The value of culture

XVI.4 July + August 2009
Page: 60
Digital Citation

FEATUREAround the table

Pedro Jorge

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"What's it like to do design work in Asia?" It's a question I'm often asked.

Hong Kong is a rather small territory with 7 million inhabitants. The city and surrounding area have generally accepted technology as a way of life; in Hong Kong the words "design," "innovation," and "experience" are used commonly in business conversation and are generally associated with worldwide fashion brands and the professions of industrial and interior design. The nature of the work and the challenges one faces vary a great deal, as do the individual designers' skills and proficiency. Designers work not only in the Asian market but also on projects for countries outside Asia. While design has commonly meant "visual" or "skin" design, the notion that design can affect behavior and support goals is slowly dawning in Hong Kong, where local companies are beginning to hire interaction designers. The recent addition of a one-year interaction design program at Hong Kong Polytechnic University has helped raise awareness of this discipline.

Thus, when thinking about what it's like to design in Asia, a common response is: "Asia is a very busy place that is advancing at a fast pace, but design is held back by subtle cultural nuances related to cost, features, and speed."

To keep up with the pace, a number of designers, product planners, usability practitioners, Web developers, and managers from various user experience disciplines have been meeting informally to share and discuss their learning at work, and to present their thoughts and challenges.

In an attempt to give you a flavor of the design field in Asia, especially in Hong Kong, below is a review of these discussions in a roundtable format. The names are fictional, but the comments are not, offering an accurate representation of what it's like to work in Hong Kong (HK).

back to top  Work Environment and Struggles: How Quick Is "Fast"?

Alexis: When I compare working in other countries with working in Hong Kong, the first thing that is surprising is the language; most of the dialogue is conducted in English, with a few Chinese words thrown in. One thing that I appreciate is that even if there is one non-Chinese speaker in the room, the meeting will be held in English. While the language is English, the working environment and the discussions are much quieter here than in the West. There are many discussions, but the focus is on deciding, not on brainstorming or discussing different views. Although a quiet environment allows you to focus more on your work, dialogue is essential for communication and idea development.

Our clients are generally very diverse. The key differentiator is how much they understand the practice we offer and how much they are willing to trust our approach and the recommendations that come from it. I have had to do a considerable amount of preaching about the principals behind user experience to the majority of clients here—trying to describe how and why focusing on experience is important. It is advantageous when you have clients who know the value we bring to their online channel, yet who also challenge us. This has been helpful, as it keeps us on our toes and enables us to push our research and our designs further.

Kent: I see larger differences between companies, not between cities. The company culture will shape how workers behave and how colleagues work with each other. I have worked in Hong Kong with European companies as well as with Chinese-owned companies. The value structure is different; it's obvious that the way the company is run—from the organizational structure to the marketing activities—is affecting the staff. For instance, in some companies, engineers are leading the product concept while in others they are executors. Companies with peer-to-peer performance reviews drive individualism, whereas when the company performance is part of the personal review, individuals tend to work more as a team.

The value structure sets different working paces. We see a lot of fast-paced work because of the nature of consumer electronics industries, which are fast moving with a high degree of competition. You also can see this in some U.S. companies producing consumer electronic products. In Hong Kong there is a high demand for new products with a short turnaround; therefore, business is less open to new ideas. Quite often I need to sacrifice quality in order to produce a "speedy" product.

I find that people in the United States are more laidback. They really value a "worklife balance," whereas in Hong Kong and in Taiwan, often work is more important.

Patrick: Everything in Hong Kong has to be done yesterday! That is the way things work here, and it will take time to change habits. I tend to attribute this to a lack of exposure to the kind of problems that require creative thinking and problem solving—problems that require design. The economy in Hong Kong has been growing thanks to property and financial investments, manufacturing goods, and trading for the past few decades. These businesses valued quick decision making and networking over creative thinking and innovation. To me, the situation in Hong Kong today is a legacy of this past, a past that promoted certain types of people who were made into heroes in the eyes of others, people who are now eager to reproduce that same model. Unfortunately, the world has changed, and to succeed, Hong Kong has to become a more creative and innovative place overall. Perhaps I'm generalizing too much here, but that's my feeling about the situation in Hong Kong.

Sue: I think the clients here have less background in interaction design, so they need a bit more education (specifically on the design process). I think in general, the feeling is more "businessy" when dealing with clients in Hong Kong as compared to California, where clients or teams are more patient in going through the education process. I feel that our Hong Kong clients don't necessarily want to understand how you do it, as long as they see the results.

The pace is fast in both markets (HK and the U.S.), but it is true that project schedules and demands are sometimes much more ridiculous here. Essentially, HK clients are more "daring" when giving you impossible deadlines. The fast pace becomes the norm. Hong Kong is a metropolis, like New York or Tokyo, so it's reasonable to expect this pace. It's an expectation embedded in the HK culture—a way of life and practice. Anything slower will make a client think you are less capable or unskilled. People expect things to be highly efficient (look at our airport and Mass Transit Railway systems), and sometimes I am quite proud of that.

James: I have been living in Hong Kong for a decade, and there is a different work style here than in other cities. Besides being a fast-paced city, Hong Kong is a city that likes a move toward "action." Part of this comes from a "can do" attitude. However, the speed can sometimes result in a lack of quality in and around the output. So sometimes it is fast for the sake of being fast, which is not always the right strategy in the right context. Sometimes it's OK to stop and think about the problem before moving toward "action."

Hong Kong took some time to adjust and find its own personality after the handover in 1997 and in working or learning how to work with mainland China. Nonetheless, it is a fortunate place to live for a number of reasons, which makes working here easier. The city is an efficient business center, has a relatively responsive government, is entrepreneurial in spirit, is rated as one of the most free economies in the world, is well placed geographically to do business in the region, and has a wonderful mix of people from all over the world.

Patrick: I agree that people are quick to take action, but the entire process takes forever. In my perception, in the U.S. work is characterized by fast thinking and action, while here work generally involves little thinking and quick action. Everything is flexible and temporary, so one can always rediscuss an issue and change the decision later. This constant back and forth with lengthy negotiations (along with education of the user experience) should have been done during early phases in design, such as sketching and prototyping, not when projects are supposed to be almost finished.

I remember a case where our solution was deemed "impossible" to produce. After explaining how poor the user experience would be if we didn't use the proposed design, the supplier "magically" found a way to make it possible.

Similarly, the interaction designer commonly gets involved in design after the industrial design has been agreed upon, resulting in an inferior design because the hardware elements were already decided at the time of the industrial design.

Alexis: Quite often the business requirements are too aggressive, and business needs to act quickly. On the other hand, there is sometimes little appreciation for how much work is actually involved in completing the design of these projects. Many decisions have to be made on the spot. Any thinking or planning is labeled "over-thinking." Forget about researching, or even finding data to confirm decisions. The only thing that is done is competitive analysis, and that is usually very superficial. In the end, we just put Web products out there and see how it goes—or we don't even see how it goes since we are already working on the next project. It is a world where only phase one of all projects gets implemented. After a while, I noticed I was trying to pack as many things into phase one as possible, as I knew the other phases would never happen and that if the product after phase one were not successful, then it would be just thrown away.

back to top  User Research

Patrick: Most of the research that is done in Hong Kong comes from marketing. User research is pretty much nonexistent, as product cycles are too short. This leads to a lack of direction when designing a product. Design by committee becomes prevalent. Paradoxically, it seems that the products still sell well because we offer lower price points. The price point—along with packing a device with many features—seem to be the main influencers when defining a product. So I find it really difficult to include user observation in our process and try to design for specific needs; most products just do almost everything possible by the platform but offer awful user experiences.

Alexis: In my work there is always some sort of research that occurs at the beginning of each design project. Some of the research can be very indepth and within the project budget. Other times, when the budget does not permit, ad-hoc research is conducted. Nothing is done without some research of some sort. Making assumptions is too limiting.

Sue: There is always research to be done, and it's always part of our process. In a previous job, it was not a common practice for "efficiency" reasons. In the states, I often had one to two months for researching, drafting, and reviewing. In HK and Taiwan, clients want things within a day or two, sometimes a week if I'm lucky. When a client asks me to quote a time, I usually quote a longer period of time and cut back if he bargains.

back to top  What Can Be Done?

James: As one stays longer in Hong Kong, one needs to balance work with traveling—getting as far away from work as possible and managing client expectations. The main question to me is, why is there an expectation for jobs to be completed yesterday? In some cases, people feel pressure from their management because HK has a legacy of being fast (which is a good thing!). On the other hand, it may also be that people want to move on to the next and best thing. This is certainly a trend you see in HK, where people constantly demand the next new thing (you only have to look at how people buy and discard mobile technology) or how they want to buy new things all the time. Look at the cars people drive in HK: It's rare to see anything older than the mid-1990s.

Patrick: This trend makes me wonder how quality is addressed. Indeed, we are all struggling to get people to recognize our work here. It all seems like an assembly line. The other day a friend from Europe was buying a leather bag in HK, and to her surprise the sales person said, "Miss, this is real leather! Don't worry, it'll last for at least a year." My friend was rather confused, as she expects a leather bag to last at least 10 years (regardless of her using it that long). In another case, while she was buying a mobile phone, the shop assistant said: "I change my mobile phone every six months." I recall hearing this comment quite often in HK, while in Europe I quite often heard a different story: "I'd like a very simple to use yet goodquality phone that does phone calls and SMS well." Although this is not shared by everyone in the respective cultures, this serves to make a point on the two extremes: new, fully featured products to be used for a few months versus simpler products doing what I need well.

Alexis: Users here always end up buying a cheap product that doesn't necessarily meet their needs over a costlier product that is exactly what they want. That's my take from discussions with business and marketing. However, my manager would say, "Well, the thing is that we need to stick with the budget, we cannot get all the research that companies do in the U.S. or Europe..."

Sue: The story might be true, but not entirely. You might want to know that eyetrack studies tell us that "the Chinese prefer a presentation if [it is] loaded with visual stimuli." [1] The ads and other pop-ups are treated as information, while Westerners would see them as annoyances and bad design.

Kent: On the other hand, in the seminar organized by the HK Business of Design Week in 2008 in reply to the question, "How do we keep up with the speed to innovate before the competition," Larry Keeley said that if we are working with tight deadlines, then most probably we are doing very similar products as the competition—no innovation at all—thus the need to rush [2]. By doing your own projects you will have some lead time to explore the concepts, try and test them, and develop without trying to launch before another company, because your proposition is more compelling and innovative.

James: That's where research can help a lot. After all, if you don't know about what you are going to design, you won't find a good solution. I think we need to buy into the idea that research requires strategic movements and identification of implications to the design and user experience, and it ultimately adds value to the product. Besides finding new niches, one must identify needs that are not yet met.

back to top  Conclusion

In this highly challenging context, one can conclusively identify a tendency of companies wanting to jump straight into design without asking themselves if there really is a need for an endless number of products.

On the other hand, our consumer society seems to not question this, and is demanding more variety than ever. Nonetheless, Hong Kong is a vibrant market ready to try out new business. There is lot of action, but too little reflection. Maybe interaction design should be discussed around dim-sum tables more than in meeting rooms.

back to top  Acknowledgements

I'd like to thank all the participants in our interaction design meetings. A special thanks to Jane Ngai and Paul Lee, who helped in framing this article and in collecting the input, and Alfreda Yu, Belle Liu, Daniel Szuc, Harry Llufrio, Nicolas Lassus, Nicole Schadewitz, and Sebastian Ho.

back to top  References

1. Hotchkiss, G. "A Tale of Two Cultures."

2. Keeley, L. Speech at Re-inventing with Design 2008 seminar, June 19-21, 2008.

back to top  Author

Pedro "Adler" Jorge is an interaction designer with a background in design, technology, and user research. He has designed Web-based collaboration tools and led international workshops on interaction design and participatory design. Currently at Philips Design in Hong Kong, Adler is working on multimedia devices and desktop applications. In his role as a senior interaction designer, he also questions current design processes and the integration of design, business, and engineering to improve the company's UX strategy. Time permitting, he would like to continue his research work on design processes for collaboration, as well as learn the piano.

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. The hustle and bustle of Hong Kong's regularly overcrowded streets.

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©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0700  $10.00

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