Although the UX scene in Southeast Asia is admittedly less mature than in the West, there are plenty of local and cultural nuances in Southeast Asia that can throw a researcher off-guard if he or she does not know the local culture. What with Southeast Asia rapidly growing to be a region of tech start-ups and e-commerce, any UX researcher who works in Southeast Asia should take note of these best practices.

To start, Malaysia has a low score of 26 on the Individualism dimension of Hofstede’s model of national culture, compared to the United States at 91.

Source: Hofstede Insights

These numbers mean that the United States is a largely individualistic society (a “me” society) compared to Malaysia, which is more collectivistic (a “we” society).

According to Hofstede’s definition, an individualistic society has a “preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families”.  A collectivistic society, on the other hand, represents a “preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular ingroup to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we”.1

Although this dimension represents the national culture, rather than the individual’s, this is the first step towards understanding the deeper nuances of the individual behaviour and of the sub-communities formed by those individuals.

How this impacts user research: It starts right from the choice of research methods. For instance, Focus Groups would thus become a huge no-no, due to the strong tendency of Malaysians to conform to groups, societal rules and regulations. Focus Groups are good if the interactions are authentic among individuals, so you receive a variety of perspectives. But if the culture is highly collectivistic, the Focus Groups will just reflect herd mentality that is too shy to deviate from the group’s thinking – rather than providing you with authentic insights.

(Note: By the way, in case you’re curious, most Southeast Asian cultures are largely collectivistic as shown in the figure below.)

Source: Hofstede Insights

Let’s look at how we can avoid noise in user research done in Southeast Asia, starting chronologically with the stages of user research, using the example of in-depth user interview method (IDI).

Do note that this is not a guide to IDI, but rather, pointing out how an IDI could go wrong without strong knowledge of the local culture (through the steps of a typical IDI).

Step 1: Setting research objectives

In setting research objectives for a Southeast Asian IDI, perhaps none can be more important than getting a local user researcher right from the start. Even with translators or interpreters, none can do justice to the raw insights you will receive by using a local user researcher.

The reason is multifold – starting with the most fundamental communication method – language. In many Southeast Asian countries, due to influence from past colonial masters as well as the globalisation of English, everyday conversations contain some form of code switching (alternating between two languages or more) or slang. For example, in Malaysia, a typical conversation can go like this:

“I pergi mamak tapau some food, I’ll be back liao by 5pm.”

Here, pergi is a Bahasa Malaysia word for ‘go’, whereas tapau is Chinese for ‘takeaway’ and liao means ‘already’.

In Indonesia, slangs such as baper* or gaptek* may be used in everyday conversations or IDI to the horror of a foreign researcher who may not know such slangs, even if he or she attended a formal Indonesian language class. Sometimes, these slangs can be an important insight or data entry point to dig deeper into the user’s mind.

*Baper is a shortened form of dibawa perasaan which means someone who is overly emotional or sensitive, whereas gaptek is a shortened form of gagap teknologi, which means a person who is not tech savvy.)

Religion, undeniably, also strongly influences a person’s perspectives, needs and desires. For example, to assume that a person with religion ‘A’ in Thailand has similar opinions with another following the same religion ‘A’ in Indonesia would be absolutely misleading. In recent years, Indonesia and Malaysia have seen in increased influence of religious groups in their countries, and those who are influenced by this ideology tend to be more conservative.2 This difference in perspectives also impacts the manner in which users approach/receive, consume your product or service.

Ethnicity for multi-racial societies also plays a big role in designing your research. For example, a user researcher can expect a significant variation in practices, beliefs among the respondents. For example:

  • Malaysia (Malay, Chinese, Indian, and the indigenous people such as Orang Asli, Dayak, Anak Negeri)
  • Indonesia (Javanese, Sundanese, Batak, Malay, Chinese, Betawi, Balinese, and more)
  • Singapore (Chinese, Malay, Indian and many foreigners from almost all parts of the world)

On top of these, the rapid change of user behaviour due to technological advancements (and user adoption) further complicates the case for a user researcher seeking to fully understand users in a locality. What could be true of a user need today may not be true anymore the next month. It requires local expertise and tenacity to keep track of these changes.

Step 2: Recruitment

Beware of pseudo qualified participants who can make their way through being recruited – usually being motivated by the promising rewards. “Experienced” research respondents may know the right things to say to qualify as being a potential, chatty respondent. An indulgent culture like Malaysia’s, as seen in Hofstede’s model, may result in more respondents who love spending money as they wish and therefore may be more prone to act upon a rewards-based system.

A good way to counter this is to frame your recruitment message around a greater sense of purpose and helping others, rather than motivating the users through rewards.

If your recruiter is English-speaking non-native and doing phone screening for respondents around Southeast Asia, there is a high chance of misunderstanding the articulation capabilities of respondents due to the English language barrier of respondents. In effect, some of the right respondents can be, sadly, screened-out.

Step 3: Interview

Punctuality is an issue in Southeast Asia, particularly in cities with high volume of traffic such as Manila, Jakarta, Bandung, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Kuala Lumpur too (although Jakarta friends did tell us that KL is not qualified to be in the list!). That said, high volume of traffic is not the only reason why your participants are late for the interview.

If you remember the figure earlier, except for Thailand, other countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia scored low on Uncertainty Avoidance. This dimension in Hofstede’s model has to do with “the way a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known”. If a country scores low on Uncertainty Avoidance, it means that they have a low preference for avoiding uncertainty.

The people are able to embrace ambiguity and schedules are considered flexible. UX researchers should take this possibility of lateness into consideration, so that you schedule a long enough gap between two IDI’s in order not to be late for your next interview. “Malaysian time” is also a commonly known slang used to describe a delayed timing, suggesting that Malaysians tend to be late for meetings or events. This tendency for Malaysians to be late is reported in The Borneo Post. Preparing for worst case scenarios will reduce unexpected risks in your IDI.

Highly soft-spoken respondents can be the cause of missing on insights in Indonesia and some parts of Malaysia. User researcher must be conscious of subtle differences in this behavioural attribute. Much more probing might be needed with these respondents than a chatty respondent living in another fast-paced city like Singapore or relatively more vocal respondents from the Philippines. The difference in speaking styles can even be observed within a country. For instance within Vietnam, people may express their opinions differently even if they fall within the same demographics. It’s important for a researcher to recognize that Hanoi in the north is old-school Vietnam, conservative and restrained, whilst HCMC, the former Saigon, is modern, more capitalist and a throbbing metropolis.

There is also the language barrier in interviews. People are better at expressing their thoughts in their vernacular language other than English. This is not just due to the lack of English language comprehension (many adults can actually converse quite well in English). The issue is people are more comfortable with their everyday language, regardless of skills in other languages. Irrespective of your target group, among adults in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, people can express better in Bahasa, Thai and Vietnamese respectively. In case a user researcher wants the interviews in English, it is still possible and will seem to work on the surface. However, be sure about the loss of some insights. A user researcher who speaks the native language is therefore so very important to engage.

Step 4: Data collection and analysis

Since Southeast Asian culture is largely collectivistic as demonstrated earlier, it means that even in a one-to-one user interview like the IDI, the participant may try to be politically correct in his or her conversations with you. Learn to read between the lines and probe deeper so that you will not end up with shallow insights in your interview.

What they say may not be what they mean or need. For example, Singaporeans have a strong complaining culture. In a report by Business Insider Singapore, Singapore is the top provider of complaints with 34.7% compared to other Southeast Asian countries.3

In this instance, the problems that the Singaporeans complain about may not be so groundbreaking that you need to mobilise your engineering and design team to create solutions for them. Pick your battles. Compare quantitative data and don’t make decisions solely on qualitative data. It takes local knowledge and experience to learn these nuances.

Hopefully this helps us to get started in understanding user research in Southeast Asia. Please share more tips on user research in Southeast Asia – get the conversation going!


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