The State of UX in South East Asia

Sam Ng, our beloved founder at Optimal Workshop and all around good guy has spent the past two or three years in South East Asia working with education technology, for-profit social enterprise, and not-for-profit initiatives. This follows his 5 years at Optimal Experience and 2 years setting up Optimal Workshop. So we thought he might have a few thoughts about the state of UX in South East Asia (SEA).

Tell us about the state of User Experience in SEA?

There isn't a lot of awareness of UX in SEA; UX and design aren't appreciated to the extent they are in "the west". However in Singapore, Hong Kong and some parts of Thailand the technology community is being led by expats and they often bring an awareness of UX with them. Most of the expats I've met in the field are from North America, UK, Australia, or NZ. Some have successfully replicated western technology models for the Asian market, as a result of this UX has been adopted by western corporations and some governments in SEA. From what I've seen, China's UX market is predominantly catering to western corporations based in China rather than to Chinese companies.

Many people are looking at SEA as an emerging market, over the next five years, to introduce products and services. What do they need to be aware of?

Asia is made up of different economies in different stages of life and maturity. Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan are more mature markets. Indonesia is less mature yet has the 4th largest population in the world. China and India are so large that they stand alone.

Just like any other market, certain universal rules still apply: don't make assumptions about what will work in a given market, don't assume that all people living in one country will have the same preferences. There are many cultural, religious and ethnic differences. So you need to research and test different types of design on various cultural groups to understand what is most effective. People still want things to be easy. We're all fundamentally wired to find the path of least resistance, it's just our ideas about value that may be different to the culture's perception of value

In what ways is SEA culturally different?

SEA is a very different paradigm than western countries: culturally very different, lower incomes, less fixed screens and more mobile devices. The content needs to be lighter and less text dependent. People tend to be much more visual and are led by multimedia; gloss and shine prevail.

In Asia, status and reputation are gained in different ways to the west. Many people admire western brands such as Starbucks and McDonalds and want to be seen in these stores. In Cambodia, people respond well to direct marketing which other markets would refer to as "spam". They feel important when companies make an effort to contact them and address them personally.

Asia is much more relational at its core, the relationship comes first. Saving face is very important; people are not comfortable acknowledging a mistake or admitting when they don't know something. People have a different world view to time, being late for meetings is not unusual and often not an issue.

Are mobile platforms the future for emerging markets in SEA?

Mobile phone subscriptions in developing countries is a huge growth area. Infrastructure is a massive arms race to acquire customers. In Cambodia there are over a dozen telcos and many cellphone providers were recently bought up and consolidated. Through this race, services will continue to improve. An individual may have multiple subscription accounts as well as multiple phones and data is relatively cheap. In Cambodia you can get 2GB of data for $5USD per month. In Thailand, True Corporation offers cheap mobile phone subscriptions. Smartphones are increasingly owned by the poor.

Is the infrastructure in place to support this growth?

Yes. Copper lines are not required and cell towers are already there to support mobile growth. The speed is good; Cambodia has had 4G for more than a year now. Low orbit satellite technology is likely to also introduce more bandwidth for remote areas. We see big players like Google and Project Loon experimenting with new ways to connect the billions of people who remain unconnected to the internet.

What opportunities do you see emerging?

Three distinct opportunities come to mind:

  • Content developed for rich countries can be used in poor countries
  • Health information services will be delivered through mobile devices
  • Education attained through mobile devices

What issues will impact the future of UX in SEA?

The evolution of languages and phone capability will play a part in the future of UX. In ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries English is predominantly used as the universal language, but Mandarin is there too. Over time new languages are evolving; hybrids of English with local abbreviations and technical jargon. That's why direct translations of English won't work, you have to build safeguards into your design process to ensure that the intent behind English words is preserved and that you capture the most commonly used terminology.

Not all languages are supported on mobile phones, for example in Thailand they don't always text in the Thai language. Some of the heavily scripted languages are very difficult to read on small screens like Nokia feature phones, but are readable on high resolution phones like modern smartphones. Technology, and the usability of mobile phones has affected and will continue to affect language - much to the horror of linguists. Languages will evolve to suit the mediums we come up with.

The future for SEA will almost certainly be very chaotic and exciting. The coming information revolution will absolutely cause disruption in these societies. And while technology can do a lot of good, it can disrupt a lot of things as seen in the Middle East where greater transparency led to change. In SEA kids who have access to smartphones are able to learn more than their parents and community leaders. They ask questions their community leaders can't answer and saving face becomes an issue. More and more people are getting mobile phones in Vietnam and the government is worried and is looking to lock down and control information, as they do in China.

Tell us about your recent charity work

I've been working in Hong Kong and Cambodia to get businesses involved in humanitarian work. I volunteered with the United Nations to involve businesses to tackle the issue of modern day slavery. We've assembled a team of business leaders in Hong Kong who work with experts in human trafficking to make high impact projects a reality. One example involves software on smartphones to support law enforcement in Asia.

The other key area I'm involved in is education. Education is a key source to economic woes. It is widely understood in SEA that education is the ticket for kids, so long as they are healthy. Yet the school system is broken; corruption, teachers are not getting paid and are poorly educated themselves. Yet kids love playing on phones. If they're not going to school but have access to a phone, then heck, let's use the phone. We deliver freely available educational content to primary school kids through donated devices that are stored at the school library. Our focus is on numeracy. Even just 1 or 2 hours per week provides a skills boost. We have data that shows that using free smartphone games result in substantial increases in test scores. Mobile phones are pervasive among the poor, and as a family's wealth increases, they will buy more phones or receive hand-me-down phones from others and the opportunity to learn will further increase.

Thirty something Cambodian high school students come to observe the Grit mobile learning platform in action. Thirty something Cambodian teachers come to observe the Grit mobile learning platform in action.

What can people do to help?

I would like help from the community to assess educational content for android devices, figure out which apps handle math instruction and are relevant for an audience with very low levels of English. If people want to get involved and help they can contact me on:

Published on Jul 31, 2013
Andrew Mayfield

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