5 Things I learned about UX in SE Asia after speaking in 5 countries

Some of you are aware I held my “Foundations of UX Research” talk during my travels in Asia. Within three months, I spoke in the Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. In total, there were 8 talks in 5 countries. I did it because I absolutely love talking about UX and the product development process as a whole. Plus, sharing my experience working at UXPin while traveling was immensely fun. And in general, I have a deep curiosity for UX outside the United States, so I had a mission to meet as many tech professionals as I could.

Manila, Philippines. Organized by UXPH and PWDO. Sponsored by GlobeLabs.

The talks themselves went well (I hope) and it was an incredible experience! The topic revolved around a simple idea: UX Research doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, basic UX Research can actually help companies save money.
There was a wide range of attendees, including designers, marketers, business analysts, and a large number of developers. During the talk, I emphasized that anybody in the company can do “research” through different low-cost methods. The message seemed to resonate with those who were looking to transition into UX.
Whether it was an audience of 10 or an audience of 70, the reception to the talk was phenomenal. If anything, the large turnout of beginners was a sign of growing interest for UX in the Asian region. Now, I can’t speak about Asia as a whole, since it is the largest continent, after all. If I made such blanket statements, I’d be excluding the two biggest players, China and India. With that said, here are five things I learned:

1. There’s a rich pool of untapped UX talent in Asia

This should come as a surprise to no one. The region is ripe with talent. Although, most employers hire in countries like Hong Kong and Singapore because the lack of language barriers. That is a fair assumption, as communication in UX is key. Yet, a large number of designers in cities like Manila and Kuala Lumpur are native English speakers (or proficiently fluent). Even so, those cities have not yet seen the level of investment in UX compared to SG and HK. To be quite honest, I’m not sure why this is the case.
With that said, I’ve met countless of talented UX professionals in SE Asia with an amazing grasp of UX fundamentals. Even if they are not working in UX, they are looking to incorporate usability principles to their every day work. Great talent can’t be ignored for long, which is why I suspect companies will start finding their next UX professionals within this region (see #5).
Cebu, Philippines. Organized by CebUXD. Sponsored by TIDE.

2. They are overwhelmingly young

In all my talks, I only had one audience member over the age of 45, a Samsung Executive in Seoul. Other than that one gentleman, an overwhelming majority of my audience were Millennials. One can argue a beginner talk will predictably attract entry-level individuals (young people). But after speaking with the audience, I learned they were from corporations that didn’t invest in UX at all.
In the US, we are fortunate enough to be learning from the pioneers of our field. Also, in our companies we have senior mentors who have been in HCI, Usability Design, and IA for decades. Most of the countries I visited were lacking the senior contributors because the technology there lagged behind. This meant most of those who are pursuing UX are tech-savvy young people. The handful of senior-level UX employees that I encountered were expats, bringing their experience from the West to East.
Seoul, Korea. Organized by Seoul Tech Society. Sponsored by the HIVE Arena.

3. Regional corporate investment in UX is extremely lacking

As mentioned before, there’s a large number of untapped UX talent in the region. Local corporations in the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam are not embracing UX as a fundamental role in their organizations. In fact, most companies still budget their web and mobile apps under “Advertising.”
Those who are currently “working in UX” are doing the work of three employees, because companies are reluctant to hire more talent. This inevitably leads to less entry-level jobs.
During my travels, I met with amazing organizations who are diligently working to grow their local UX communities. But, I hear a certain story over and over again: “I want to stay in my home country, but there aren’t any opportunities here.” So they leave. For example, designers I met in the Philippines expressed their interest in staying but acknowledged the temptation to leave for countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, or Dubai. The lack of jobs within the region prohibits the fostering of communities. When Senior-level designers leave for better opportunities, it deprives young workers of critical education and mentorship.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Organized by UXMY. Sponsored by The Co.

4. If you want something new, it’s a great place to work!

I loved my time in Asia. The food, the culture, and the people all made this trip a memorable one. People here are really eager and hungry to learn and work in tech. They are also looking for mentors and teachers. If you’re a senior-level UX practitioner and want a change-of-pace, I would look into working overseas! Unfortunately, the pay won’t be as high, but you can enjoy far lower costs of living. There are even established companies abroad, such as Agoda, that’s on a UX hiring spree. I would love to come back to Asia further down my career.

Hanoi, Vietnam. Organized and sponsored by Toong Coworking Space.

5. Outsourcing UX work will become a dominant force in the industry over the next 5 years

Every sector of the tech industry have felt the impact of outsourcing. UX is one of the very few sections of tech that is somewhat difficult to outsource. The general skill-set in the West still outpaces the competition, though it’s decreasing. There’s also the question of empathy in cross-cultural designs and research. We all know how important empathy can be. Thus, one wonders if a Malaysian interviewer can adequately understand the cultural context of a rural American user. Possibly. Maybe not. And lastly, after interviewing 100+ UX practitioners at UXPin, I learned not all companies have enough maturity in their design processes to outsource their work. But it’s definitely possible and workable.
This is why I’m currently working on starting my own agency. I want to connect the best designers I met in Asia with companies that otherwise cannot afford the investment in UX. I’m excited to share with you the details very soon!
Davao City, Philippines. Organized and sponsored by Dreamwork Co-Working Space.
I want to take this time to thank everyone who attended my lectures over the past few months. I had such a blast getting to share my experiences and meeting people who love great user experiences. I look forward to coming back real soon!
– Ben