Emerging markets

UX, Disruption and Cultural Errors in Emerging Markets

Gerry Gaffney User research Leave a Comment

Download (mp3: 15.2MB, 31:35) Andrew Harder talks to Gerry Gaffney about conducting user research in emerging markets, about why such markets are fertile ground for disruption, and about cultural errors.

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Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast. My guest today is a user experience strategist and design researcher, currently with the UK Ministry of Justice’s digital services division. He’s previously worked with Nokia, Flow Interactive, Transport for London and Price Waterhouse Coopers.

At Nokia he built and led the user research team that worked on software for their Asha mobile phone range. Since Nokia he’s consulted on experience strategy in emerging markets for several other clients, large and small. He’s also taught user research at Birkbeck University of London and the Mobile Academy program in London.

He blogs on a range of topics at andrewharder.com.

Andrew Harder, welcome to the User Experience Podcast.

Andrew Harder:

Thanks Gerry, it’s great to speak to you.


Do you think you could start maybe by telling us a little bit about the Asha range of phones?


That’s Nokia’s, well they call it a mobile phone range aimed at lower price points, typically below 100 Euro, which means there’s a lot of compromises in the hardware, but it makes it a very appealing cheaper phone for consumers in emerging markets. So they’re really big sellers in India and China for instance and there’s some pretty sexy work there actually.

When I worked on it, the team that I worked with, the software design we were nominated for an IXDA award a few years ago and so even though you’re dealing with really low cost handsets, or lower cost handsets, you can still do really good software work and I think even with looking at hardware where the price is sort of a compromise brought on by fewer components, cheaper components and bigger components, even in hardware you can still express a product with a really strong identity. So, yeah, there’s some very popular phones in the Asha range.


It’s interesting, isn’t it, how Nokia seems to have the lower end of the market and Apple the higher end with the other players like Samsung somewhere in between?


Yeah, definitely. You know if we think about the number of disruptions and changes that have happened in the mobile phone business, I think Nokia rode some quite successfully, like the emergence of the phone as a fashion device around 2004/2005. Nokia drove that quite strongly. Nokia drove also the real push down in price and distribution capability that it took to get a really strong presence in emerging markets.

And so even when Nokia was suffering more publicly in the West and in places where Apple and then quickly Android, so there was a really big competitive threat, the presence in emerging markets was really strong and it is still I believe, it’s been over a year since I worked for Nokia, I believe it’s still a profitable part of the business.


Tell me, what got you interested in emerging markets in the first place and I guess before you get into that tell us what we mean by an “emerging market”.


Yeah, so I think emerging markets is shorthand for, when you think about it is actually most of the world. I heard this nice thing the other day that there are more countries in the world like Romania than there are like Rome. And when you think about it that’s certainly the case.

But I think emerging markets is a shorthand where we think about countries with a few core characteristics and maybe a low GDP-base and certainly not, you know, successfully industrialising after World War II but now general characteristics are like really high growth, you know growth in India for instance has been routinely much, much higher than the UK and the US since 1991.

But also that and that growth you see spilling out into a lot of changes in people’s lives. So if you’re 50 years old in China then the rapid growth just literally changed your country from underneath you. There’s a saying by a Chinese author that in China the future is a foreign country.

I think the other thing that we can think about being common across emerging markets are really high investment in infrastructure. So you know you run across news stories saying that China are building more airports than there are in Europe or, you know, certainly India’s commitment to building roads is very high. But it’s also the digital infrastructure as well.

So you know the internet and the possibilities of leapfrogging over the stage of using the internet on laptops into using the internet straight onto mobile phones that I’ve seen a lot when I’ve been in the market. … There’s a lot of possibilities that come about from this rapid improvement in infrastructure that I might talk about later.

Most of the world 50 years ago was living in destitution; you know even now the number of people in destitution in India is measured in the hundreds of millions. But what we see with this rapid economic growth is that those people are being lifted out of poverty and lifted out of a life where they’re living hand-to-mouth into a life where they’ve got some money to spend. And you know while we may not want to get too idealistic about consumption, we also have to recognise what it means for people on the ground, which is the ability to buy food or buy soap rather than having to prepare it themselves, is to be able to buy services rather than making and doing everything for themselves, so thereby freeing up more and more of their time.

So it’s a really changing part of the world. It’s a really rapidly changing part of the world so in one way that’s what really interests me that it’s undergoing so much change. I think for me personally, and I think all researchers should really know a bit more about their story, and what drove them to research, but for me I grew up in a town in Australia that was quite small, when there was not a lot going on effectively. So there was plenty of time when I was just stuck out the window day dreaming about what else might be happening in the world and especially for me you know growing up in regional Australia in the 80s there was a really big push towards Asia as Australia’s economic future.

And for instance, I learned Japanese in High School for five years. So you know part of that tilt towards Asia also just sort of swept up my natural curiosity as a researcher.


One of the things that struck me during your presentation at UX Australia this year was the way that you perceived consumerism as a force for good in those sorts of markets and those sorts of countries.


Yeah… like I said it can be a bit distasteful. We would much rather be romantic about our designs to help people in emerging markets and help poor people but we have to recognise that the market is, if we really care about the quality of life for the destitute in India I think we need to be really honest about what’s been proven to work in terms of improving lives and what hasn’t been proven to work.

So there’s a development economist who now works for, who used to work for the World Bank and now works for New York University called William Easterly and his argument is that there are two tragedies of the developing world. One is that children still routinely die of malaria, for instance, when there are very, very cheap malaria tablets available that would form an effective cure for it. So you know that’s the first tragedy; that we are unable to distribute malaria tablets effectively and other malaria preventions.

But the second tragedy in the developing world is that since you know, in the last 50 years, since the creation of the League of Nations effectively, the West has wasted trillions and trillions on development aid in the West and children are still dying when easy access to malaria pills and nets would save their lives.

So it’s just taking that second tragedy more seriously actually and Easterly’s an economist, I worked on commercial products, so you know it’s maybe not all that surprising that we end up with this argument but I think that’s the real core of it. You know, we need to, if we really care about poverty, then we need to do what works.


I don’t want to side-track this into politics too much but you know it’s interesting, you get people like Dambisa Moyo arguing against aid almost as a concept and then other people critiquing her and saying that she’s a force for evil in the world because of that stance. Do you have a take on that?


Yeah. I mean I think that effectively is an argument for development economists to carry on having out themselves. What I know as a designer, and as a design researcher particularly, is that for my objectives about wanting to make really successful, beautiful and desirable products, then I’m much better off thinking about the needs of the user rather than what my hopes for the user are. And I think that’s one of the main critiques of development economists of development is that often times the need of the actual user is not put at the heart of development.


What’s the relationship between disruption and emerging markets?


If we think about disruption as, you know, the blue ocean strategy of creating new markets then I think emerging markets can be really fertile ground for disruption. So, and especially if we think about, if we acknowledge the complexity of these markets. So in India there’s a rich India, a poor India and a middle India and in fact this is another one of these things where you can find quotes to say all kinds of different things but there are more millionaires in India than there are in the USA. And that’s simply the power of big numbers, you know. The fact that there’s over a billion people in India means that they’ve got all the diversity of the modern world.

So in this kind of context there’s all these services and all this population that’s out there waiting to be tapped into some kind of service that feels meaningful for them and feels useful. So, you know it’s the classic place where a low cost disruption plays can be really successful. So there’s examples like, examples that haven’t really landed like the Tata Nano which is the world’s cheapest car but if you look at it there’s certainly a lot of, they’ve certainly pulled back on the feature set but they’re really interested in making it a highly desirable car and by making it the world’s cheapest car it’s playing in much the same business model as the low cost airlines are. Not so much about eating into the margins of Tata’s more expensive cars or of other manufacturers in India but just trying at least to get new car drivers on the road and to replace people who are currently using scooters or two-wheelers as they’re called.

I think the other point about disruption in emerging markets is we can see that pattern played out across a lot of other industries, including the industry I know the most about, mobile phones where the combination of massive engineering resources in China and India plus Android and plus Chinese hardwares, Chinese hardware manufacturers that are sort of making white label handsets mean that, certainly the last time I looked into it, Android was a really strong competitive threat for the cheaper end of mobile phone markets.


One of the things that you spoke about that I found particularly interesting at the UX Australia conference in Melbourne was the concept of cultural errors and I guess to me there’s a whole raft of things that come together there, you know we’re talking about paternalistic or imperialistic view of emerging markets and we’re going with certain mindsets and you just spoke about cultural errors and I thought it was a great concept. I thought you could tell us what a culture error is and maybe elaborate a bit on that.


I think cultural errors were something I was inspired by when I saw, I mean I drew from my experience of just taking a lot of designers out to the field in emerging markets with Nokia again and again over the years and I just, you know from their experience and from what they saw but also obviously from my experience and just seeing how we did and did not understand the mindset of the people that we were there to meet.

There’s a classic set of stories that I’ve got about the missed gaps and being the researcher in the equation I’ve just reflected on what that meant and how I could use my work to get a good impact with the designers once we got back home. And I borrowed, and I was really inspired by the idea of cognitive errors from psychology because it’s not judgemental. It is just sort of a statement of fact that with cognitive errors we see and think things that science has proven are not true and I was inspired by that to pull up some common patterns of where I think we see and think things when in foreign markets that isn’t true.

So I sort of developed this from three different places; one was anthropology and looking, especially drawing on exoticism and this desire we have to really think when we’re in a foreign environment, think that everything is fantastic and everything is so unlike everything we have back at home. And that’s a really core part of the training in anthropology, which I’ve received only the thinnest sliver.

But also there was sort of more tangible, or more current teachings as well. So there’s an Indian market researcher called Rama Bijapurkar and as an Indian market researcher she spent, she’s quite successfully published on what she sees when Westerners try and market their products and make products in India. And then also just my patient teachers in the markets that I’ve visited, from people in testing who have just explained to me again and again why this phone that I’ve shown them is not cool actually.


Can you give us a specific example of a cultural error do you think?


So I came out with cultural errors as a sort of easy way to think about some of the mistakes that we commonly make and this is again just to point out that these are part of a process of understanding, part of a process that I think Western designers have to go through to understand emerging markets. And I don’ t think it’s, you know there’s nothing, I’m not judging people, I’m not judging their character by this, I’m just pointing out that in my experience this is what happens.

And I think the first thing that people see when they go emerging markets, the first thing that they think is that these people need my help. So you know we turn up and we see everything that’s different from what we see at home. We see a lot of, you know we see a lot of poverty. We see people living in worse situations than us and we naturally want to help them but we also make the mistake of then making the judgement that we have some kind of special power to lift them out of the circumstances that they’re in and of course the real conclusion that we should be making is that people, consumers in emerging markets, or people in an emerging market are really, really capable, smart people.


You suggested there’s a kind of a paternalistic mindset that people from the Global North or from the Global West, or whatever we call it, might take into emerging markets.


Yeah… I shied away from actually calling out paternalism in the cultural errors but I think that’s underneath the hood, you know. I think one of the things that informs our background in the West anyway and certainly in countries with a strong cultural link to the UK, like I would argue Australia and America have, we are really inspired by the Victorian era, colonists that sought to go out into markets and improve them and they made this judgement which is that, you know, we are somehow better than them, that there’s this fundamental difference between us and them and that because I have more things I’m superior to them.

And I just don’t think that’s the case. You know, we don’t have to look very far to find plenty of stories of people in emerging markets showing a lot of innovative… a lot of creativity and a lot of desire. So you know you can look at stories online and find that Ethiopian kids hacked the One Laptop Per Child tablet in five months with zero instructions or that, you know, another story I saw on iO9 the other month was teenage girls from Africa invented a urine-powered generator.

Cultural errors and when we go to the markets, it’s not about them, our first preconception, it’s about us and it’s about our ability to really see the world as they see it in which case they’re not sitting around waiting for people to come and save the day and for, you know, you to fly over and save their worlds. They’re getting on just fine.

I think the next cultural error that sort of flows on quite nicely from that is this idea that they need basic products or you know to frame it a slightly different way, that their needs are defined by what they lack. So I think, and this is something that we can see really clearly whenever we go to emerging markets, quite often we see places with a lot less infrastructure than we’re used to. You know, we see open sewers in Africa or certain smells on the streets of many large Asian cities that we’re no longer used to smelling in the West, and this is where I draw on the work of marketing professor Chip Heath that just points out that when we, if we think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with physiological needs at the bottom and then looking upwards to safety, belongingness, esteem and self-actualisation, we always think that other people are motivated by their lower order needs, by safety needs and physiological needs. And in fact we think that it’s only us that are motivated by the higher order needs, by self-actualisation or by self-esteem.

So in more of a more everyday setting for us… if you’re a boss you might think my team are only motivated by higher pay but I’m motivated by my profession and that’s obviously a furphy. That’s obviously incorrect because you know everyone’s motivated by their full set of needs and I think that comes through really strongly when we see what happens in emerging markets, so you know, all of these concepts that you see put out again and again through lots of different development forums, through openIDEO or through you know sort of open design shares are really targeting needs about the bottom of that pyramid of needs. They’re always targeting safety, security or access to food.

That’s a really clear example of how our understanding of needs differs from the local people’s needs or, as designers, as Western designers, our understanding of needs differs from our consumers’ understanding of their own needs. We only have to look at the Tata Nano to see that play out really clearly. I mentioned it before but it is the world’s cheapest car, you know it is, it’s got really radical concessions to price like no air conditioning, no radio, no seatbelts in the back, only one windscreen wiper. You can’t open the boot. But if you look at it, and I encourage people to open up Google and take a quick look, it makes absolutely no concessions to its cheapness at the aesthetic level. It lacks for nothing. You know the detailing is just as well designed as any other car. The automotive design, worked on by an Italian design studio, so that’s a really clear example where even if you’re looking at spending very little money you still don’t want to look like you’re spending very little money. If you’re in the market for the car, for the cheapest car ever created why would you want to look cheap as well?



So it’s an aspirational car as much as any other car on the market anywhere else in the world?


Yeah definitely and I think that aspiration comes through really strongly in emerging market consumers. You know, the world is changing really rapidly for them and the future is up for grabs, more or less, and so the aspiration is sort of central to understanding how you need to operate. I think there are a few examples of that. One technical point is that we assume that their market, another cognitive error that we make is that we assume that their market is somehow separate to ours, that the world just hasn’t caught up with this place in emerging markets yet or that culture’s frozen in a point in time and really what we see now is that the world plays out in real time, that, you know, modern life lives alongside tradition.

So in my talk I mention this example of you know horoscopes in India can be very important for moments like weddings and many people assume that rising levels of scientific education in India would decrease the belief in superstitions like horoscopes. But in fact in Rama Bijapurkar’s words, “Our faith in astrology does not decrease because of scientific education. Instead we move effortlessly to computerised horoscopes.”

So, you know, people eagerly adopt the technology to wherever it suits them in their eyes not just along the path that we think they should take. And I think just one other point about the world playing out in real time is that we actually live in multiple cultures now unlike in the past, in the days before the internet especially, that emerging market consumers with access to the internet and with access to Facebook and in China, for instance, access to Korean soap opera, know what the best products in the world are, you know?

With my experience at Nokia from 2009 I had people in India telling me about the iPhone even though it hadn’t been launched in the market yet. So quite simply the logic from their point of view is that emerging market consumers know what the best products in the world are and they know what the best Western brands are so why should they want anything less for themselves?

I’d like just to mention one more cultural error and then I mean we can talk about that forever. Another challenge we have when we’re understanding emerging market consumers is just acknowledging that sometimes in any research encounter people say crazy things so, and this is the West or the East, research is just one of those things where you meet people in a strange environment and you hear a lot of strange things. But I did hear this one guy actually say to me, “I’m worried about the environment so I take my four-wheel-drive off-road in Tibet to enjoy the environment before it’s ruined by everyone else.” And in one way that’s just a classic crazy statement, right? That makes absolutely no sense and faced with that a lot of the designers that I worked with leapt to the only thing that made any sense to them which is that Chinese people don’t understand the environment, they don’t care about the environment, that they think you know destroying the environment is no big deal. I think that’s, well I’m certainly not saying that you can’t say critical things about Chinese people and the environment and indeed many Chinese people do.

That illustrates another one of my cognitive errors which is where we assume that emerging market people aren’t rational. So we just assume when we’re faced with crazy statements like that and we don’t think that, actually, I just don’t understand the internal logic here. We think there is no internal logic here because it isn’t my internal logic. And I think certainly, I think one broader point about my role as a researcher is that I’m not a trends researcher, I’m a researcher who wants to actively make cool products and that informs a lot of my approach.

So when it comes to make the hard decisions about what feature we should support and how we should support it an explanation based on cultural difference actually doesn’t get us that far for a few reasons. One is that it doesn’t really, because it doesn’t have an internal logic that people can understand, if we say things like China is a patriarchal society and so that’s why we see this behaviour it doesn’t actually carry very far when we have to go back to R&D and explain it and so this is you know controversial but it works in that I look in situations like this I look to explain novel behaviour or strange, crazy behaviour as some kind of rational response to a different environment.

So I would look at downplaying the difference and the foreignness about the culture. Instead of thinking Indian people are just like this or Chinese people are just like that and chalking it up to culture, I’ll always look for some kind of a rational explanation if I can find one because I think you know there’s a powerful trick that researchers can play which is treating contradictions in what your participant has said just as your failure to understand the situation and your failure to understand the world as they see it.


A lot of people listening to this podcast are from those emerging markets. Do you have any advice for researchers from those markets working within those markets for how they can… any steps that they could take to help I guess organisations that are interested in the markets from outside, understand them better and perhaps progress their own careers?



Well, the first thing I would say is please blog about your experiences so I can learn from you because, you know, like I mentioned the best teachers I had in emerging markets were the local people that I worked with just patiently explaining to me again and again why this one behaviour was rational and not crazy.

Speaking as a Westerner who has tried to design for Asian markets a lot there’s a lack of basic understanding about market conditions. So even at Nokia I tried to find out just how much data did cost around the world and there was no… I tried to find out just how much a data plan and access to data on a mobile phone cost around the world and there was no single data source of that.

I had something in motion just to get our frontline sales staff to go to their local store and write it down but we ended up not going ahead with that for a few reasons. So I think that’s a strength; I would say if you’re in an emerging market and you want to, if you want to think about the value that you bring to partners that you have in the West I would also say you know your access to the practical concrete reality on the ground because that’s essential, that deep understanding of the market is essential to making anything work.

My big learning is that it’s not that different, you know. Certainly market conditions are different, perception of value can be different, the way you need to segment the market needs to be different but the design process itself is, I would keep as the same.


Give us a generic bit of advice for any design researcher going from their home turf into any other turf. What single piece of advice would you give to that researcher?


Look I would say ask yourself the basic question about what your objectives are. If your objectives are about development then that’s fine and pursue that agenda, but if your objectives are about commerce then don’t feel bad about that and you know just make something good enough to buy and then you would do what you would always do which is ask the local people whether or not what you’ve made is good enough to buy and why.


Okay, that sounds good. Andrew Harder thanks for joining me today on the User Experience Podcast.


Thanks Gerry.

Published: November 2013

A note on the transcripts

We make verbatim transcripts of the User Experience podcast. We then edit the transcripts to remove speech-specific elements that interfere with meaning in print (primarily space-fillers such as “you know…”, “um…”).

Gerry GaffneyUX, Disruption and Cultural Errors in Emerging Markets

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