Illustrating lifestyles from the developing world


In this article responding to point #5 of the MEX Manifesto (‘The developing world is the new frontier for mobile user experience‘), Stephanie Rieger of user experience consultancy Yiibu paints a detailed picture of customer lifestyles in South East Asia. Stephanie’s writing interweaves links to a community photo essay from Flickr with her own commentary on the individuals she has met in this region and her observations on the mobile user experience implications.

Stephanie will also be one of the authors of the MEX 2008 report, an in-depth analysis of the forthcoming MEX conference proceedings and a response to the whole MEX Manifesto. The MEX 2008 report will be published shortly after the MEX conference in London on 27th – 28th May 2008 and provided to all conference participants as part of their attendance. You can register for the conference here.

Monk with Nokia N-Gage

The developing world is the new frontier for user experience – who are the customer segments?

By Stephanie Rieger

I know a company who makes a mobile messaging product that is doing very well in Indonesia. This was not their plan; it just happened. And with mobile, it happens all the time and cannot be ignored. Audiences in emerging markets are often much larger than our own yet have an interesting combination of low mobile penetration and high growth rates. But growing and adapting a product for these audiences when you know little of their needs is more than just challenging. It can be difficult enough to devise relevant, useful personas and scenarios for consumers who may live in our own country or market—but are not in the same age or income bracket as ourselves. By comparison, creating these for people in a country we have not been to, whose life is vastly different from our own can be almost impossible without some basic stories to stimulate discussion.

For this reason, I thought I would share the stories of several people I have met during my time in one of the largest and most vibrant mobile markets—Southeast Asia. Some I knew well, others I saw daily but only knew from casual chats. Still, I now think of them every time I stop to consider how a product or service might be useful (or not) to people in the region. I have included links to many photos courtesy of the wonderful photographers at Flickr and have only chosen images that I feel best reflect the protagonists within my stories. I hope you find these useful and would encourage the design and user experience community to share stories from other regions so that we can all feel closer to understanding the lives of people we may never meet but still have to consider and understand when designing mobile products.

Collage of South East Asia images

Samuel, Dumaguete City, Philippines

Samuel is a rubber stamp-maker from Dumaguete City , Dumaguete Island, in the Philippine province of Negros Oriental. His business is simple and incredibly low tech. People come to him with a sketch, some text, or merely an idea (insert lots of hand waving) for a rubber stamp. Samuel sketches it out, cuts the rubber using lino-cutting tools and affixes it to a piece of wood to serve as a handle and presto—you have a bespoke rubber stamp!

The business operates from a small wooden table and stool, tucked along the sidewalk next to Dunkin Donuts on Dumaguete City’s main shopping street. The table is chained to a communal electric post, along with a foldable sun parasol; but the rest of Sam’s gear is transported every morning. This typically consists of a camping stool, some cutting tools, ink, and sheets of stamp-making material. Sam also displays a simple, plasticized sign (‘rubber stamps’) which he hangs on a hook at the front of the table. He also brings a cheap paperback (romance) novel with him to pass the time; although most days the steady stream of customers and acquaintances mean he likely has little time to read. Street vendors selling barbecued chicken brochettes, ice cream, fruit and colourful sweet and savoury snacks are still common in Filipino towns and they do a good business selling to customers like Sam. This is handy for him as he doesn’t need to leave his ‘office’ to grab lunch.

Still, it’s a long day. Dumaguete City is a growing town of over 100,000 with two popular universities and lots of daily traffic from the Superferrys and cargo crafts that transport people, livestock and goods of all kinds between the 1707 islands of the Philippine archipelago. The province is also known throughout the country for its smiling friendly people so is a popular tourist spot for families. This can make Sam’s prime position on the main street a noisy yet profitable place to spend the day—at least for now. Sam worries it won’t be long until the newly announced mega-mall and suburban business park start to drive traffic away from the centre of town.

Collage of South East Asia images

Ziti, Bangkok, Thailand

Ziti owns a family run, Indian vegetarian restaurant in Bangkok’s Pratunam neighbourhood. For years, Pratunam has been known as the city’s fashion, textile and import/export district. Its tiny winding streets are filled with shops selling cheap retail and wholesale clothing, leather goods and offering shipping of almost anything to anywhere. From early in the morning its roadways are packed with tourists, merchants, motorcycle taxis and the ubiquitous 2 stroke Tuk Tuks well known to increase urban noise and pollution levels to almost unbearable levels. This is also a residential area however—one of the few remaining that offer a range of low to mid-income housing within walking distance of the skytrain, shopping and business district. Lately, there has also been a dramatic change to the area brought on by the creep of shiny, air conditioned mega-malls aimed at Bangkok’s growing regional tourist trade from China, India and Singapore. Ziti’s restaurant is wedged on a bit of sidewalk between a discount t-shirt merchant and hair salon on a very colourful street that on most day seems a world away from Bangkok. For Ziti’s customers are not Thai, but West African and Central Asian – many living illegally or hanging out while waiting for visas, marriage licenses or onward business in Europe, the Middle East and other parts of the world. Ziti herself is also not Thai but has made a life in Bangkok despite an often confusing immigration status that leaves her family stressed about their future.

Ziti’s business consists of a few folding tables and chairs, an aluminum cart which doubles as a food preparation and cooking area, and an assortment of Tupperware shelving and storage. She is lucky to be able to keep much of this chained to the metal t-shirt scaffolding on the neighbouring shop wall but still brings a large quantity of goods with her every morning. Her family has no car and cannot afford to live anywhere near Pratunam so her day begins with a crowded 20 minute Tuk Tuk ride to carry the day’s vegetables, pulses, flour, cooking pots – anything that’s perishable or is too small or valuable to be left chained to the wall. Even the propane tank comes along – making for an often overloaded and precarious ride.

Still, by midday, the food is prepped and the day’s curries are either cooked or bubbling away ready for the lunch custom. Despite her lack of space and precarious position on the sidewalk, Ziti cooks up several curries, dahl, samosas, pakoras and a variety of chapatis. There is also chai and every meal is served with a small plate of diced onions, tamarind chutney, and all the water you can drink. The average meal including rice, two currys and a samosa costs about GBP 2, almost GBP 10 less than a similar meal at the shiny Paragon shopping centre but only slightly less expensive than the mid-range MBK centre where Ziti shops at the weekends. By midday, her son or husband arrive on their motorbike to help her serve food, do the dishes (in a plastic bucket) and prepare take away meals. Business is brisk and the food often sells out – even on the days that residents call the ‘big rain‘. Those days, her son and husband spend the lunch hour running deliveries over to customers who call or text their orders in. On those days, all the parasols in Bangkok cannot keep you dry.

Wit, Phuket Town, Thailand

Wit is 23 and lives on the resort island of Phuket. The income levels in Phuket are high for Thailand but much of this is disproportionate due to the high number of local (ethnic Chinese) and expat professionals running resorts and related tourist businesses on the island. The remaining locals are also employed in the tourism industry but their wages are quite low and entirely dependant on the whims of the travel industry and mother nature. There is also a high, unofficial population of Burmese labourers and Thai itinerant workers. Both groups pour in from the north at certain times of the year to work in the resorts or construction industry.

Wit lives with his cheerful, rotund brother (nicknamed Pig—I don’t think we ever found out his real name) along with their sister, her baby and occasional assorted relatives in a one room flat in Phuket town. The flats is housed in a simple, concrete single-level structure with a corrugated roof and thin windows slats for ventilation. The rooms are equally simple, cheaply whitewashed and fan-cooled with a small propane-fueled hotplate, mini-fridge and rice cooker as kitchen. The rent is about 3000 baht (GBP 50) per month (and at least half the cost of the equivalent accommodation in Bangkok.)

Wit owns two vehicles; an old two-stroke Suzuki motorbike and an equally old tuk-tuk which he co-owns with Pig. Phuket Tuk Tuks are not the colourful two stroke version you see in Bangkok, but the country version that resembles a tiny utility truck and can carry about 8 people. With these vehicles, cheap business cards, and two mobile phones they make a living offering day trips and rides to tourists. Wit also has a hotmail address which he uses to keep in touch with the occasional repeat client; emailing them in advance of recurring vacations. When he can, he also uses it to confirm specific meeting times and dates but as his mobile has no decent email access, this currently requires a trip to the internet cafe.

Wit lives and dresses simply but is playful with his primary fashion accessory—his hair. He wears it longish and accessories it with barrettes, plastic hair bands and the odd ponytail sprouting at odd angles from the side of his head. He also wears sunglasses that would most commonly be seen on a child—plastic, pink, sequined. His other fashion accessory is his mobile—or rather, the mobile he wants. Wit is a Motorola fan and when we met him was coveting a RAZR ‘because of the look’, and the camera. In the meantime, he carries a simple gray Nokia 1100.

Wit has a girlfriend, Lek who is a few years younger and still attending school. They meet on weekends for ice cream at the local Swensens or MacDonalds. (Swensens is very popular in Thailand and is spot-on in it’s user experience as it caters extremely well to wide brackets of the Thai population. For about 30baht (50p) you can get a scoop of ice-cream with a fancy name, whipped cream and syrup. Higher price options can set you back as much as GBP 6 but these are designed to be easily shared so it’s not uncommon to find groups of schoolgirls or families crowded around a twelve scoop Swensens monolith on a Saturday afternoon.)

Wit and Pig’s day usually goes something like this: drive over to the center of Phuket town, park the Tuk Tuk next to the shopping center (hopefully in the shade)—then wait. Pig usually naps in the back while Wit keeps an eye out for tourists who he then tries to approach. The initial pitch is pretty much the same. Phuket has little public transportation. Songthaews (privately owned trucks with wooden seating and tarp cover) ply the main roads at irregular intervals and (hopefully) stop when flagged. If you don’t speak Thai, telling them apart from the hundreds of similar looking private vehicles can be tricky so few tourists bother. Instead they (hopefully) hire Wit. The most common day-trip on the island is to the butterfly farm, gibbons and waterfall in the north; so that is pitch number 2! Still, there’s lots of competition. The tourists from resorts have money to spend but often buy package tours direct from their hotel. The island also has a shiny new shopping mall located half-way between the beaches and Phuket Town. Years ago it was common to see tourists downtown but lately, fewer and fewer make it over to Wit’s side of the island. So many days go by where Wit simply spends the day chatting with girls from the last remaining tourist shops and watching Pig sleep. They could drive over to the beaches on the West coast and try to solicit business there but he finds that side of the island too cut-throat and prefers to avoid it—at least for now.

Wit worries about his family’s future. Thai roads are dangerous at the best of times but with a business like theirs, any road accident can have huge implications. Pig rarely drives these days as he was recently caught speeding, hit another vehicle and may still lose his license. Between the repairs to the Tuk Tuk, legal fees and offerings to bring luck back to the family—their income has been greatly affected. And Wit worries about the future should Pig lose his license for good. Wit’s English is good and steadily improving as he often rides in the back of the Tuk Tuk with tourists. His ability to make conversation also wins much of their repeat business. Pig, however, speaks no English so losing him as a driver would be a major blow.

Still, Wit is the main breadwinner of the family and speaks optimistically of his plans. With a higher level of education than his siblings and the respect earned through a year’s apprenticeship as a monk, he hopes to grow the business and eventually purchase a home for his extended family.

"People are people but technology is not technology." — Gary Marsden, author, Mobile Interaction Design

Wit, Ziti and other consumers within this region lead different lives from our own but when considering their use of mobile technologies; there is an additional dimension to their persona—the social, cultural and regional aspects of their mobile experience. Here are just a few of these differences.

If Ziti needs a new mobile, she probably goes to the enormous MBK shopping centre which includes two floors devoted to technology. Asian malls from Indonesia to the Philippines tend to group similar retailers on certain floors so it’s not unusual to find (literally) hundreds of mobile retailers cheek by jowl at a mall’s upper levels. Most larger cities will also have entire shopping centres or districts that cater to specific technology products. Retailers range from small, one-person businesses displaying goods on a table to franchise outfits offering promtions and long-term credit financing. As a result, retailers really have to know their product, counsel their customers and offer a better experience than their neighbour.

If Ziti really wants to understand her handset before she buys it, she has several options. On the high-end, Bangkok has no fewer than 5 Nokia and 2 Motorola stores within a 10 minute walk of the main shopping district. Some are mini stores (or ‘pods’ that can be disassembled and relocated) and focus exclusively on a sub-segment of the product line (‘the N-Series experience’); while the larger stores carry the full product line. All, however, have real working devices that you can explore and offer classes and workshops to promote the lifestyle aspects of the devices.

The fact that Ziti may be after a lower cost model doesn’t mean she won’t be catered to. My favourite example of great, inexpensive and practical retail support was a spiral bound, plasticized, full-colour Nokia handset guide available to small retailers.

Every Nokia model was displayed with comparison charts, features and selling points. The book was colour coded and tabbed based on the type of handset (lifestyle, practical etc.) and even the ultra-low-cost staples like the Nokia 1100 were featured on their own page with lifestyle photography, tagline ("Life’s little pleasures") and incentives to explore the device’s features.

Then of course, Ziti could simply ask a friend. While young Thai consumers gravitate to technology with the same zeal as we find in European youth; there seems to be less of an age barrier when it comes to technology adoption by older consumers. Mobile retailers (especially the small ones) range from young entrepreneurs to the elderly and it’s not unusual to see a grandmother sitting in a park swapping SIM cards and replacing the worn keypad on her handset as if it were something she’s been doing all her life.

There is also a large second-hand market selling everything from the hot model in 2001 to replacement keypads, covers—basically anything that may break or wear out. This provides a much broader upgrade path for consumers with little disposable income as for GBP 30 you have the choice of a new GBP 30 model, last year’s GBP 50 model, or even the GBP 100 model from several years ago.

With the handset sorted, Ziti would then buy a phone number and top-up credits. These could be purchased at MBK or from thousands of tiny retailers throughout the city. Luck is important in most Asian cultures so choosing a mobile number with the right type and combination of digits can involve a lengthy search.

Purchasing a SIM would initially tie Ziti to a specific operator, but like many consumers, she has multiple SIMs and either swaps them out to ensure she is paying the best tariff, or carries several handsets—one for voice, one for SMS, maybe a third to receive long distance calls.

When Ziti needs to make a long-distance call to family in India, she may make use of loaner handsets available at the side of the road or from internet cafes. Despite the markup, using these can be simpler than acquiring a third SIM that allows international calls. VOIP is also an option as most internet cafes now have Skype, video cameras and headsets as standard kit. Still, these calls are often coordinated via SMS so her family has time to get to their own Internet cafe.

Choosing and purchasing a handset can be quite different from what we are used to in Europe or North America; but it’s often the cultural and practical uses of the device that create both the challenges and opportunities for us to develop radically different products. From devices that support multiple SIMs and channel calls from certain callers to certain networks, to on-device management of micro-credits, shared contact lists for communal phones; and innovative yet personal ways to preserve and share photos or content with friends when a mobile serves as your only camera, flash drive and personal scrapbook.

Useful links

Thai monk with 2nd generation NGage courtesy of Akuppa on Flickr, CC-Attribution 2.0.

Article by Stephanie Rieger of the user experience consultancy Yiibu.


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