Although IT and internet adoption are widespread and strong in Latin America, our field has been slow to develop and it has yet to catch real traction among businesses. As we will see, there are only a handful of countries with specialists fully dedicated to UX. In this article we will discuss the situation of different countries in the region with a focus on the particularly interesting case of Chile.
In preparing this article, I spoke with a few practitioners in the region in order to explore their different visions of how our field has grown, as well as the current state of the industry. We discussed what major organizational and cultural challenges our field is facing, and what we believe are the next steps for the solidification of UX in our region. I learned that each country has different sources of leadership for this growth and there is considerable disparity in the maturity of the field in particular countries.
Latin America is a vast territory over 6,000 miles from north to south that covers more than 20 distinct countries with more than 600 million people with a variety of climates and racial mixtures. We are not talking about a coherent and culturally cohesive entity, but a loosely associated region. Each country has its distinct currency, political system, and cultural norms. Language is a good example. Although most of the Latin American countries speak Spanish, the different types of Spanish spoken are as diverse as the kinds of English spoken throughout the world—think Australian versus Texan versus Scottish English. There are also countries that speak Portuguese, French, or English. This cultural diversity is matched by differences in the way people conduct business and—getting closer to our main topic—how business models or interaction styles cannot be adopted in a one-size-fits-all style. We will explore how different countries have adopted UX practices in different ways.
Where Things Stand
Despite being a small country with fewer than 18 million people, Chile holds one of the leading positions in UX in the region. In Chile, the major push for UX has come from practitioners who were able to gain traction in some government organizations, and others who created a series of specialized agencies. Chile’s UX community created a volunteer organization and put together very interesting conferences for six years in a row, filling large auditoriums with young designers and developers eager to get into the UX community. There is also an interesting startup scene of growing importance that has been receiving all types of backing. Many of these startup projects work in agile mode and have been quicker to incorporate some UX concepts and methods in their process.
Large and mid-sized organizations have been slower to incorporate UX specialists on their teams. Most companies are stuck with the vision that technology is a black box: a turnkey solution that is best left in the hands of engineers, independent of corporate strategies. The companies that have started to incorporate UX within their organization generally follow two paths: they integrate it into their technology or their marketing divisions.
As Jorge Barahona, owner at a design agency in Vina del Mar, explained it, “We can see progress in understanding and development within large companies regarding global UX concepts. However, they see it in fragments and not as adding value to the whole organization.”
He continues, “Companies are a long way from appreciating the true advantage of UX and understanding that better UX leads to less need for advertising, and this is (oddly enough) especially true in marketing and tech areas of these companies. Their marketing divisions are hostage to banners and ad agencies that don’t know further than campaigns and irruptive communication, and tech areas are hostage to software platforms.”
Barahona concedes that “There has been some growth within these companies to learn UX topics, but they are always covered from the side of usability and front end, not in terms of strategy or interaction design.”
Paulo Saavedra, UX head for a design agency in Santiago, says that UX roles are assigned low-level positions within organizations. “The field has become stronger in the last five years. Starting 2012 it has become a priority for large companies who have seen an opportunity in creating internal teams to focus on UX problems. But, he continues, “The downside is that there is no real value orientation with expert support. Rather, they create teams of junior professionals with no senior roles.”
Saavedra calls this “a low-cost solution for companies that limits the development of projects focused on users and takes on projects that reflect the interests of the company’s management instead. This is a frequent deviation when your UX team lacks experience and has lesser clout than areas such as marketing, communication, or e-commerce.”
In terms of education, the same practitioner community—known as AIChile, Information Architects of Chile—has developed a certificate diploma within a private university which has been designed and fully taught by these practitioners. And there are several other universities that offer either certificate or masters programs that incorporate some courses on either Information Architecture or Experience Design.
Argentina is another country with an interesting level of UX development. Santiago Bustelo, principal at a UX consultancy in Buenos Aires and IxDA Latin America Regional Coordinator, describes the situation: “From the beginning (worldwide) adoption of UX disciplines has always grown bottom-up, starting from individuals who are interested and committed to its practice. Practitioners have been the ones to take the role of evangelizers in their organizations, generating interest through their results.”
Bustelo clearly see a growing interest and maturity on the part of the practitioners in Argentina and cites the following examples as proof:
- There are eight chapters of IxDA in the country.
- The number of attendees and quality of presentations grows each year for UX events.
- This year, they will host Interaction South America, a major international conference.
Another country that shows some signs of maturation is Brazil, where I spoke with Carolina Leslie, consultant in Sao Paulo, who said, “The field has already existed in Brazil for many years. What we have seen is the growing importance of the discipline. Fifteen to ten years ago only big agencies and companies had someone doing UX-related work and many of them didn’t even call themselves UXers.”
According to Leslie, “Online agencies (a big area in Brazil), financial services, e-commerce, and media groups are the traditional clients. Many of them have internal teams with dozens of people, and have established a culture that focuses on UX. Government has also invested quite a bit in the UX field. We have an accessibility law requiring all government websites to be accessible, which ended up helping the user experience of its web sites as well. That said, we still have a lot of ground to cover on the subject. Our tax return software, for instance, is in great need of a redesign.”
As regards education, Leslie admits, “I guess this is the part we have more work ahead. Over the last years I’ve seen many new courses regarding digital design and even some specializations focused on UX, but most of them are very practical; we are still in early days of research in the field.”
But on the plus side, she adds, “We have a new startup scene over here and, with it, a growing culture of design thinking and development of user experience work. We are seeing new investments coming from many kinds of digital entrepreneurs.”
In other Latin American countries, UX has had less traction. One would think that Mexico, with its size and strong business interaction with the U.S. would have a leading role in the region, however, UX is still in early stages there.
Luis Aceves, scholar and consultant in Monterrey, speaks of the slowly growing field in Mexico. “We are still in an emerging state. Despite this, there are a growing number of larger companies willing to invest in user centered design; however, small and medium-sized companies still don’t see the value in practicing UX methods and techniques to make sure their products will have a focus on the people. And even though a growing number of companies do so, their focus is at the interface level (mockups, wireframes, etc.), but not on user research activities (ethnography, usability testing.)”
In Ecuador, Wendy Vivero, UX designer at a tech firm in Guayaquil, describes an emerging market where there are still struggles to sell our services and explain to clients the value of what we do. “Not all clients are willing to invest in the additional costs that testing or user interviews involve. This does not keep us from conducting small usability tests and basic user research so we can at least know about their needs, experience, and desires. Many of our clients have already conducted marketing user research, and although not ideal, it still help us understand the situation.”
Vivero singles out e-commerce as the field that has best understood the value of UX investment on their bottom-line. “The most dynamic sector, or with the strongest intent in having a deeper understanding of their users and providing a good experience, is e-commerce, as the stakeholder is aware that their success is depending on it.”
It seems as though business people in the region need to pay closer attention to global organizations that are placing design at the center of their value. As Jaguar’s CEO recently declared: “If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design.”
We are aware of activity in a few other countries—including an active community in Colombia, but were unable to reach those practitioners before deadline.
The challenges for our practice vary with the development stage of each market. While some colleagues are still battling to open initial ground—making their clients and organizations aware that we even exist and are an important solution to their process—other markets have already acknowledged some interest in UX but still do not embrace it at a strategic level.
Santiago Bustelo says that it is hard to get organizations to move past their comfort zone. “Incorporating UX is not simple; it requires resources, modifications to an organization’s processes, and vision. The sector with the most agility in achieving this, and therefore the most advanced in this area, is the private sector.
“If only one company takes a step forward in certain market that is already advancement. And in a competitive context, this step forward will have great notoriety, particularly in mature markets where saturation in offers makes customers particularly sensitive to service quality. Traditional strategies for market reach have found, or are finding, a limit, and investment in UX is becoming a differentiator as the clearest way for reducing support costs and reducing churn.”
But there are also some broader cultural issues that make the Latin American market different than others where UX has made a stronger mark. If we talk about e-commerce for example, our region has not previously had a very strong history of catalog shopping, with transparent and easy return policies.
This is especially true in Chile where for a long time there has been a sense of distrust between merchants and customers: customers can be wary of receiving a defective product that would be burdensome to exchange if the purchase wasn’t made face-to-face. Likewise, merchants feared the customers would try to take advantage of the system if they made returns easy. Add to this some less-than-ideal mail services or expensive private couriers, and you will see strong limitations for e-commerce. Nevertheless, there is a growing customer base that is eager for access to better quality web services and stores, and a handful of merchants are adjusting to the times, though most are still missing sales by offering mediocre e-commerce stores, and not changing their service culture.
Carolina Leslie makes a good point about how problems can become opportunities. “The greatest problem, and also the biggest opportunity I see over here is showing the real value of UX. People kind of know that ’UX is good for you,’ but they don’t have solid numbers backing up this assumption. It is amazing to find that very few clients do have solid analytics of their situation, so that we can calculate the ROI of a project. This, in turns, makes it harder for user experience to become more strategic.”
Santiago Bustelo also talks about cultural barriers in Argentina: “We don’t have a strong service culture in either the public or private sectors, which could provide fertile territory for the adoption of our disciplines,” He explains. And Paulo Saavedra points out issues with leadership, saying, “I believe the Chilean market lacks maturity and literacy to embrace the importance of UX for optimizing business and fulfilling their business goals.”
Jorge Barahona adds that an important problem is lack of content in native language: “Contents in Spanish, not only because just 5% of Chileans speak and understand English, but there is not enough development of content in order to develop our own UX adjectives. We are unable to create enough topics for our own culture and experience to have a global influence.”
What can be done to make progress in our field? Practitioners have hope in education as a tool to bring things to the next level. Professional organizations can also be helpful, but they are very challenging to sustain with volunteer models. Another helpful venue is the conference circuit, but regional events can be difficult for people who have little travel assistance from their jobs.
Wendy Vivero suggests, “In Ecuador we need more courses, workshops, and seminars given at the national level. Here, as in other Latin American countries, I believe that most of the training is done online and directly in U.S. or European organizations, and then complemented with work experience. We lack mentors, national organizations, and events that I see are happening in other countries of our region. In terms of academia, there should also be degrees in HCI, Cognitive Psychology, or Human Factors. I am not aware of any institution in my country to offer these degrees.”
Santiago Bustelo says that, “Given that UX disciplines always emerge bottom-up within organizations, an important step forward would be to have larger offer of quality education of high academic level.”
Paulo Saavedra highlights the role of peer organizations. “I believe that initiatives like the Certificate in Information Architecture (developed by AIChile) have contributed to the development of new professionals. This contributes a lot as there are more people trained with established methods and processes within reach, as opposed to what happened to those of us who started in the mid ‘90s when we had to learn by creating our tools.”
Saavedra believes, “we need further effort from universities to include these topics into the regular curricula of related fields, such as design, journalism, communication, advertising, or library science. For traditional programs such as engineering, it would be good to include some section on software design as seen through experience design, in terms of what they call the soft skills of software.”
Jorge Barahona brings up a laundry list of ways in which we can bring our field forward:
- Bridging practitioners across the region.
- Generating more content in Spanish will attract more interest, and therefore more development in our field.
- Marking clear distinctions between UX and advertising.
- Seminars and academic formation including research.
- Continuing to educate our clients.
In sum, there are some things that the community of practitioners can do on their own, but other efforts depend on different stakeholders that have been slowly but increasingly awakened to the relevance of UX for their bottom-line, and we can influence them. Or as Santiago Bustelo says, “Industry is becoming increasingly aware of UX‚ at least as a buzzword. This is the time for UX practitioners to step in and make a difference.”
We find a region with lots of potential but limited and isolated pockets of progress. There are important cultural barriers for the evolution of our field but there is hope. UX has always been filled with dreamers.
There is also some hope in just waiting for markets to mature and naturally evolve towards models that prioritize design as many global companies have been doing. But we can help catalyze this evolution of these markets.
One interesting thing the community can do—and something I’ve personally attempted for several years—is to consolidate a regional community that can cross the siloed pockets of practitioners that we find now. We could share locally developed content, in our languages, through websites, and continue to regularize the development of regional events and conferences.
The people interviewed in this article are:
- Carolina Leslie, Director of UX strategy at Saiba +
- Wendy Vivero, UX Architect – ImageTech, Guayaquil, Ecuador
- Santiago Bustelo, Design Director and Principal, Kambrica and Latin America Regional Coordinator, IxDA
- Luis Carlos Aceves, Director General – Usaria
- Jorge Barahona, Director – AyerViernes
- Paulo Saavedra, Director of UX, Multiplica LATAM
Most of the interviews were conducted in Spanish. It was a challenge for the author to translate subjects’ responses while trying to keep individual voices. If the guests’ phrasing is sometimes odd the author is to blame, not them.
This project was partially funded by project PMI USA1204, Chile
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