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”.

Footnotes

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