Are user experience design principles universal?

As an Asian, who was born in Malaysia but has lived in Australia for the past 15 years, and who has travelled extensively in Asia as well as the West, I am perpetually fascinated by the role that socio-cultural factors play in design. In particular, I am curious as to whether user experience design principles are universal?

Asian Design versus Western Design?

True that Asian websites, where once seemingly cluttered and incongruently colourful to the Western eye, and even though there are technical, cultural and linguistic reasons underlying such bold Asian design, are evolving towards simpler aesthetics in a bid to become more accessible and usable. Asian companies like Toshiba, Baidu, Taobao and Lazada are leading the way with cleaner, intuitive designs in an effort to appeal to a global audience but also changing expectations as shoppers in Asia become more affluent and digitised.

So, yes, while the basic tenets in user experience are universal, it is a personal believe of mine that it is also important that we make an effort to enrich our designs with the cultural and traditional values of our respective cultures. It is not just a matter of how cultural norms and diversity prevail in the way we design websites or mobile applications but also in the way we reimagine and then digitise how we reach out to, connect with and service users.

Case Study: Somjai, a Thai 60 year old stationery chain goes online

story that I read recently about a trail-blazing stationery chain in Thailand, which built an e-commerce platform to complement its brick and mortar shops, clearly illustrates this point. What is even more fascinating about Somjai, the stationery chain, is that even though the company was started 60 years ago and has an extensive offline presence with schoolchildren and craftsmen, the company realised that it had to invest in a multi-channel experience in keeping with consumer expectations.

The journey that Somjai undertook as part of its digital transformation is just as fascinating as the socio-cultural lessons, possibly unique to Thai consumers, that it learnt along the way:

  • Social platforms for engagement: Somjai used Facebook and LINE to test the demand, capitalising on the fact that Thais are avid users of those social platforms. Interestingly, they found through their testing that their customers not only enjoyed browsing for stationery via Somjai’s Facebook page, but also, given that Thais have a natural propensity for chatting, the online messaging services were popular with their customers and an essential tool for engagement.
  • Clean, simple website: The website bucks the trend typical of Asian websites, as aforementioned, and presents a minimalist yet polished front. Notably, the bulk of online orders come through from Facebook and LINE, as opposed to SEO.
  • In-house technical talent: The company hired the technical expertise it needed to building the platform in-house as it was important for Somjai to stay true to its traditional and trusted image online, too. The availability e-commerce talent is still lacking in an immature market such as Thailand.
  • New inventory management system: The Somjai team quickly realised that it had to build a new inventory system and infrastructure that could accommodate both online and offline demand, as they were unable to leverage the existing distribution processes, that is, utilising store assistants for fulfillment, to sustain the increased volume from online orders.
  • Partnership with Thai Post: The company is not only seeing an increase in online sales in Bangkok but also from other outposts across the nation that it has not historically served before. As such, it has developed a new partnership with
  • Supported by offline marketing:  To build trust with their customers, who unlike American consumers, are less trusting of online shops, Somjai has cleverly promoted itself through offline events and craft workshops.
  • Online payment methods: Somjai offers only bank transfers and credit card as payment options, which is generally acceptable to its young customer base, even though 70% of Thais prefer to pay with cash on delivery. It is worthwhile noting that the online payments industry in Asia is ripe for change as evidenced by the increasing investment and start-ups playing in that field.

Needless to say, it is a terribly exciting time for online retail in Asia as more and more Asian businesses digitise and in doing so, will be crafting their own unique contributions towards redefining the user’s experience, both online and offline. 


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