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Hong Kong UX Conference: Design and Usability Challenges in a Cultural Portal

February 22, 2001

By Marie Tahir

Jakob Nielsen meeting with attendees after his talk Tog speaking at the Main Event
Jakob Nielsen meets with attendees
after his talk
Tog speaking at the Main Event
in Hong Kong

HONG KONG, China, February 22, 2001. Hong Kong's diversity makes for design and usability challenges that extend beyond website localization issues. Attendees at the Hong Kong World Tour event told us that interacting with so many different cultures means localizing your communication style, as well as your product. Usability consultants and designers described how they must use different tactics to motivate clients and colleagues with different cultural backgrounds to adopt user-centered research and design methodology.

We had a lively lunch discussion one day on these different tactics for different cultures. Attendees said that Hong Kong clients tend to be "instruction based, and you need to get management mandate, give clear tasks--[the clients] don't do anything without manager's approval." Australians are "very individualistic," and although on the one hand they're very social and fun loving, it's hard to get them to follow standards or to change their opinions. One evening you can be out buying them beers, but when it comes to trying to negotiate design changes, attendees reported meeting resistance. Attendees said finds they make most progress with Malaysian clients, who are "very accommodating" to change, as well as with clients from the Philippines, who "deal well with value-added service-if you position yourself as someone there to help them, and be very understanding to their issues." In Taiwan, attendees said they need to spend more time with clients and build relationships. Taiwanese clients respond better to suggestions for change from people they know "They will do it, because we have a relationship." In India, "It's all about respect. You need to show [Indian clients] respect to get things done."

Photo of Daniel Szuc, Apogee
Daniel Szuc,

Several attendees mentioned that Hong Kong is an especially fast-paced, deadline driven city. Daniel Szuc, IT Manager of Apogee Communications Internet Division, told me, "The speed to get stuff done goes against quality. That's why I'm implementing [usability practices] at design phase… I implement by stealth." Daniel said that the extreme time pressure, coupled with a loose infrastructure and lack of user-centered standards and processes means things get done there in an ad-hoc way. Daniel is teaching the staff at his company and his clients how to integrate user-centered design processes.

Photo Joan Lui, Lemon
Joan Lui,

Joan Lui, Deputy Director of Interface Developer at Lemon, a design company, agreed with Daniel. "Right now, usability is not a main issue in Hong Kong," she said. She told me that her company usually starts by doing a review of the client's site to identify issues, and then they bring users in to test the redesign: "When the clients come to us, they know they have a problem, then we need to test [afterwards] to make sure the redesign is good." Joan says one of her most difficult challenges is convincing her clients to make changes like getting rid of confusing technical terms on their sites.

Photo of Pierre Lavigne, ewatchfactory
Pierre Lavigne,

Pierre Lavigne, CTO of ewatchfactory, talked to me about the pressures of customizing for clients' sites in very short timeframes. Ewatchfactory produces custom watches for their customers' websites. Users can go to a website like CBS's site for the popular American television show "Survivor," and create a custom wristwatch that includes elements from the television show. Other clients include a Mexican children's television show, "Burundis," and the Sierra Club. Pierre says they usually only have one week to design their portion of the website, which lets users design their custom watch: "each time it's new. We have to adapt the interface each time to the look and culture of the site we will stick with." Pierre said his biggest need is to identify a "common basis for each site… a general interface for everybody" that he can then customize for each site. Until recently, he thought this was possible to do within house and without user input: "I was waiting before for feedback on the site once it's out there… I thought we had the resources to do it right, but I've changed my mind." Pierre is a recent devotee of Jakob Nielsen, and was excited to be at the conference to get new ideas on how to incorporate user feedback into their design process.

Photo of Yan Sham-Shakleton, Asia Online
Yan Sham-
Asia Online

Yan Sham Shackleton, who is managing the redesign of Asia Online's website, faces the challenge of trying to get a "cohesive web presence" from a website that has 35 separate products and 10 country sites. Yan says she has to work with branches of her company that were acquired as separate companies, and she finds this compounds cultural differences and makes it difficult to be an agent of change: "People are resistant to change if they've been bought." Yan also mentioned that she's most successful communicating with her clients by phone, rather than impersonal email. She thinks this is a gender issue, since she has a name that could be male or female and says she gets misinterpreted in emails. For example, clients don't mind more frequent communication from a woman, but if they think she's a man, they "think she's an annoying guy."

Photo of Linda Cheng
Linda Cheng

Some design challenges are the same the world over. When I asked some attendees to tell me their one wish for Web design, Daniel Szuc instantly responded, " no more pop-up windows ... if there's a user reason, it's okay, but if it's just to do cool Javascript, it's not." "APUWs," laughingly agreed Linda Cheng, from Hong Kong, "Annoying Pop Up Windows!"


Brenda Laurel considers a question from Yan Sham-Shakleton
Brenda Laurel considers a question
from Yan Sham-Shackleton

Press Coverage of Hong Kong Conference

In English

In Chinese