designing for different regions. Of course, there is localisation of language, and subtle differences, but there is usually no radical change. I think this topic is very relevant, because 1) based on the “E-conomy” report put together by Temasek and Google, which just came out about a month ago. It talks about how Southeast Asia’s internet economy is really gaining steam. In 2019 alone, the internet economy is almost worth a 100 billion, which is 40% higher than last year, and is projected to increase further. If you guys are in the internet economy, now is a good time – Asia is a fast-growing market which you guys should seize. 2) Last year, IMDA did a study of the services in the digital economy and set up a tech road-map for that. Looking at that, we came up with a strategy called Services 4.0. 1.0 is a manual way of doing things – you go to the bank, you deposit money. 2.0 is where you use Internet to enable your transactions, such as through online banking. 3.0 is where you use mobiles to transact. 4.0 is really about services and how you can deal things on an end-to-end basis – for example, if you are on a restaurant app, you can search up reviews, find the right restaurant, and chope a seat and even make payments through mobile. Next is about being friction-less, and that is something that more people are used to. Many of us think of designing for the east in terms of the consumer perspective. Most of us are also consumers and we look at things from a consumer perspective, but how can we use B2B services to benefit consumers? That is what we term friction-less. Also, looking at consumer safety is important. Anticipatory apps – when users are waiting for something, that is the right time to push an ad or stuff like that. There are a lot of these trends going on now that people such as corporates and start-ups can adopt.

Key points:

  • With different languages, sometimes context gets lost in translation
  • To retain information at its best, one can seek help from colleagues to validate information translated or hire university students

How should start-ups think about the user experience?

Abhinav: Before you expand out to multiple markets, you can think about designing a global application that can serve global content in different countries. If you are designing for certain countries such as China or Japan, then the app would be fundamentally different, which might not be very useful in other markets because it is more condensed and usually shown on a different screen. It is not really clean design, by Western standards, so you have to think about which market you are going for and then design for that market. 

Harville: For us, even with these strategies in play, we are running programmes about design-thinking, UI/ UX, digital storytelling, all that. Design thinking is an important piece, because understanding the customer journey map and why users use the app and what is your value proposition to them from the start – the different types of personas using your app – it is important to understand what their workflow is like, what their journey is going to be like. That influences the solution. Having context within the market itself is important.

Meera: From day one of a start-up, understanding the crowd and the lean start-up methodology should give you some idea of your customers. I am a strong evangelist of jobs to be done, and to be resourceful. Understanding what the customer is having, be it any service or product, is essential because that is a strategy that will work for a long time. Once that key understanding is there, you can design accordingly. I would not say that for a start-up that it is essential that you need a large design team, but the mindset to bring empathy and the customer point-of-view into the picture. Having known how a user functions, what makes them unique, at least that mindset of wanting to know that about users should be there. 

Vasu: There was recently a fully-automated vehicle launched, but they did not think about how they would introduce it to people. When you spend too much time on your product, you rarely think about how it can be embedded into the lives of others. This becomes a problem. 

Key points:

  • Focus on the customer – their habits, behaviours and needs

What are the best resources that you can share that you use in your design?

Vasu: IDEO has very good courses. If you want something clean, Coursera is always there. IDEO has very good basic courses that synthesize and simplify quite well. If you are just looking at design principles, there is a guy who was not a designer but became a designer, and simplified the whole UI design process. His website is called “learnUIdesign”, and he has actually launched two courses.

Harville: Sometimes it is really good to just walk into the market that you are keen on expanding to. NUS has great access to their regional markets through BLOCK71. That is a good resource to tap on. Many start-ups do not have many designers, so how IMDA can support is that we provide design-related consultants who can help with the design-thinking process or the UI/UX process with up to 70% funding. We also offer a usability testing lab for start-ups and SMEs to conduct tests of their products. You can bring in people from around the region to do testing, and we use equipment to do eye-tracking and other ways to test how the consumer reacts to your product. 

Abhinav: I’ll tell you what not to use – google translate. It’s better to just talk to someone from that country because you get a more honest conversation. There is research available online that says some countries are more android users than IOS. There are also certain countries that are not early adopters of products. They will only adopt it once the product has become popular in other countries. For these countries, you have to do press releases and lots of advertising. Some countries are more inclined to discounts more than others too. Look at surrounding competition and learn from them too. 

Meera: There are plenty of global resource tools. I am a self-taught designer for over 15 years, as I switched from advertising. The only tool that comes in handy is curiosity – if you are curious enough you will ask open questions that will help you get the right answers from experts or your customers. 

Key points:

  • Online resources: IDEO, Coursera
  • IMDA provides design-related consultants with up to 70% funding
  • Learn from the competition
  • Be curious

What difficulties do you have when getting Singaporeans or Asians to elaborate on things when you interview them?

Meera: A very interesting question. One part about designing for SEA is that there is a cultural difference. Even though I am making a large generalisation, there are definitely patterns that we see in Grab. In some countries, people tend to be more upfront and direct. Some feel very entitled to the services in which they pay for. Some are also culturally more polite. We tend to think about cultural differences in design as we have to create one single app for everyone. We do try to dissect the information based on what is mentioned to us. Sometimes during interviews, the person may be too polite to elaborate, and thus require more probing. They could also be too pissed off to say anything further. We do not go off listening to every user and their sentiment, we have to synthesize the information and come back to what exactly is the root cause of the problem. 

Vasu: Never do an interview in countries without having a background context. If you do not have data, collect some data first. If possible, do some broad stroke surveys just to get an idea of where the problems lie. There is already an inherent bias that getting paid for it or getting customers who choose to be interviewed are a certain kind of customer. Get as much data as possible before you actually segment the customers to interview. Whether it is through meeting the people in person, through social media, etc, get some sentiments, then decide on the profile of individuals you want to interview. Also, the more comfortable you make people, the better insights you will get. It depends on your capability as a researcher, and what you provide during the interview such as food, money, or comfort levels. 

Harville: It is best to do ground work before going out to do research. It is also good to complement it with technology, such as seeing how people scroll through the apps, what they screen capture, etc. Sometimes, when people talk in retrospect, they may miss out certain things, and these things may only be captured through screen captures software or eye-tracking. So these are good tools to complement the usability testing and understanding of the users.

Abhinav: During user research it is important to know what you are trying to achieve from the research. It is not how you think the people are going to behave. From your end, the best you can do is to have a clear intention of what you are trying to achieve as a designer.

Vasu: Behavioral testing is also important as behavior is generally more reliable than opinions. Everybody wants to portray a good image of themselves, so it becomes a tendency to lie. 

How do I non-design background team to understand the value and importance of design?

Rakhi: Where design starts from is also critical for the marketing people to understand design. Embrace whatever they think that design is but they definitely cross this to the end to make them see what design is. I don’t know if i’m making a generalization but in several parts, designs were very visual. Its only about how something looks or appealing, that’s not design anymore, there are much more to it, much more to making … a lot more to designers are even doing to the last night, when it comes to offline or online work. i think the best way is to throw them into the pool with you

Abhinav: I had a lot of experience with MBs and Designers that don’t have a special relationship. I realised through my own failures and mistakes, explaining the process definitely helps but you have to understand where they are coming from. As a designer, your primary job is to have everything, to understand the business well. because they have an agenda, want to achieve something through the signs and its your job to explain sometimes. I have had seen the changes in expression in stakeholders when i tell them. It depends on your capabilities on how you present your idea and why you present, i think it will go a long way.

Harville: That’s pretty much about of ROI right, but what kind of benefit can they see from terms of design, that is something you need new data to check and that will really speak the language. but beyond that, there are a lot of workshops, talks, one on one style, very quick and easy way to get them up too speed, just give the broad prospective on what are some known designs, and what designs they think about. It wont take up too much time and it helps them understand very broadly what they should be looking out for in design perspective

Vasu: Do something, get some preserves and show them that’s the best way of doing it. Try to do it 3 times or find a new team. In those context, especially i think we don’t even use the word design for the project. so its just about somehow we learnt to be more empathetic to the users because we can forget that they are also people.

How do you differentiate a good and an average user experience, is it only subjective? or objective as well?

Meera: The value of design, yes we do AV testing, which provides the value of the design – this is an objective method to differentiate and this will tell you how good your experience is, but something like metrics, that’s the tricky one, cause we must think how we have to alter the experience to make it a good one.

Vasu: She mentioned the objective part but obviously there’s a business rule, if it doesn’t tally up with results then its pretty hard to just keep buying. But in the process itself, if you just use data, you are only making pre-leads and the product. at some point, designers do, looking at the context based on experiences that they have, have some leaps in terms of your thinking about what exists in the world and what doesn’t.

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