Umair Khan, Application Development Leader (Ephlux)

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November 5, 2013
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In the third part of this series, I went back to Ephlux to hear about the hands on mindset utilized by the head of application development for their mega clients such as Disney and Caesars Palace, and how design thinking varies across cultures and markets.

How do you apply design thinking in creating applications for clients like Disney and Caesar’s Palace?
At the core of launching successful products is an understanding of the users needs. But there are different kinds of needs, explicit are the one’s people can talk about readily but the one need tied to innovation is the implicit needs. We have what we refer to as a cultural iceberg, most of the behaviors and responses to products and services are above the surface – we can see and record them, gather straight up empirical data. Then we have items below the surface, our assumptions and values associated with our interface, emotions that people have a hard time directly talking about. And as you get into different cultures, these things very dramatically have a huge impact of the variations of products we offer.

To summarize, the explicit needs are those that can be observed and discussed while the implicit needs are those that we are unaware of but make up roughly 80% of the cultural iceberg.

What kind of strategies do you prefer or use when designing an application across all the markets catered to?
There are four approaches, but we currently apply three of them. The first is translation strategy which has been a means to enable trade across language barriers. Even today it is widely used for goods like toys and clothing where the identical product is going to be sold in different language markets. Its more than translating the words – punctuation, writing direction and spelling variants have to be considered. Its everything having to do with language and communication, and is a necessary component for introducing a service.

In 2008 it was reported that Facebook had taken a highly unconventional hands off approach, bringing nothing new to Facebook Japan. In direct contrast, Mixi.jp is a social networking site creating by and for the Japanese. It looks, feels and work similarly to Facebook with one key difference – newcomers can only join by invitation which addresses the concern of privacy – a key need in Japan. Communication on the site is confined to a diary, a concept that is deeply seated in Japanese culture. This has resulted in very different levels of adoption for Facebook vs. Mixi. Reports are varied, but in 2008 Mixi.jp has a whopping 12 million users from the Japan market while Facebook only has half a million, the gap was attributed to this one core user divide.

Indications also suggest that users on Mixi.jp are more engaged than Facebook so they spend more time, contribute more and is a more enriching and fulfilling experience because its designed to be resonant with their culture.

The second strategy we use is localization strategy, a process of adapting the predator service of a specific region by adding a locale specific component. So McDonald’s remains largely the same across cultures, but they are also noted for their outstanding efforts on localization such as McCafe’s throughout Europe, extensive vegetarian selections in India, the McFalafel in Egypt, a Samurai Pork Burger in Thailand and so on. And on top of that they have also localized their advertising & language. While translation and localization strategies have been the bread & butter of Ephlux in the past, its a relatively narrow concept having little to do with a deep understanding of the culture. More recent efforts (since our expansion the the MEA region) have been dominated with the internationalization strategy which focuses on making the product or service work anywhere – with the hope that it can work across cultural barriers and language barriers without the need for localization.

At the core of launching successful products is an understanding of the users needs.

So the real motivation here is basically to make one product and get economies of scale
Indeed. So car manufacturers like GM has really pushed to do that with cars – designing seat belts considering the toughest regulatory market and being able to distribute all over the world without tweaking per market. The Apple iPhone has very little localization with the expectation that 3G or 4G networks in their major markets around the world and that the “cool factor” of the iPhone would sell. The assumption is that products made can skirt a cultural or language difference. The new approach expects that users will buy into a culture willingly, like the buyers of French wine, Nike running shoes, Nutella spread and so forth. While economies are achieved, this is a mess of a strategy when executed poorly. The iPhone has a fit issue in China in part due to cost, WiFi connectivity is not as pervasive across China and lack of iTunes availability.

What is your go to approach that tackles all these problems, if any?
It doesn’t have a word or catchphrase, at Ephlux we call it an adaptive systems strategy. Its something we’ve built to learn about users behavior and the environment in which they are operating. The systems respond to behaviors expressed by users and interact accordingly. One of the assumptions in all these strategies is that the product is stable i.e. their is a foundation on which the skins of the product change (largely cosmetic) and not the underlying metaphor. That means the product may be acceptable for use in another culture but they don’t necessarily fit well and resonate with the needs of the people in those culture. Hence the lack of success of US products in Japan and China – all of which made surface level changes but none or little improvements in understanding the underlying needs of the people of those markets. It’s like wearing a shoe that sort of fits, but gives you blisters. Deloitte did a study this year that revealed that nearly 50% of the companies operating in emerging markets have yet to achieve their goals, largely in part to a divide in cultural understanding and an approach that prefers business thinking over design thinking.

Thank you for your time. Is there anything else you would like to leave the readers with?
Yes. The lack of utilizing the approaches above has worked for companies in the past, but the global market is changing. The tolerance for a shoe that fits but gifts blisters has fallen through hell. By thinking more deeply about these underlying needs many more products and services can be much more successful today. We advocate global design, understanding the culture and context of the region. Our Ephlux Framework involves:

1. Gathering data on user needs with particular sensitivity to:

  • consider language and expression issues,
  • build rapport,
  • understand context

2. Experimenting with what has meaning for that culture:

  • leverage insider and outsider perspectives,
  • test-retest with data,
  • rely on emotion as a guide,
  • use cultural dimensions to inspire questions

3. Find culturally resonant metaphors:

  • account for history, politics, religion, climate, geography, languages, aesthetics and popular culture …
  • tap into the local character.

4. Test concepts:

  • use prototypes to identify mismatches,
  • get deeper insights,
  • frame solutions around experience.

We do this to come up with a solution that is completely different and ideally suited to that targeted region, and at Ephlux we believe that this where the true innovation and design thinking comes in.

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