Archive for the internet culture Category

The Geography of UX: Why web user experience in Korea is not about the searchbox

Korean internet culture is unique. Or the internet culture of Northern America is not universal.1

User Experience: my definition

If you do an Amazon search for User Experience (UX) you get mostly web design related books. The web has grown so dramatically in the past decade that it is sometimes hard to imagine a time without it. When something becomes such an indispensable part of life as the web has become, it is bound to generate its fair share of frustration. Studying the users’ experience to alleviate the frustration and make a website or a web service function in a more “natural” way, or a more predictable way for the user is one of the main function of this bourgeoning area.

There are many definitions of what User Experience is, but for my purposes I usually define it as:

The art and science of designing satisfying and pleasurable experiences or interactions with an environment, device or a service for the user.

Recently, living in Korea I have stated to think whether user experience differs significantly between cultures – more specifically between Korean and North American culture as these are ones that I have first hand knowledge about.

I was asked the question, what makes Naver success in Korea and not Google? The underlying question is, why do Korean tolerate, or better, enjoy cluttered, chaotic interfaces over simple ones?

The answer is culture. But what of culture?

The Geography of Thought

In the Geography of Thought, psychologies Richard E. Nisbett suggests that there are fundamental difference between Western thinking and Eastern thinking:

In terms of world view:

[page 100] Thus to the Asian, the world is a complex place, composed of continuous substances understandable in terms of the whole rather than in terms of the parts, and subject more to collective then to personal control. To the Westerner, the world is a relatively simple place, composed of discrete objects that can be understood without undue attention to context, and highly subject to personal control. Very different worlds indeed.

In terms of recognition of object and context:

[page 191-192] Differences between Easterners and Westerners have been found in virtually every study we have undertaken and they are usually large. Most of the time, in fact, Easterners and Westerners were found to behave in ways that are qualitatively distinct. Americans on average found it harder to detect changes in the background of scenes and Japanese found it harder to detect changes in objects in the foreground. Americans in general failed to recognize the role of situational constraints on a speaker’s behavior whereas Koreans were able to. The majority of Koreans judged an object to be more similar to a group with which it shared a close family resemblance, whereas an even greater majority of Americans judged the object to be more similar to a group to which it could be assigned by a deterministic rule. When confronted with two apparently contradictory propositions, Americans tended to polarize their beliefs whereas Chinese moved towards equal acceptance of the two propositions. When shown a thing, Japanese are twice as likely to regard it as a substance than as an object and Americans are twice as likely to regard it as an object than a substance. And so on.

In terms of social relationships:

[page 51] Easterners fell embedded in heir in-groups and distant from their out-groups… Westerners fell relatively detached from their in-groups and tend not o make as great distinctions between in-groups and out-groups.

You are what you farm

According to Malcolm Gladwell in his most recent book Outliers, the culture of rice farming in Eastern Asia has a profound influence in the way we make decisions, as opposed to corn or wheat farming in the West.

Working in a rice field is ten to twenty times more labor-intensive than working on an equivalent-size corn or wheat field. Some estimates put the annual workload of a wet-rice farmer in Asia at three thousand hours a year.

Rice farming requires close cooperation with one’s family, neighbors and seasonal farmhands. It needs high level of coordination. It also requires a high level of sensitivity to the rice paddies and external conditions such as weather and pests.

What this process reinforced over thousands of year produces is Korean are naturally accustomed to multitasking and well prepared for informational saturation.

The Traditional Korean House

The traditional Korean house has separate rooms, but these rooms have doors made of paper on a wooden frame. The house also opens up to a public courtyard. Each house usually as a home for 3 generations.

In a Korean traditional house family life is highly relational, deeply involved and lacks privacy. Everyone has a closer relationship to everyone else business within that house.

In terms of the room, each room was multifunctional, used for sleeping, eating, studying and recreation. The room for the head of the family was the largest and called the ?? or the “inner room” and is where the whole family would gather to eat each meal. There are no separate functions such as the dining room or bedroom.

Social reinforcement

Back to Naver. I have neither the time nor the expertise to validate my claim but here’s what I think.

So given these facts we can summarize that Korean are:

  • More likely to be seeking contextual validity than objective truths
  • More social, trusting exclusive in-groups relationships
  • More used to complexity, multi-tasking, multi-functioning and information density

Users are not so much “searching” for knowledge as “validating” knowledge. Googling is an individual activity. Naver’ing is a social activity. Social activity is messy. This could explain the chaos and complexity of their homepage, and users’ preference for it.

Blogging in Korea somewhat validates this claim. Blogging in Korea is not about the expression of personal opinion as much as the reinforcement of public opinion. If you do a Naver search on certain terms it is not uncommon to find the same article in multiple blogs, sometime with attribution to the original author, sometime not. This is called 퍼가기 or drafting, as in drafting water from a well. The well, being pubic, and you are just taking good information and making it more public.

Korean are supremely concerned about what others think. An example is helping my first grade daughter do her homework. If it is an assignment from class, you can turn to, you guessed it, Naver and you can find the “socially validated” answer through Naver 지식인 (Ji-sik-in) or Knowledge-In, which is much like Yahoo! Answers and only about a thousand time more used. It is so used that you can ask the question, “Can someone order me some Chinese food? I am in the hospital and can’t leave my mother’s bedside” and someone would have answered the question within minutes and the food is on its way already (a true story).

Naver Ji-sik-in vs. Wikipedia

Some compare Naver Ji-sik-in with Wikipedia and discuss whether one is more useful than the other. This is missing the point. Both serve totally different functions. Wikipedia is the repository for nuggets of public debated and carefully negotiated knowledge, where as Naver Ji-sik-in is the repository of mostly trivial, however, socially validated knowledge. In this case, a piece of knowledge is more true if it has more people saying the same thing, or if it has more ?? or comments saying so.

Like Google, Wikipedia doesn’t do too well in Korea. In Naver’s Knowledge-In, when you ask a question, you get an answer. In Wikipedia, you add a piece of knowledge and others come and change it, edit it, and sometime delete it all together. Koreans don’t like this kind of confrontation and the process of debate and negotiation that follows. They prefer to say, here’s my opinion, take it or leave it.

Cultural Considerations

Many UX practitioners blindly use methodology imported from North America and translated into Korean. Jakob Nielsen and other usability practitioners over emphasize the usability of search, value of wayfinding and how users are so task-oriented. The whole field of UX is set up to optimize the user experience. The highest values are usability and utility. I’m not arguing that these methodologies are not useful, but there is always a missing chapter in these books. There are major cultural differences and these need to be recognized, explored and taken into consideration.

For example, in choosing a cell phone, usability and utility may be over-valued in the West. In the US there is the famous Verizon ad that has a bespectacled geeky-looking Verizon engineer going to various places saying (annoyingly), “Can you hear me now?” Here, the ad is obviously appealing to the value that reception trumps all other expectations. In my conversations with Koreans, the question is, “예쁘니?” which translated is “Do you think it look good?” Here it’s not just whether I think it looks good, but do others think so too. Highest value here is acceptance, not utility or usability. I have seen users accept and struggle with heinous interfaces simply because the phone makes them look good.

신토불이 (Shin-to-bul-yi) was the slogan adopted by Korean farmers (and political interests) against the opening of Korean agricultural markets to foreign imports. Literally translated it means, “Body and land are not separate”. The meaning explicit meaning for Korean farmers is that Koreans should eat stuff produced locally because our bodies have been acclimated to these foods.

I would tend to agree. I would love to eat high quality homegrown produce except for the fact that in this age of mass production, it tend to be more expensive than imported, and since a good part of what we eat is processed and packaged anyway, people don’t know the difference or don’t care.

I digress. The point being, even with something as seemingly ubiquitous and universal as the internet, regional and cultural considerations matter. In a big way.

User Experience Design in Korea
So does this have implications on how interfaces should be designed in Korea? As much as the Google is different from Naver I would say. As I have tried to propose, the motivations of users may differ due to culture.

Once again, this needs to be validated, but I would think that in Intranet designs in Korea, especially for knowledge repositories, the author, the social context, and comments by others are as important as the piece of knowledge itself. On the task oriented matters, learning how something should be done is as important as how it is actually done. I think you would find few intranets in the U.S. with commenting and strong social features. These tend to be a must in Korean intranets. There is a constant buzz of social activity you’ll be hard to see anywhere else.

KISS in Korea may not necessarily stand for “Keep It Simple Stupid”. It may more appropriately be “Keep It Social, Stupid”.


1. I have talked about Naver and Google based and cultural differences before in my post from Jan 2008, Strategies for Globalizing Korean Websites

UX for Good

Just launched a new blog which tries to bring together my often intersecting interest in user experience (UX) and social change.

In quite a visionary statement with far before the birth of the internet, Charles Eames said:

Beyond the age of information is the age of choices.

It is an understatement to say that we are today flooded with information. But what to do with that information? I personally believe it needs a purpose, and that purpose is social change for the benefit of ourselves, the communities in which we live in and our environment.

I do want to leave a better future for my two kids. Or at least leave them with the knowledge that I tried.

Cytogether: Cyworld’s Social Action Network

Cyworld\'s social action website

Cyworld's social action website

Recently I decided to take a systematically look at online social action sites in Korea, and whenever possible trying to arrange an informal interview with the sites’ manager(s) to gain a little more insight into their operations and also get a better general sense of the landscape for online social action in Korea. How is the internet bettering the lives of the less privileged in Korea, and how is it achieving social impact?

A couple of weeks ago, I netted my first site, when I had a chance to sit down and talk with Ms. Park Jie-hyun who is one of the manager’s of Cyworld’s Cytogether service.

Cyworld, for those who don’t know, pretty much dominates the online social networking space in Korea. Having launched in 1999 it boasts 22 million or over to a third of the Korean population as its members.

All things that go up must come down and Cyworld is no exception. Lately it has seen a noticeable decline in traffic, as it struggles to find the next generation of services that will appeal to the hyper internet-savvy Korean users. To add insult to injury, it has seen a string of failed launches abroad, due in no small part to its over-confidence in its platform and hence a failure to recognize and pay due-diligence to cultural difference in the way that users in different cultures use the internet socially. It has all but abandoned many of the markets it has entered abroad, and the US may soon be its latest casualty.

Despite its many ailments, one of the bright spots in Cyworld’s traffic is its online social action site, Cytogether or in Korean, ??????, which literally translates to: "a world of good relationships" or more meaningfully, "a world where we get along".

Cytogether uses the Cyworld platform of socially networking its members to achieve 3 main functions: online donations, online petitions and matching volunteers with non-profit organizations. It was launched in 2005, and has currently over 800 registered non-profits and NGO’s in its network. Users can choose to donate to these vetted organization by giving "dotori", Cyworld’s online currency, or by changing to their mobile phone service, which allows for monthly planned donations. Current stats show about USD 20,000-30,000 in online donations (monthly average of about USD 0.90 per donor), about 5,000-10,000 petition signups daily and about 20-30 volunteer matches per day. The most active issues on the site are children (abuse, education, poverty etc.) and, surprisingly, animal rights.

Ms. Park mentioned some of the challenges facing Cytogether:

  • All the duties of promoting, managing, vetting, organizing and improving the site fall on the shoulders of 3 full-time and 1 part-time staff hance the site is extremely resource-strapped;
  • Balancing the promotion of its 800+ member organization on its homepage is no small feat. Organization are always approaching them with "emergency" situations and demand that they be highlighted. Cytogether, to its credit does provide training sessions for its member organizations, organized on a quarterly basis;
  • Better storytelling of member organization causes, activities, and success stories. It hasn’t been doing an effective job communicating the human stories in a more personable voice.

Despite its challenges, Cytogether plans to perform a major update of the site, and focus its offering towards the end of 2008, and partner with a recruiting service to offer job matching services to the unemployed and senior citizens.

The current value of Cytogether lies in its ability to provide exposure to charity organization that would otherwise won’t have the budget or the wherewithal to promote themselves. Traffic is showing steady growth over the past 3 years, where at launch, the site was encouraging its members to give a couple of "dotori" (each is worth about USD 0.10), to now there are regular donations of USD 10.00. The ratio of one-time donors to monthly donors is also on the rise, now standing at around 7 to 3 members.

To me the issue with Cytogether seems to be one of focus. It’s currently everything to everyone. The argument is that it’s a "platform". But I don’t think that relieves them of the tough responsibility of championing key causes. Cyworld is currently too influential not to be using its influence it bring to light tough social issues. Does it want to be IKEA or Herman Miller?

It is also apparent that there is a possibility that Cytogether may outlive its relationship with its parent Cyworld. Just as Cyworld, Cytogether is a platform for activity, there really is no reason why Cytogether cannot be an independent service. If the current downward trend of traffic and popularity in Cyworld continues, it may be in everyone’s best interest for the two to part ways.

Walking away from the interview, my head was full of ideas for improving Cytoether’s service:

  • Donor’s wall: If you go to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, to the right of the entrance there is a wall of all the top donors to the museum. Recognize that some people (organizations) like to be recognized. A page could list large donations;
  • API: Go viral. Allow bloggers to promote Cytogether on their site through a widget or a badge. A widget can show causes/organizatios that they support;
  • Better member profiling: After a member donates, send a follow-up email with a link to a survey that identify what issues and causes the member is interested in. It can also ask members to opt-in for alerts. Building a database benefits both the users and Cytogether to provide more relevant content;
  • Targeted alerts: Based on database mentioned above, Cytoether can send targeted action alerts to those members who have opted in;
  • Matching donations: Corporations and workplaces can sign up to provide matching donations for employee donations;
  • Corporate badges: Cytogether can provide corporations supporting Cytogether "official" badges to indicate that they support Cytogether;
  • Stronger member networking: Members of Cyworld should have tools to alert each other to causes they support;
  • Better "minihomepy" integration: Member "minihomey" (which is Cyworld’s member profile page) should indicate that the member supports an organization or cause on Cytogether and encourage visitors to do the same.

I have no means looked at online social action in Korea in any depth, but from initial research, it seems, like many other things in Korea, to be dominated by large corporations and their services or foundations. Naver, the online behemoth, has a service called Happy Bean, where users register to accrue a "bean" every time they use Naver’s service, such as their email. Each bean is a matching donation from Naver of about USD 0.10 and users can donate these beans to a cause of their choice. This seems awfully self-serving and borders on being unethical to me. CJ Foundation (CJ is a member of Samsung extended "family") has Donors Camp modeled on Donors Choose (Charles Best of Donors Choose actually consulted on the project).

Despite this sad state of affairs, Korea does still have one of the most participatory online cultures in the world. And by all indications it seems like the online donations and participation is on the rise. My hope is that all that participation blossoms into social awareness and responsibility, and flows into growth of grassroots online social action and services.

The Velocity of Web

Last week I was one of 5 speakers invited to an in-house all-day training session at Design House, one of the most prominent design/living publishers in Korea. Design House publishes a variety of well-known Korea magazines titles which include "??? ??? ?" (Korean equivalent of Good Housekeeping), "Design", "Mom & Enfant", "Luxury" and most recently the Korean version of "Men’s Health."

I agonized over what to present, but in the end settled to cover the various intervals at which information is presented to us and that with the internet that interval is getting shorter, and its quality harder to determine.

At one end of the spectrum you have encyclopedias which take years to update and hold the most authority, on the other end you have services like Twitter that get updated several times a day and have no filter for quality. I present the various web services that lie in between these two extreme.

When there is so much information out there, how do we find the good content? To this point, I put together some short case studies of how information is being organized by various "agents" that act as content quality filters for the users.

The conclusion being, a trusted publisher, such as Design House, can leverage its brand and history of content quality to rise and become a "trusted source" on the internet. However, the challenge is to do it in a web-centric way that appeals to web users, and not in a print-centric way.

Twittering and the Future of Social Networking in Korea

Twitter: What are you doing?

Twitter: What are you doing?

Ever since I moved to Seoul last year, I’ve begun to post to Twitter more regularly. It started as a means to stay in touch and update friends I left behind in the US. I expected people I know to follow my feed, however I really didn’t expect people I didn’t know to become followers. Who would be interested in my mindless ramblings?

When I received notifications that total strangers were following me, at first I was a little distressed… then intrigued… then somewhat comforted in a strange way. They started to respond to my updates. Here were people who discovered me through search, or through other followers, with whom I share a passing interest which may be that we are English-speakers living in Korea, or interested in technology, music, or even Firefox3 etc., who track my comments and with whom I could hold casual conversations.

Jason Kottke made a really interesting observation that there is a trend towards making private conversation channels public and permanent. Blogging is thus a the public form of emailing, Flickr is public photo sharing, YouTube is public home videos and Twitter is public form of instant messaging (IM).

I always thought that with Twitter, I was just broadcasting my thoughts into the wind but when I started to get comments and followers, it did indeed feel more like public instant messaging.

The barrier for someone to respond to a Twitter post is really low. You don’t have to know the person, and they don’t have to approve you for you to follow their feed. This makes for looser more casual relationships, but no less interesting ones. The potential of services such as Twitter seems to be in its "discoverability" – the ability to find others who share you thoughts and start casual conversation, just by the fact that you broadcasting your thoughts publicly. One of my favorite Twitter spin off services is Twistori which simply track Twitters that begin with "I love…", "I hate…", "I think…", "I believe…", "I feel…" or "I wish…". It’s addictive to watch people random yet actual thoughts scroll by.

The dominant social networking site in Korea is Cyworld, and from stats, most of the traffic on Cyworld is between "Il-chon" or "approved friends/family". This reinforced the notion that Koreans are very closed in their relationships, and prefer closed social networking sites like Cyworld to more open ones such as MySpace. The Korean version of Twitter, Me2Day challenges that notion to a certain degree. Here is a site, much like my experience with Twitter, where users form loose relationships with other users they "discovered" leading me to think that the internet is a greater enabler of social relationships than I thought.

Now that Cyworld’s popularity is on the decline, they are fishing for new ideas. They had a terrible launch of Cy2.0 which was supposed to Cyworld’s next generation but after a lukewarm reception, they hastily demoted to being a lowly "blog" application tab. They are also in beta version of a 3D service not unlike Second Life. I’ve contended for a while that it would have been in Cyworld’s best interest to move more agressively towards mobile, because that’s where all the action is occurring, by acquire a service like Me2Day and moving towards shorter, more casual sharing of thought and comments to complement its more established social networking system. Instead they created a service called Tossi which is similar but doomed to fail, lacking strong integration with Cyworld and more so because it’s a paid service (you have pay for data usage). This is due in no small part due to a rift between SK Communications who operates Cyworld and SK Telecom which is its parent mobile operator. Sad.

I never thought that a service like Second Life would ever have much of a chance in Korea, but I am seriously having second thoughts (no pun intended). Cyworld is showing strong signs it’s losing steam and If my original assumption about Korean being adverse to open, casual social relationships can be overturned by services like Me2Day, maybe it’s an market just waiting to be tapped. We’ll have to see.

Just for laughs, I stumbled upon a hilarious role-playing conversation in Twitter between Starwars Characters (see screenshot below).

Luke Skywalker\'s twitter feed

Luke Skywalker's twitter feed