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Keep Asking “Why?” Curiosity, Delighting in Difference in Asia

Why are there huge queues in Hong Kong for the strangest of things—McDonald’s Snoopy figures, a new Macanese custard tart shop, or a trip through an already jammed Central Harbour Tunnel when there is an empty Western Tunnel a short (8 kilometers) drive away)?

Why is BBM (a messaging app) so popular in Indonesia but not anywhere else in Asia? Why was online shopping so slow to take-off in Indonesia but not in China? Why does everyone in mainland China seem to use Alipay and WeChat mobile apps for nearly everything? Are they really like PayPal and WhatsApp?

Why do cash dispensing machines (ATMs) have the same or only slightly longer hours than bank branches in Japan?

In my two decades in Asia, wondering why has helped me to shape experiences that changed behavior, taught me invaluable insights from those that didn’t succeed, and every day continues to provide past, present and future localized context to my work. This context, whilst often being only part of the picture, helps with listening, observing, and being genuinely curious when designing for people with all their complexity, predictable unpredictability, and delightful differences.

As we all seek to design intuitive solutions that address an individual’s needs and aspirations, we can take pleasure in gaining clues to this complex context of cultural and social norms of behavior. These insights of people’s motivators and blockers—those slow to change and quick, fleeting fads—will hopefully help us delight users.

At the very least this curiosity about, and empathy for, people and their world helps us avoid the pitfall of assuming successful products and services from one market can be transferred unchanged to another.

Avoiding the Iceberg of Assumed Transferability

Avoiding the cross-cultural/market assumption of transferability is vividly described as an iceberg by Huatong Sun in her book Cross-Cultural Technology Design: Creating Culture-Sensitive Technology for Local Users. She describes the submerged parts as the “unspoken and unconscious rules” (referencing Nancy Hoft’s earlier International Technical Communication).

And there have been some notable “sinkings” when these rules were not appreciated, such as NTT DoCoMo’s iMode’s failed transfer outside of Japan. The unique social and technical context, described by Barbara Ballard in Designing the Mobile User Experience, that made iMode a Japanese success assumed a need based on a lack of personal communications in Japan, lack of personal computer-based internet, and little or no privacy in a typical Japanese home. This context did not exist in other developed markets where either established SMS/text or individual ownership of computers with internet access made iMode unnecessary or even outdated.

In contrast, there are some global experiences (both services or products) that are so well designed for universal human needs, so simple, intuitive, and delightful that they readily transfer around the world against perceived wisdom. Steve Job’s iPhone is a good example, which NTT DoCoMo turned down in 2008 believing its iMode perfectly satisfied the needs of its Japanese users. The third largest operator (Softbank) was left to launch the iPhone and reap the benefit of mass adoption as Japanese users—to NTT DoCoMo’s surprise and dismay—sufficiently loved the iPhone’s design and ease of use to switch handsets and mobile service providers.

Early in my career I encountered  assumed transferability from the West to the East that was finally avoided by talking with target customers. Prior to pre-mass internet adoption, I was involved in a nine to 12 months-long project focused on the commercial and technical considerations of transferring the then successful UK TV banking concept to Hong Kong. Unfortunately it was done without first talking with the end-users: families at home. Unlike British families with joint accounts and financial transparency, the reaction when Hong Kong consumers had the TV banking service described to them was one of instant horror. They were shocked at the thought of all their accounts being visible to the rest of the family on the giant TV screens in their small apartments.

An unspoken rule (a delightful difference) was discovered: there was no addressable need for TV banking in Hong Kong and most likely Asia as a whole.

This UX insight also went on to inform the local contextual design process that tested and added an extra screen after login to retail internet banking, solely to hide the accounts and balances from passing persons, including family members.

Getting Carried Along by Tailwinds of Social or Cultural Norms

As well as avoiding icebergs, being curious and delighting in difference can lead us into designing experiences that sometimes—through a mixture of good process and some good luck—pick up a tailwind of existing behavior. This tailwind can help us get carried along by social/cultural norms and result in exceeded expectations of the adoption of our product or service.

A retailer customer recognition loyalty program I was fortunate enough to help design is great example of how both of our partners and we were swept along by a tailwind to mass adoption.

The insights that shaped this success came from our curiosity about those huge queues in Hong Kong that can suddenly form. They did so in 1998 when McDonald’s featured a nationally costumed Snoopy each day for a month, and when a Macanese custard tart shop first opened an outlet that was the talk of the city. People don’t like to miss out; they prefer to be one of the select few who become aware of trends early. Some may be fads and usually fleeting, but the motivation of not missing out is always there.

Side by side comparison of the Central and Western Tunnels in Hong Kong to demonstrate the differences in how each are used.
Figures 1a and 1b. The figure on the left shows the congested Central Tunnel in Hong Kong while the figure on the right shows the less congested Western Tunnel in Hong Kong. (Credit: Wikicommons)

Other queues are consistent, such as the long lines for the Central Harbour Tunnel in Hong Kong when further along the harbour is the always empty Western Tunnel. Driving through the Western Tunnel saves up to 30 minutes, but the motive of “not missing out” on the cheaper fee (HKD20 v HKD60; US$2.6 v US$7.7) results in the Western Tunnel being almost 50% under-utilized. After a while, I realized that any private car driver on the island could easily afford either; Mercedes is often the bestselling car and commands a 115% import tax.

Continuing to ask why with a wide range of people over many years also revealed that the social “shame” of wasting money combines with the desire not to miss out. UX research in Hong Kong has shown strong parental pressure not to waste money as a common source of conflict within Hong Kong families. This was observed in Judith Smetana’s ethnographic study “Adolescents, Families, and Social Development: How Teens Construct Their Worlds,” and the generational difference noted between the “grumbling mother-in-law and convenience-more-important daughter-in-law” by Sze-ki Lui in the “Ethnographic Comparison of Wet-Markets and Supermarkets in Hong Kong.”  My discussions have included comments that amongst the older generations this irrational avoidance (that the cost of the additional fuel, let alone the wasted time, far exceeds the US$5 price difference) is an obsession that is almost clinical.

Each day there is queue half-way up the urban escalator in Hong Kong that  carries city workers down the steep hill in the morning to the central business district and then back up towards home on the hot, humid evenings. To encourage those workers to use the city’s mass transit underground/subway (MTR) in the morning rather than a bus or minibus, a HKD$2 (US25 cents) fare saver machine was installed half-way down the hill. A quick swipe of the contactless prepaid transit card (Octopus) collects the offer as the potential passenger walks-by. However, little did the MTR suspect that the desire not to miss-out on the “free” money would result in a long queue at lunch time as office workers carry their own and colleagues’ cards to collect the discount before returning to work with the satisfaction of knowing they have been financially smarter then those in the packed train commuting home that evening.

Side by side comparison of queues for a hillside escalator and escalators at MTR’s fare saving machine.
Figures 2a and 2b. The figure on the left pictures a hillside escalator for commuters in Hong Kong while the figure on the right shows lunchtime queues half way up the escalator at an MTR fare saver machine. (Credit: Wikicommons)

So how is this relevant to the retailer customer recognition scheme? We designed the loyalty service to be as simple as possible (an addition to a daily-use Octopus transit card) with a 0.5% cash-back incentive, which is the same as credit card bonus schemes. Tapping into the desire not to miss out on this cash reward, adoption and usage was rapid and stable. What was surprising was that high net-worth customers were strongly represented in Hong Kong (not wanting to miss out), whereas this segment of customers would rarely appear in similar supermarket-based scheme in the UK, North America, or Australia (for instance, Nectar/Tesco Club Card).

I observed this phenomenon in person twice at the same supermarket check-out. A well-dressed lady reached into her wallet and took out a Black Amex Card to pay. This is a rare American Express Centurion invitation-only unlimited spending card, reportedly requiring USD0.25m a year just to be invited to apply. Immediately after she took it out to pay, she pulled out the Octopus card to collect the rewards and then checked the receipt to make sure she had not ‘missed out’. Her chauffeur then took the trolley of shopping to the waiting Mercedes.

Elsewhere, if someone is significantly wealthy, they would have little or no interest in a mass market loyalty scheme. In Hong Kong and probably elsewhere in Asia with substantial communities of people of Chinese heritage, it is completely the opposite case, to the notable benefit of our partner supermarket.

Finding such a tailwind of local cultural motivators and social norms can really benefit the adoption of an experience we design, whether a service or a product.

Keep Asking Why and Be Prepared to Be Surprised.

Sometimes I have been genuinely surprised and delighted by the discoveries that ethnographic UX research has uncovered.

In 2011, I was fortunate enough to be given a brief by a highly innovative bank in Indonesia to “help get new-to-bank customers” and “do something with BBM”. BBM was the messaging platform that came with Blackberry phones and has since migrated as an app on Android and iPhones. Why BBM? From 2010 onwards almost everyone in Indonesia who could afford a phone had a Blackberry—partly because the prepaid plans were incredibly short and inexpensive——a few US dollars for a week, provided great value with unlimited messaging and access to Facebook and Twitter—and partly because Blackberry minimized network traffic on the over-capacity networks. Added to this, everyone had plenty of time to kill in the constant traffic jams in a culture that is inherently highly social.

With such an open brief, we sent a UX researcher to find out what people were doing with BBM. After a week of talking in-depth to a wide range of people, he found something that no one had realized: everyone he talked to had either bought or sold something (from clothes to golf clubs) on BBM Groups. They hadn’t waited for eBay to appear. They had set up groups, posted images of goods, and chatted and invited friends and colleagues to create a circle of trust. They had no need for seller and buyer rankings. Over the next few years, this social-based commerce would become a strategy of platforms such as WeChat, but it had spontaneously appeared in Indonesia.

We were surprised and delighted to discover a need to design a service around this social commerce: instant payments within messenger since payments were still either in cash or via ATM transfers. Our partners, including Blackberry itself, had not realized this behavior had spontaneously appeared, and this insight went on to inform the design of successful new services for BBM in Indonesia. At the time this of writing, BBM remains the most popular messaging platform and is following the path of WeChat from mainland China (which notably failed to transfer and dislodge BBM in Indonesia).

Keep Asking Why and Glimpse the Future

The future of consumer interactions across many industries may just have appeared at scale in mainland China first. Any conversation about daily life there in the last few years will have mentioned one or the other (more likely both) of two smartphone mobile applications: WeChat and AliPay. These are, however, nothing like their WhatsApp or PayPal except in their origins. A view of the home screen of AliPay (see Figure 3) looks like a series of smartphone screens. Super cheap (less than US$50) Android phones have become affordable to hundreds of millions of people by reducing the size of the expensive memory chips. These phones have very little memory, which fails to support the dominant global model of many apps each for an individual purpose. Increasingly, in mainland China, India, and possibly Indonesia, a few “super apps” are all that users need. Whether this is the future in other markets that can afford the larger and larger memory phones remains to be seen, but Facebook Messenger is certainly following the WeChat model.

A series of screens from the AliPay application highlighting the different transactions that users can take within it.
Figure 3. The AliPay app is a “super app” facilitating a range of services and transactions.


I have found that being genuinely curious and continuing to ask why to uncover insights and delightful differences is both an enriching experience as well as a constant source of help when striving to design delightful services for people in Asia.

These discoveries and insights can hopefully help us avoid the icebergs of assumed transferability and, with a bit of luck, help the experiences we design be carried along to mass adoption by a tailwind of social/cultural norms and behavior.

As for the reason why cash dispensing machines (ATMs) have the same or only slightly longer hours than bank branches in Japan? I am still curious why.

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