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Usability Engineering in Hong Kong

Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, and in the mid-1990s most schools were using English as a first language. Most people can read and write English reasonably well but prefer to speak Cantonese. Hong Kong is the perfect stepping stone for companies wanting to conduct business in Mainland China (Peoples’ Republic of China or PRC) and as it is in close geographic proximity to most major cities in the region, it is a good base from which to operate a usability research consulting business.

As recently as 1999, the term “usability” was not well known in the Hong Kong business community. The usability community consisted of a handful of people, and there was no formal association in place to provide a platform to talk about usability. To change this, the “Usability Club” was created, which later became UPA Hong Kong ( It was also apparent that the Usability Club founders needed to embark on a campaign to educate companies on both the existence of a formal ISO usability definition (as many companies think that usability is purely “subjective” or that no formal standard definition exists), and how usability testing and reviews (as entry level tools) could help improve products by involving users.

The main challenge the Usability Club founders faced in Hong Kong in the late 1990s, was that the city was in the middle of an “Internet craze” where product and service development was less about customer value and more about startups getting rich quick.

In the past few years, we have seen positive changes in Hong Kong—companies are now trying to make their products and services more usable. There is also strong interest from international companies wanting to conduct research in both Hong Kong and in neighboring Asian countries. As a result, many companies are now eager to learn more about user behavior in Hong Kong, and then use that data to help understand differences in usage between East and West.

Since 2000, there have been regular UPA Hong Kong events covering topics such as content usability, information architecture (IA), justifying usability, benchmarking, and accessibility. These have really helped the business community understand what usability is, how it fits within their own product development process, and how it differs from graphical or visual design. We have also been fortunate to have had presentations from both local and international speakers such as Jared Braiterman, Gerry Gaffney, Caroline Jarrett, and John Boyd. People with diverse backgrounds—designers, students, teachers, marketing and usability personnel, information architects, web developers, and product managers—attend these events. UPA HK enjoys an average attendance of twenty-five people out of a total community of approximately seventy-five people. We have also seen a growth of known practitioners in Hong Kong. In 1999, there was a handful of practitioners—working independently, in-house, or for interactive design agencies. In 2006, we estimate that there are fifteen to twenty people working actively in usability, design, marketing, web development or IA roles.

Over the last two years, we have also enjoyed a positive joint collaboration between UPA HK and UPA China. This has helped promote usability in Hong Kong and the region. We have enjoyed well-attended events for both the 2004 and the 2005 User Friendly events (in Beijing and Shanghai), and we are currently organizing User Friendly 2006. We believe the real usability future is in mainland China, with strong growth in product and user research. However, Hong Kong still has an important role to play by providing international companies wanting to conduct research in China with a bridge to that market.

We have also seen encouraging signs from the Hong Kong government. “Usability” and “information architecture” have been included in government tender documents for website builds or revamps. Although it’s not clear if the authors writing the tender documents truly understand usability and its benefits, it’s encouraging to see that it is being included.

We are often asked about the cultural differences between usability in Hong Kong and the West—that is, about the differences in the way Asian users approach websites or products versus Western users. In terms of website usability in Hong Kong, we have not seen major or stark differences in use as compared to the West. The fundamentals appear to be the same, with task-focused users who want to get things done as quickly as possible. Because usability is at its beginning stages in Hong Kong, there are great opportunities here to learn more about Eastern users and their needs.