405: Cross-Cultural Design with Senongo Akpem

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Seneongo Akpem talks with us about his new book, Cross-Cultural Design, and how building websites for people all over the world and from different cultures can be done better.



Senongo Akpem

Senongo Akpem

Web · Social

A designer and creative director in New York City, with over 15 years experience delivering engaging, human-centered design systems and building creative teams.

Time Jump Links

  • 01:29 Who is the book for?
  • 08:36 Does some of that work happen at a subdomain level?
  • 09:53 Sponsor: WooCommerce
  • 11:48 Working on Japanese websites
  • 29:10 Sponsor: Clubhouse
  • 30:33 Is thinking cross culturally something we grow into?
  • 44:26 Importance of people on a page


[Banjo music]

MANTRA: Just Build Websites!

Dave Rupert: Hey there, Shop-o-maniacs. You're listening to another episode of the ShopTalk Show, a podcast all about Web design and development. I'm Dave Rupert and with me is Chris--not found--Coyier.

Chris Coyier: Oh… [Laughter]

Dave: We did it.

Chris: Oh, I thought -- were we going to--? Yeah, this is episode -- pending. Pending. We'll see what the number is here.

Dave: Pending, yeah.

Chris: It might be missing.

Dave: Oh, yeah. It might be missing. We might just totally miss Episode 404. Anyway, I messed all that up. Hey, Chris. [Laughter] What do we got going on today?

Chris: Well, we have a special guest who has got a brand new book out that's going to be of high interest to all of you. It's actually mandatory that you go buy it right now. The book is called Cross-Cultural Design and we have the author with us today, Senongo. How are you?

Senongo Akpem: Hey, everybody. How's it going?

Chris: Good, good, good. Thanks so much for being on the show. Congratulations on the new book. It's on A Book Apart, right? I've got one there. Dave, yours is coming, right? Money-Driven Management.

Dave: Yeah, it's pending. Yeah. [Laughter] They just keep forgetting to email me. It's fine.


Senongo: Hmm. It sounds suspect.

Dave: Yeah.

Chris: You have a blog post that says who you wrote this book for, which is interesting. In that, you say that this book is for creative practitioners who are starting a project or job that requires cultural sensitivity. Can you expand on that for us in this show?


Senongo: Yeah, definitely. I think that that's one of the primary audiences for the book. As I was writing, keeping those types of people in mind. We all know the longer that we work on the Web, the more access you have to interesting projects and strange clients and so on. It's not every day that people get to work on things that directly affect a global audience.

As we work on the Web and as we do things longer, those projects are definitely going to come up. What I wanted to do was make sure that, when they do, people have a resource that they can turn to which is going to help orient them and kind of set them on the right track because you do a search for--

Chris: What are these projects?

Senongo: I'll give you an example. One from the book specifically [from] the design director at Constructive, a design agency in New York. We focus specifically on design for nonprofits and social change organizations.

A few years ago, we were approached by the regulatory assistance program. They are essentially a group of regulators that help craft climate change and climate change mitigation regulations across the world, so in China, the EU, the U.S., and so on. Their focus is, of course, on the major global markets, so like India, China, the European Union, North America.

anyway, we thought it would be a great idea to create this interactive map. [Laughter] Every designer's dream, right? Let's make an interactive map.

Dave: Oh, yeah!

Senongo: You're going to click on it and then -- [Laughter]

Dave: Close when you hover.

Senongo: Stuff is going to happen.

Dave: Yeah.

Senongo: Yeah, and so I thought it would be a great idea to have a map that was looking down on the planet Earth from the North Pole. Already this is too complex, right? You can see, because all of these countries are in the Northern Hemisphere, essentially. You're looking down at the Earth and you can click on different countries. We did all this in this SVG. You click and then it would activate a group or whatever to highlight the country.

Chris: Right.

Senongo: A few days before launch, you know, everything is up and the dev site is looking pretty. We get this really angry email from the client. Not angry, but stern. They're like, "The map is wrong." [Laughter] What am I supposed to do with that? Of course, it's right. I got it from Wikipedia, so it has to be correct.

What happened was, we forgot to account for areas like Kashmir and the disputed territories in the Himalayas between India and China. You have a situation where there's been literally wars fought by these two countries over this small piece of land. The map that I grabbed from some random spot on the Internet didn't account for that.

I actually had to go back into the SVG and basically, like when you click on India, it shows that little piece of the world as part of India. Then when you click on China, it also shows that part of China as that part of the world as theirs.

Chris: That's pretty extreme. The people that cared about this project literally just don't see the world in the same way. Those SVG lines, they don't honor or they honor them in some different way. Having the wrong SVG file there of that map was bad news for them. They were like, "That is incorrect."

Senongo: Yes. It seems so trivial when you think about as a scalable vector graphic, but this is serious, very nationalistic stuff. Anyway, that's a very long story but that's the type of stuff that's going to come across people's plates and they need to know how to approach those with some sensitivity so that they don't make the same mistake I did, which is, "Oh, this will be fine. Don't worry about it."

Dave: I think what's interesting too is the whole purpose of that organization you're working for is to fix climate change and get all these countries unified. A simple mistake like that and, when I say "simple" mistake, it's probably not simple to the people in those countries, but a mistake like that where you grab the wrong map or had the wrong territory in the wrong place, that could almost be like, "We're not even talking to you. This is a nonstarter. You've dishonored -- you've basically offended a whole group of people."

Senongo: Yeah.

Dave: I think that's very interesting. Like high stakes almost.

Senongo: Yeah. There are a million other examples of that. There are classic examples of marketing campaigns where companies have used the wrong photographs or the names of products have been -- I think that the Nova car was one where they tried to sell it in Spanish speaking countries, but it means "no go."

Chris: [Laughter]

Senongo: Stuff like that, so there are a million examples, a lot of them focused on product marketing.

Chris: Right. The Volkswagen lemon.

Senongo: Exactly.


Chris: It didn't go well.

Senongo: It's very cheap. [Laughter]

Chris: The map one, it's like sometimes it's just putting your foot in your mouth, right? Like, "Oh, my gosh. We named our car wrong," so it comes across as boneheaded and it's not going to go well, but maybe less offensive. Whereas the map thing, I could see being actually offensive like, "No, that's a part of a different territory." It seems like either way you go, you're going to offend the other side, right? If you change this map, doesn't that offend a whole new group of people?

Senongo: This is an interesting question. I think one of the things that the book Cross-Cultural Design gets into is how you can make these flexible experiences that do account for all sides and it's not only ever two of them. There are neutral parties in terms of people who don't care about Kashmir, and so they need to be accounted for as well.

With the map, I made sure that when you selected the country, that section of the world was highlighted. There are two realities and that's okay. I think building these flexible experiences allow the designer, the content people, and so on to localize content for their particular audiences seems like a better way to go.


Senongo: We talk a lot about accessibility in the Web industry these days, which is great. I think a lot of those same principles apply. Add some ALT text. It's not going to hurt anyone. That same type of principle where you just account for the differences and as many people as possible allows you to have, I think, a lot more of a flexible experience online.

Chris: Do you see some of that work technically happening at maybe like a subdomain? Like, well, here's one version of it that's culturally accounted for this region? Is that because that's the Spanish one?

Senongo: Yeah.

Chris: (Indiscernible)

Senongo: That's one way to go about it. I think some of that is going to come down to money. The first instinct that people might have is, like, "I'm going to translate my whole site." Well, good for you and I'm glad that you have another $100,000 to spend on this thing. If you don't, then maybe you just translate some key information. If you don't even have that, then maybe it's literally just a single PDF that you load just so that people can download it. I think that there are a lot of things that you need to account for, but trying to shunt a particular audience over to, like, one almost segregated spot on your site is not necessarily the way to go. Trying to find ways to make it a lot more flexible across the whole experience seems like a more sustainable way to go.

Chris: Yeah, it does to me.

Senongo: [Laughter]

Chris: I guess it depends on the project.

Senongo: Yeah, and the budget.


[Banjo music starts]

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WordPress itself is opensource and free. So is WooCommerce. It's opensource and free. You only really pay for it if you need a plugin that they offer that does something above and beyond what WooCommerce does kind of out of the box. For example, if you want to sell memberships to your site. It's something I'm playing with a little bit. WooCommerce can do that and they have a great plugin that you buy to do that.

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[Banjo music stops]


Chris: Well, let's travel to Japan for a minute. I think you both, Dave and you, spent some time in Japan at one point in your life. When were you there, Dave?

Dave: From 2003 to 2006.

Chris: Oh, I think Senongo has you beat a little bit. You said you were there as a student for a minute?

Senongo: Yeah. I was a student in Kyoto for about four months. Actually, I traveled there at the end of August 2001.

Dave: Okay.

Senongo: I remember coming back from the bar, you know, very early one morning. I lived at this dorm with a bunch of other exchange students. There was one guy. He was a Vietnamese exchange student. He was the only dude that spoke English in the whole building, so he kind of like helped me out to talk to people because my Japanese was terrible back then. It still is.

He was like, "Oh, is your family okay?" I'm like, "What are you talking about?" He goes, "I think you should turn on the TV."

We went in the common room and I sat there--I guess it was September 12th at that point--watching everything go on, on CNN, with my mouth wide open. Then I was there until, I guess, December 2001. Then I moved back there to work, I guess, 2003.

Dave: Oh, nice. How long were you there then?

Senongo: Until 2010.

Dave: Oh, wow.

Senongo: Then, yeah, I moved to New York after that. It was a good seven, seven-plus years.

Dave: I was going to ask because you did my favorite piece of, like -- you covered it in the book. My favorite piece of contextualization to cultures, which is like this thing about the Japanese websites. The thing with the Japanese websites, they tend to be more information-dense, like uncomfortably so, I think, for me at least, where you log in and there is just so much text. Then even that text is very dense because of the nature of Kanji and the Japanese language. One symbol can express a whole concept. You know?

Senongo: Yeah.

Dave: It's four characters, but it was a whole sentence. [Laughter] You're like, "Wow! They did all that in four characters."

Chris: For a dummy like me, too, I go to Portland, and I've been to the Japanese gardens a number of times. It's really beautiful. It's over there by the zoo. There are all these Zen gardens and the thing where you're combing the rocks. It seems like the aesthetic of Japan is so good, white space driven, chill, and relaxed. Somehow, that doesn't make its way over to the websites, which is confusing, or does it? Is that just my misunderstanding of it?

Senongo: What do you think, Dave?

Dave: Well, I would say you're exactly right. [Laughter] In my experience, I feel like, yeah, there's a big focus on space and beauty or simplicity in the Japanese culture. But that all goes away in print. The newspapers are crowded. The websites are crowded. That's maybe just what they're used to or what most people are used to, and it's a very highly literate society too.

Senongo: Yep.

Dave: So, like, 99.9%-whatever literate, so that's very high literacy rates.

Chris: But it's not poor aesthetics, right? It's just different aesthetics.

Dave: Yeah, I think it's just different. Senongo, you can describe it better but I think it's just different and that's okay.


Senongo: Yeah. There's no way -- there's no accounting for taste, as they always say, but I think the way that Japanese graphic design is often portrayed in the West are the examples that we feel most comfortable with, the things which are extremely minimal and have just one Kanji on a field of while. We're like, "Ooh! Yeah! That feels great." But there's a whole different realm of communication. Obviously, the newspapers, the marketing ads, and so on that you see, which have a very different aesthetic.

One thing that I will point to, which is maybe like a medium ground and something that I used a lot in order to learn Japanese is that the majority of Japanese TV shows, especially the live where they have celebrities and so on who come on and do interviews and talk to the man on the street and so on have subtitles. The subtitles are often animated and illustrated in a really beautiful way. For somebody like me, I was trying to learn the language, I used those shows a lot because it helped me to listen and read at the same time. That might be an example of where that literate society, it comes out in a very interesting graphic way that's not the extreme dense text that you might see in supermarket ads and so on.

Dave: It's also borders on a different design aesthetic too because you'll have rainbow text animating or something, or solid golden sheen text animating. It's like garish almost. It's very elaborate, but I think that's another kind of, I guess, mode of expression there. It's sort of like, in this context you can be like this. In this context, you should almost be like this. Maybe they have more defined presentation of content. I don't know.

Chris: Is there some really simple stuff? I feel like if I read a puff piece about this, which you'll see once in a while in our industry, just like how to deal with a website for another country. It'll be like red is warning in Western countries but in Japan, it's happy or something. Is that stuff useful or is that poorly researched?

Senongo: No, I think it's good. The more base-level knowledge that you have, I think, the better. The color thing is always interesting to me because, although we say things like, "In the West, white is a symbol of purity and for weddings and so on." But our walls are all painted white. It's just like a random color. The background of the majority of websites are white. We're not saying that A Book Apart is pure because it has white in the background of its homepage. They oversimply, I think, a very complex cultural relationship.

I find it a lot more interesting to look at idioms and sayings because those provide a window into the way that people view culture and culture. To say that somebody is green with envy gets much more at what that color means in a particular context than to say, "Green means somebody who is envious," because I have to use that phrase in conversation or by talking about somebody or to relate to them in some way. I really like those types of color phrases a lot more than the listicles.

Chris: Nice. I remember seeing a talk by Mina Markham. She's at Slack. She was designing -- I think this is relevant too. I think a lot of jobs out there these days in Web design and development are for big companies. Slack employs a whole bunch of people, not to mention the much larger tech companies like Facebook and things that employ thousands upon thousands of them. Your chances these days of rolling out, you know, getting yourself a job, there's a pretty good chance you're going to end at a pretty big company. The bigger the company, the more global it probably is. Slack being an example of very global, I think, right? I know that they at least support Japanese.

Senongo: Yes.

Chris: Mina, in her talk, was talking about the alteration of a blog post to be more appropriate to that culture. It was interesting. We'll try to dig up that--

Senongo: Yeah.

Chris: --link as well for the show notes.


Senongo: A friend of mine works at Mailchimp. He just casually mentioned that there was 50 designers or something like that that are working there. I'm like, "Are you serious?!" I don't even know what 50 people can do together to start with, but that's because I've generally worked on much smaller design teams over my career. Yeah, I can't even begin to imagine how that works, but the larger you get--

Chris: Hopefully, they're all a bunch of little two-pizza teams. Yeah, 50 people on one project, especially designers, will be like, "I guess I'll take the bottom left 50 pixels. Do you want the top right 50 pixels?"

Dave: Yeah. When we were working on -- so, my company Paravel, we did the redesign in 2012, and went fully responsive. It was quite a bit of work, very fast timeframe, but we were working and we had kind of accounted for, like, oh, German. The words, on average, are 40% to 60% longer. I wrote a little script that would just add letters to every word.


Dave: I wrote some JavaScript bookmark that made every word a little bit longer just to test it out.

Chris: Clever, really.

Dave: Yeah.

Chris: Just artificially extended the length of strings.

Dave: Yeah. Nowadays, you can right-click and do Google Translate, translate to German or something like that. Back then, I couldn't. Then just as the website is about to launch, now is the work to get it into the whatever hundreds of locals that Microsoft serves.

Senongo: Yeah.

Dave: Then one night--you might appreciate this--we get a stern call from the Japanese office. They just were like, "This is not going to work."

Senongo: [Laughter]

Chris: Oh, no.

Dave: We were like, "Uh-oh!" Well, it's a good thing I speak Japanese, and so I'm on a call with Japan at some weird hour of the day just to make it work. They'd made a good point. We had text in a box for a card on the hero unit or something. As you can imagine, text on a box has to reflow at some point. If it's large enough, it has to reflow, right?

Senongo: Yep.

Dave: This is fine in English because we have word breaks. But the way it works in Japanese is characters just start dropping to the next line, which is kind of fine and kind of how newspapers would do it. You hit the end of the line. You go back to the top. If you're reading vertically or left to right, it would drop to the next line. But most Japanese newspapers are vertical.

Senongo: Yep. Yeah.

Dave: Right?

Senongo: You got it.

Dave: That's correct? Okay. Okay. I was like, all right. I'm remembering correctly. But anyway, the letter would go back to the top and then you'd just keep reading. That's usually fine. But the distinction is, when you are kind of doing a catchphrase or a display text. When you're doing display text, if you have an orphaned character, you kind of just ruined the whole essence of the word.

Senongo: Yeah.

Dave: We had to kind of invent this nonbreaking space thing that would turn into a BR or do BR display inline at some point, you know.

Chris: Hmm.

Dave: To get the word or, I guess, you could breaking joiner or something. Unicode was not really at a great place when I think we were doing this. But we had to basically come up with a custom set of rules or just the font size so that the Japanese local and other CJK--Chinese, Japanese, Korean--markets could kind of control the breaking of display text specifically because it's so sort of particular. Like if you just had an orphaned character. In English, if you have an orphaned word, it's not the best but whatever. That'll work. If you have just a dropped character in Japanese, you sort of lose. E kimasu would be "to go." If it's just "e kima" and the next line is "su," it just looks gross. It's almost like you took a dump on the page.

Senongo: [Laughter]

Dave: It's inexplicable unless you know the language. That, to me, was just like, "Oh, man. I had not considered this." Even though I speak Japanese, I had not fully considered this esthetic rule about display text in particular or headings, I guess.

Senongo: Yeah. Totally. The text expansion factors, there's a bunch of sites where you can find versions of that, so German, like you said, is much longer. But even the Japanese and it's something that I talk about in Cross-Cultural Design. In general, Japanese, you would think, is shorter. But then when you use Katakana, which is one of the scripts, it's actually physically longer than English for many of the words.

I think the main thing that I keep thinking when I hear these types of stories is, if you don't do your upfront research and actually get the Japanese text in and start working with it from the beginning, then you leave yourself in these positions where you're having to scramble to figure out a header or a template at the very end. The same thing that we go through with all content where you don't have the content until the very end. Most times, it's unavoidable. Especially when you have these large, international projects. You've got to have something.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Senongo: Yeah, but Japanese is--


Chris: You call it a cultural probe, I think, in the book.

Senongo: Yeah, there are cultural probes, which are, I think, something that would happen probably much sooner than the content. Essentially, one of the things that I asked in the book was, what are the user experience research and kind of design research things that we can do at the beginning of projects in order to get that cultural information upfront and not just interview a few people? Even in the case of, as we're talking about Japanese, maybe I interview one of my Japanese colleagues but I do it in English. I'm not really getting at the nub of what they need.

Chris: Yeah.

Senongo: That sort of thing.

Dave: Yeah, because you might have flipped their brain into, like, "Well, sorry. I'm in English mode."

Senongo: Yes. Yes.

Dave: Because your language centers are pretty distinct.

Senongo: Yep.

Dave: Now they're thinking in English. Yeah. Interesting.

Senongo: The cultural probes specifically are these little packs that you can make, which have these activities. Anybody who has children will definitely sympathize with this. For example, you're doing a project where people need to identify key spots in their neighborhood. You would print out a map of their neighborhood and give them little sticky dots. They can put those on the map and identify their favorite restaurants or whatever. Then what they do is they put that back in the mail and they send it back to you. It's creating this design artifact that's made by the people you're designing for that they can interact with on paper and it's not just a digital thing.

Yeah, another one is, of course, when we do these interviews or maybe we're doing testing or whatever. There is research that shows having a person who speaks the language of the person who is performing the test is much more effective at teasing out the things that are necessary. The tests may involve more talking because they speak the same language.

This idea in UX research where I'm not supposed to help the person. Let them suffer. I'm not testing you. I'm testing the website. But having somebody who speaks the same language, they kind of help them out more but they're able to gain much more knowledge about where the pain points are in the interface and how it's going. Definitely using the same language as your audience is one of the key things to account for when you start a peer research.


[Banjo music starts]

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[Banjo music stops]


Dave: Is thinking cross-culturally something everyone has to do for every project or is it something I grow into? That's maybe the first part of my question. Then I'll have a follow-up after that.

Senongo: [Laughter]

Dave: Do you feel like this kind of--? Is this something we should all be doing all the time or is it something you kind of grow into on the projects' needs?

Senongo: That's a good question. I think part of my answer would be, often when we talk about culture, we're immediately imagining nations and countries: Israel, Russia, and all of this. Actually, the way that the Internet is going and how fragmented it's becoming, I think we can also identify some cultures that exist as online communities. For example, the way that Twitter is, which is just a shitshow all the time, but there's a very specific cultural way that people interact with each other, the language that they use, the jokes and the memes, which is very different than Reddit or from Imgur or many of these others.

All that to say, I think we should always be keeping that in mind, first of all, that it's not only language and not only nations, but it's also different groups of people online that we're designing for. Scientists, if we're doing a science-based website, I'm sure they have their own jokes and their own ways of interacting with each other, which may be supranational, so we would want to keep that in mind from the very start.

But having said that, look, everybody has got to learn. No one is going to be good at this stuff right off the bat. Just like any other skill, you've got to hone it and you've got to really make a lot of mistakes before you get better.

Chris: You could buy the book. That's a good start.

Senongo: [Laughter] Yes. Yes, you should buy the book from A Book Apart. It's available now. [Laughter]

Chris: Cross-Cultural Design: Can we dip back into the book for a moment or do you have a follow-up question, Dave? I'm sorry.

Dave: Well, I think my follow-up, I do want to get back into the book because I've been reading the book. Every page, it's like, "Oh, that's something I hadn't thought about. Okay. Very cool." But I guess my follow-up is, it seems like if I have to go interview somebody from every different locale for the homepage or the navigation, does this extend like the discovery period of a website? Do you find you have to do a lot more planning upfront? I guess, how does it change the process of developing a good website? How does it change that?


Senongo: Yeah, I think that's another really good question. The first thing that I would say is that will be completely dependent on your client's budget. If they've got $5 then the answer is no.

Dave: Yeah.

Senongo: If they've got $500,000, then definitely yeah. Identifying, first of all, what's within scope, I think, is a good first step. If it's the case where there's only a limited research budget, there are a million and one different resources online that can help you with what gorilla testing looks like and kind of how to operate on a limited UX research budget. Even talking to just two or three people is a good one.

Something else that I always recommend, of course, is treating your clients as the subject matter experts. In the case of the regulatory assistance project that we were working on, I should have kept in mind that they had researchers in India. Even just a 15-minute call with them probably would have helped me out to not make some mistakes on the interactive map. You can use your clients as an avenue to find those people and build that into your upfront research phase so that you're not creating this additional budget item, essentially, which is, I'm going to go out and do all of this stuff by myself and find out this information when it's sitting right in front of you.

Chris: Isn't there a cost to building the wrong thing? I think startups talk about that a lot too. Doing some research isn't like, "Well, I guess if we have the money for it, we should do this," but it's mandatory because if you don't do it, you risk just building the totally wrong thing.

Senongo: That's right. There are a million examples, again, of people who have done exactly that. Their minimum viable product or what's the new term that people are using now? It's like minimum--?

Chris: [Laughter] Is there a new one?

Senongo: It's not "viable" because that's too capitalistic.

Dave: Something usable experience or something.

Senongo: [Laughter] Yeah, minimum happy experience.

Chris: I think I know what you're talking about, but I don't have it either.

Senongo: I don't know. [Laughter]


Chris: Well, here's an example from the book that I think is fascinating that is along these lines, I think. It has to do with -- I think you called it -- here's the sentence. "Your users' varied mental models can impact the layout, microcopy, or even information architecture of the site." Your users' varied mental models. I think, in that section of the book, you talk about an e-commerce type situation.

Americans, we perhaps think about -- let's say it's a big website and they offer lots of different products. You're browsing that site that Americans tend to think of them from a browsing perspective as being organized by function. Maybe I'm shopping for a bedside table or something. I might be like, "I'm going to look under the tables section for that." Then you compared it to Taiwanese people who tend to think of products as organized by what room in the house it's in, which was fascinating. If you're looking for a bedside table, perhaps that it's in the bedroom section of that website, not the tables section.

Senongo: Yeah, that's exactly it. It was a study from 2003. As with all studies … and it was really, I think, focusing on, do you have a site architecture, an information architecture that's thematic? Like you're saying, according to the room in the house or do you have something which is functional according to the use of the item itself?

I think the jokes that we all make about if you have ever been to an Ikea before, and they're not everywhere in the world but there are quite a few, and just kind of like wandering around. I think the joke that I saw most recently is that nobody who works at Ikea actually applied to work there. They're all people who just got lost because they couldn't find a way out.

Chris: Yeah! [Laughter]

Dave: [Laughter]

Senongo: They just put on a uniform and started collecting a paycheck. [Laughter]

But they're doing this, so they create this really confusing information architecture in their physical store and it's forced people to wander around aimlessly picking up stuff and putting it in their shopping cart. That may work better for some types of people and others not so much.

Chris: If we loop that back around for building the right thing, I could imagine building an e-commerce store without having thought about that at all and then learning this and having the desire to serve your customers in other areas of the world or different cultures--however you want to slice it--better. You could imagine seeing, like, "Oh, let's reorganize our whole structure based on the room in the house, and having a developer be like, "Ha!'"

Senongo: Yeah. Exactly.

Chris: "Good luck!" You know?

Senongo: [Laughter]

Chris: But you know, computer science is computer science. There probably was a way to organize that information in a way that makes it not particularly difficult to reorganize and restructure culturally.

Senongo: Yeah.

Chris: There's probably a good way to build that. I don't know what it is, but if you knew that going into it, you could make those decisions.


Senongo: That's exactly right. You've got to plan ahead of time. You've just got to know. Even if you know at a very superficial level, some of that could be just looking at other e-commerce sites from Taiwan and saying, "Oh, that's interesting. If I'm looking for a toaster, I don't look under appliances. They seem to have all the toasters in the kitchen section," could be enough to go on. Yeah, you've just got to keep your eyes open.

Chris: That's fascinating. Right, you don't have to -- this doesn't have to be -- you don't have to necessarily get on a plane.

Senongo: No. No, no.

Chris: Or send out these interesting probes. Research takes a lot of forms and it can be just poking around a little bit.

Senongo: That's right.

Chris: Yeah.

Senongo: That's right because, as with everything else, somebody else has already come up with the solution or somebody else already found out what the problem was. I think something that I noticed quite a bit with the design industry, anyway, is this obsessive almost need to resolve problems that don't need solving or have already kind of been defined.

As I was doing a lot of this research, I'm finding all of these studies from 2003, like what we're talking about with the thematic versus functional AI. That's seven years ago, eight years ago that this thing was published. I don't know if any designer has ever really thought about this or read that research. There's all of this stuff that has already been found out. But if we don't look, then we're just going to repeat the same mistake over and over again.

Dave: No. I think that's a good point. I think we all can kind of imagine how to translate a website to a different locale. You just get the text different or whatever. [Laughter]

Senongo: Yeah.

Dave: But I think the point is, it's not just that. You have to maybe reorganize the whole nav. Now each local is in charge, has to have a tool or some sort of application API, some content management AP to construct their own navigations for what suites their users. That's pretty intense. It adds to the complexity of a website but it also could make it or break it for you.


Senongo: Yeah. One of the things that is also interesting to consider is some of these cultural variables, the things that differentiate national cultures specifically, but then also other online cultures. One of them is the way that people of authority are given prominence in a society.

You have some quite egalitarian societies in a lot of the northern European ones and even the United States to a greater or lesser extent. Then you have other cultures where people who are professors and teachers or politicians are prioritized almost to the detriment of everything else.

If you have, let's say, a university website in Denmark, it may be that the main navigation has teachers and then students. You kind of click on the teachers' tab and it's just an alphabetical list of all of the people who work there and their job title.

Chris: Yep.

Senongo: Then maybe you go to a website in a society that has large stratification. Instead of just teachers, you click on it and it's like board of directors, senior staff, teachers emeritus, assistant teachers, are all broken out into these different categories because it shows the social strata. It shows the difference between the different types of people that work there. Yeah, that's culture for you. It's weird in very unexpected ways.

Chris: That's interesting. There's no judgment there, right? It's just how things are over there.

Senongo: Exactly.

Chris: You wouldn't take this opportunity as a Web designer to try to subvert their society, right? That's not the time and place for that. [Laughter]

Senongo: No. No, you just go with it. It's fine. [Laughter]

Chris: Yeah.

Dave: Yeah, that power distance thing, I think I just read a Malcolm Gladwell book where they talk about power distance. They used the story of Korean pilots. A plane crashed and they couldn't correct their pilot, the senior captain, even though they knew there was a problem.

Senongo: Hmm.

Chris: Oh, gosh.

Dave: It was very interesting and had real-world consequences. But I read this and I contextualized it to my work. I was like, "This is why I have to make a board of directors page for this client," or whatever because in that organization the power dynamic matters.

Senongo: Yes.

Dave: It's a good thing to have but, Dave Rupert, I don't care who your board of directors are, but to people who are writing paychecks they do. You know? Or getting investors and all that stuff. That matters.

Chris: Hmm.

Dave: Maybe you have the right word for it, Senongo. That's almost like another micro-culture, almost, like a VC subculture or something like that that really cares about who the board is or something. It's very interesting.

Senongo: Yeah. Another fun one is to designers' second favorite pastime would be going on to other agency sites or design organization sites and seeing what they did. You look at the staff pages of different agencies or consultancies or whatever. How often, first of all, are only the senior leadership posted? That's always an interesting one that tells you a lot about what the organization is like. Second, even if there's a full list of all of the staff, how often are the senior people put first in that list? If you go onto the WordPress, like the Automattic site, is Matt -- I'm going to butcher his name here -- Mullenberg [sic].

Chris: Mullenweg.

Senongo: Millenwag [sic].

Chris: Mullenweg, yeah.


Senongo: Is he the first picture on their staff page or is he in the M section?

Dave: Yeah.

Senongo: It tells you a lot about the way that the organization views themselves and what the power dynamic is.

Chris: Fascinating. Let's look at it right now.

Senongo: [Laughter]

Dave: I'm looking I'm looking.

Chris: Yeah.

Dave: About us. Here we go.

Chris: Well, I see Z for Zeldman is last.

Senongo: [Laughter]

Chris: Well, no.

Dave: He's not. He's not. They do a face pile.

Senongo: Mm-hmm.

Chris: Face pile?

Dave: And he is not the first one, so there you go.

Chris: Who is the first one? Dan Robert. Hey, Dan. You're a front-end developer. High five. Sunny San Diego.

Senongo: Right, but--

Chris: Here's another one. I love this. What's that?

Senongo: No, I was just going to say, like, there you go.

Chris: Yeah, there you go.

Senongo: Some random dude is the first person that you see on their About page. That tells you that he's quite important just like everybody else. It's a good lesson.

Dave: Yeah, that's a very real-world example of the values are displayed in the About page, secretly.

Senongo: Yeah. Yeah.

Dave: [Laughter] You know. Secretly, they have manifested.

Chris: This is a good one. When I open up my phone, I have the contact like I'm going to call somebody, but I don't. I'm not using Siri or anything. I'm not going to type in their phone number either. They're in my phone somewhere. I go to some kind of contacts UI or something and I find them. Even my own wife or mom, I literally scroll my finger down to their name.

Senongo: [Laughter]

Chris: I do have a favorite section and my wife is in it and I never even think of it. She's the only one in there. I should probably just click the little star and click her, but that might be just me. I'm sure there are plenty of people that make heavy use of their favorites and stuff like that but it is a little telling of our culture.

In the book, you mention a little anecdote about Turkish people, their culture, and how it's just more prominent, perhaps, there that they have these in groups of people, like people who are just a part of their circle. If you're making a contacts app, perhaps that that feature would be, you know, like it's already in my app but perhaps even more prominent that you'd have ways to group your in groups for them. You'd probably have more success if you were building some kind of CRM or any kind of contact thing for that culture.


Senongo: Yeah. This was another one of those studies that's like, "Of course, that makes perfect sense," and you've got to dig through a research gate or whatever to find it. The researcher Bijan Aryana was looking at how the default UI in Android phones was structured for contacts and if it worked or not for Turkish users and basically found that because of the way that Turkish society is being much more collectivists and family-focused that a lot of the people that he put the user base against and then he had them draw what they thought would be a better solution for it, they kept drawing a way to group contacts by family, friends, school, rather than just the alphabetical list that existed in the default UI. The example, like we're saying, of how culture really kicks back against the standardization that we see so much in user interfaces because people, they needed this intense need to have their life and their social life, anyway, grouped by the in-group and the out-group and secondary and primary. The thing that they were given by an Android or whatever just didn't allow that and just found it so frustrating. It's a really interesting example.

Chris: That's a great one. Thanks for digging all these up. This is so good.

Senongo: [Laughter]

Chris: I hope we're not giving away too much from the book but the book is absolutely loaded with them, so don't think you got the best ones. We just kind of picked some random ones.

Dave: This is what I'm saying. Every page, it's just like, "Oh, I hadn't even thought. Okay. Cool." Try to log it into my brain on how to do it better next time.

Chris: [Laughter]

Senongo: Yeah. I just love the telling stories part. Even if they're these little anecdotes and they don't ultimately mean anything in the large scheme of the universe, just make people say exactly what you're saying, like, "Oh, right. Oh…" you know like something clicks or you file it away for later. Or, even better, you use one of those stories in one of your own design presentations.

Somebody says, "we need an alphabetical list for whatever," and you're like, "Ooh, I got a good story about this." You use it in a client meeting and your client is like, "Oh! interesting." You just keep passing it on. I love that part of the design process because it's not about the physical artifacts at all. It's how we communicate this knowledge to each other.

Dave: My coworker is going to hate this because that's my favorite thing to do is bring up some book fact I learned in a meeting with clients. This is great.

Chris: [Laughter]

Dave: [Laughter] I'm like, "Hey."

Chris: At least it's one better than this podcast I listened to last week.

Dave: It's one better. Yeah.

Chris: Yeah.

Dave: [Laughter] I was going to say or the question I guess I have is, you've written a book. You're very knowledgeable. You've lived in multiple continents. Is there one thing that kind of still gets you that you're like, "Ah, I forgot about this again"? Is there something, a boundary may be, that you sort of still struggle to see, to walk, or anything like that?


Senongo: I think, for me, and this is based on my experience, I grew up in Nigeria, for those of you who don't know, and moved back and forth between there and the United States a little bit when I was a child and then moved to the U.S. for college. The largest thing for me was, honestly, language because language contains so much information that you just can't communicate in any other way except in that language.

There is, in Japanese, kuuki wo yomu, so to read the air. [Laughter]

Dave: Oh, my favorite phrase! I have a blog post all about this. Go ahead. Okay.

Senongo: Anyway, there are these two comedians and they're talking to each other. It's on one of the Japanese comedy shows or whatever. Of course, they're having a serious conversation. This other comedian comes up and tries to disturb them or he's trying to perform his bit to them. They're just staring at him. One of them just screams, "Kuuki wo yomu!" It's like, read the air, man. Understand. Get the context. Pay attention. It's just such a funny little situation. He's, of course, immediately very contrite and he realizes his mistake because he interrupted them.

How could you say to somebody in English if they interrupted you? Could you say, "Read the air"? That doesn't make any sense. You say, "Excuse me," or, "Can you give me a minute?" or something like that.

If you don't know the language and you don't know the context in it, I feel like there's so much that's just closed off to your understanding of the human condition.

Chris: How fascinating.

Dave: Yeah. I think, "Read the room," is maybe the closest.

Chris: Yeah.

Dave: But even that is sort of like--

Chris: Not quite.

Dave: Only in -- yeah, not quite.

Chris: When people say, "Read the world," they say zeitgeist-y. That was a stab at that.

Senongo: Yeah. Read the room is because you're the one who is performing. Another very interesting thing I'll say in closing is that my biggest revelation, I think, as I was teaching in Japan was the responsibility of speaker and the responsibility of the listener, and found that very often in Japanese language anyway and for Japanese people who were learning English, they would see that the responsibility for understanding is on the listener. You are required to read the air and you're required to guess the subtext and so on. If you don't, it's your fault as the listener.

Whereas in English, the responsibility for understanding is placed on the speaker. If you don't get the thing that I'm talking about, that's not your problem. That means I screwed up somewhere and I just need to restate it. I need to keep talking until you understand. It's just a very different way of looking at the world. That helped me a lot as I was teaching because I would have to keep in mind that I needed to make things clear so that they could read the air from what I was trying to communicate whereas when I do design presentations here or speaking or whatever in the U.S., the responsibility is back on the speaker to communicate exactly what's going on.

Dave: Even just how dynamics can be totally different. That's a total inversion of that power distance or just an inversion of who is expected to bear the brunt of understanding.

Senongo: That's right.

Dave: You know?

Senongo: That's right. Such is life.

Chris: For someone who grew up in Nigeria, everybody, you'll be surprised to learn what an icon of scuba flippers happens to look like for someone who was born there.

Senongo: [Laughter]

Chris: You'll have to buy the book to find out.

Senongo: Yeah. Everybody comments on that one. [Laughter]

Chris: That's -- [Laughter] What else do you want people to know? You wrote the book for a reason. You were compelled to do this. You went through the process. I know how grueling it could be. You've got to have a little desire.

Dave: We all know how grueling it is, Chris.


Dave: We're all A Book Apart.


Senongo: Yeah. Well, I think the biggest thing for me, for designers anyway and for creative people in general, there's just so much out there. Even this, however many hundred pages, hardly touches all of the things that the world encompasses. Just to approach all of this with humility.

I don't necessarily like the word empathy, but just with eyes open, walking into these situations and being like, "I am definitely going to hear something new. I'm definitely going to research something that I've never heard before. This is definitely going to blow my mind in some unexpected way that I don't know about yet," and to really be clear that you are making assumptions. Just approach your design work accordingly is, I think, the biggest thing that I want people to take away.

If I tell those stories, that's to force people into that mode. They're like, "Oh, yeah," but it's kind of like a journey of exploration that I think everyone has to, at some point in their career, come to terms with. Just be aware that their mind should be challenged, I think, at every step.

Chris: That's great. That's probably a good place to stop. Maybe we could get a little Japanese sign off from you two. Maybe.

Dave: Yeah.

Senongo: [Laughter]

Dave: [Speaking Japanese] Thank you very much for everything. We really appreciate it. This is, again, eye-opening even though some of this stuff I'm very familiar with, but then some of this stuff is just like, "Oh, I hadn't even considered," so thank you for all that.

For people who aren't following you and giving you money, Senongo, how can they do that?

Senongo: Well, the first would be, of course, to go to and pick up the book. They are available and, for those of you who are doing a lot of work from home these days, it's a perfect thing to curl up on a couch with. It's a nice, warm, green color to stimulate your senses. You can also follow me online on Twitter, @sonongo, and LinkedIn, of course, for more of that professional vibe if that's the thing that you're into.

Dave: All right. Well, thank you very much. Thank you, dear listener, for downloading this in your podcatcher of choice. Be sure to star, heart, favorite it up. That's how people find out about the show. Follow us on Twitter, @ShopTalkShow, for tons of tweets a month.

Head over to and get a brand new one because people want to hire people like you. If you have been affected by this sort of sudden shift in the economy, please, yeah, check that out and let people know you're looking for work, too. That really, I think, helps on the Twitter and whatnot.

Chris, do you got anything else you'd like to say?

Chris: Sayonara.

Senongo: [Laughter] Ja ne, minasan.

Dave: (Indiscernible).

Chris: Uh…


Senongo: Ja ne, minasan. Bye-bye.

Dave: Arigato.

Senongo: Mata ne.