- Senongo Akpem’s website
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- Pixel Fable
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Andy Polaine 0:05
Hi, and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels, zooming out from thoughtful detail, through to organizational transformation, and onto changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine. I’m a service design and innovation consultant, educator and writer.
My guest today is Senongo Akpem, a designer, illustrator and the founder of Pixel Fable, a collection of interactive Afrofuturist stories. For the past 15 years, he has specialized in collaborating with clients across the world on flexible, impactful digital experiences. He’s currently the Design Director at Constructive, a social impact design agency.
The child of a Nigerian father and a Dutch-American mother, Senongo grew up in Nigeria, lived in Japan for almost a decade, and now calls New York City home. Living in constantly shifting cultural and physical spaces has given him unique insight into the influence of culture on communication and creativity.
Now, normally I wouldn’t go into someone’s background and where they’ve lived quite so much, but it’s important in this episode because Senongo has just written a book called Cross-Cultural Design, published by A Book Apart.
Senongo, welcome to Power of Ten.
Senongo Akpem 1:14
Thank you for having me.
So I’m guessing this is partly scratching your own itch, but it’s also because you’ve experienced a lot of times when you’ve been flummoxed by someone else’s culture. And most notably – actually sort of at the end of the book, but actually in the piece that you published on A List Apart – you talk about a story of when you went to Japan or when you were first in Tokyo trying to buy a metro ticket. Was that the sort of genesis of it, or was that just a really good story to start with?
The story itself is good. It was a pretty formative memory or experience for me. I was a college student. It was my second-to-last year of school, and got the opportunity to do a study abroad program through the University of Michigan. And so I’m just a fish out of water and showed up in Kyoto. I remember arriving on one of the airport buses at like 9pm, and they unloaded my stuff and they handed me a piece of paper. Like I said, this was before the internet on your phone, essentially. It was a printout of, you know, whatever it was those days, like, ‘get on this train, and then take this bus and you’ll be at school’.
Was it printed in Japanese or was it–
In English. We did take some intensive Japanese classes, so I had been studying the language pretty much five days a week for about two-and-a-half months at Michigan. But that doesn’t prepare you for anything except to know how much you don’t know. So yeah, it was very, very surreal, walking down into the train station and just standing there. It was maybe nine o’clock in the morning or something like that, rush hour’s done, and there wasn’t anybody there. I was just lost and it took watching these two little old ladies figure out for themselves how to buy a ticket, and I looked over their shoulders to figure out how to use the machines and push which buttons to figure out how much the tickets cost and so on. I’ve lived overseas in many different places, but not being able to do the simplest kind of electronic thing? It makes for a great story.
Yeah, it’s amazing. I mean, I’ve had exactly the same experience when going to both Kyoto and Tokyo. A friend of mine, an ex-colleague of mine, she’s just moved to Tokyo. Her name’s Bekky Bush. She just wrote a really nice series, actually, about running workshops and facilitating workshops in Japan and what it taught her about her own biases and cultural norms. She had that moment of all of the things about reading the room and reading people’s body language and stuff that you assume, from a Western perspective, is very normalized, which is completely different in Japan. And I’ve often found it’s not so much the big things, like, I don’t know, where you go shopping and so forth. It’s lots and lots of small things that make up the cultural differences as well. And you talk about this quite a lot in the book. You talk about culturally responsive design. People are obviously used to the idea of responsive as in mobile and so forth. Tell us what you mean by that. I’m kind of going through the book backwards, I know, but let’s start there.
So the idea is that, as human beings, we’ll often default to certain patterns that we’re familiar with – ways of structuring content, ways of designing user interfaces, all of those mental models that we are familiar with. Culturally responsive design asks us to take a step back essentially and say, ‘What are the ways that we can make our digital experiences’ – the ones that we create as designers, as content strategists – ‘much more malleable and allow them to fit different people’s perspectives, different people’s lived experiences?’ I think that methodology and that way of thinking has been pushed very strongly in the accessibility movement, and that’s obviously great. However, there are other cultural things that we can take into account. One very interesting anecdote that I found when I was doing research for this book – and that’s actually in the book as well – is the right-to-left and left-to-right experience. You have a language, let’s say Arabic, where we will – using the power of CSS and the power of HTML, which can do right to left experiences – just make sure that that’s all set up correctly. And without thinking about it, you may also assume that you should do the exact same thing for a video interface – make the triangle for the play button go the other way instead, and point left instead of right. However, because that mental model has been set since the time of the Walkman, essentially – that the play and pause and fast forward and rewind buttons point from left to right – it’s not necessary for you to localize and adapt that experience for a right-to-left reader. They just know what to do; you push the button. And so those are the types of things that, when you are creating culturally responsive experiences, you need to either research and learn or, if you do know them already, you need to design for them rather than discount them because they don’t match your mental models.
Yeah, and there’s quite a few other things in there. I mean, you talk a lot about typography in the book. But also at the beginning, there is a lot that you could say loosely draws upon the whole inclusive design boom. There’s a lot about really understanding people’s mental models. There’s a lot about being culturally sensitive. And there are things there that I think, if you’ve got some kind of an understanding, and already you think about inclusive design, you’re probably going to find it fairly easy to extend out into this idea of cross-cultural or culturally sensitive design. I just said ‘culturally sensitive’, so I wanted to make that distinction or ask you: why cross-cultural versus just being culturally sensitive or culturally inclusive? Am I just coming up with a different phrase or is there a specific thing about being cross-cultural?
I mean, I think it’s all part and parcel. The cross-cultural idea, I think, gets more into how we need to take active steps to make sure that what we design works across different people’s perspectives. I can be culturally sensitive in terms of ‘I’m just going to make sure that people don’t feel bad’, or ‘I’m going to be sensitive to their needs’. But what that often strikes me as is when people give the apology, especially politicians, and they’re like, ‘I’m sorry if you were offended.’
Exactly. I didn’t actually offend you. But if you were offended, I’m sorry about it, but not really sorry.
You know, ‘I’m sensitive to your concerns’. And so I think that’s great, and you should be sensitive to people’s concerns. But it’s probably – for the design industry, anyway, when we’re talking about how many hundreds of millions of people we have coming online every month, every year – we need to probably take an additional active step beyond that.
That was how I kind of read it. I guess that’s why I also went to the end with this sort of culturally responsive design. The cross-cultural part wasn’t just about being sensitive to one person’s culture – which of course can end up being insensitive to someone else’s – but it was this idea of flexing and being able to include many cultures and shift and change depending on the situation.
That’s right. And I think that there’s a number of things, which I again talk about in the book, where you can build patterns and systems to allow you to do that that’s not dependent on understanding one particular culture. Another example is, I think in the LA Times, they were explaining a change in public policy that allowed people to cook more food at home and sell it. Which seems like a very small thing, but people who want to go into business for themselves, and maybe they’re cooking meat pies or something like that, there were limits on how much they could produce for themselves, or how much they could sell on the street or whatever. And in explaining that they talked about banh mi, a Vietnamese dish or whatever, but then they had a little tooltip to explain what it was. And that may work for banh mi, but it’s also going to work for any Nigerian food that they talk about in next year’s episode of what laws are we changing now, or a travel blog or something like that. So we can build those patterns, and then just make sure that we fill it with the culturally relevant information.
And there’s some surprising things. I described your background and various places you’ve lived in the world, and now you’re in New York. And what was interesting – and I think anyone who’s traveled, and I’ve lived in other countries too – and still do, I guess. And that’s the thing. I don’t in some respects really think about the fact I live in another country anymore, because I’ve lived in Germany enough times and my wife’s German. But one of the things that was interesting about my colleague Bekky’s piece was you suddenly become aware of how many other cultures there are within your own culture and in your own in your own place. And you gave this amazing stat in the book. You say, ‘Maybe you’ve been asked to perform an interface audit on a website for US-based dentists, of whom about 24% are immigrants and 4% are non-citizens.’ That was amazing to me. So I mean, that’s just a good example of, when you start to actually dig into it, the idea that the norm is going to suit everyone really falls apart, particularly in very multicultural cities. I used to live in London, too which is very, very mixed culture. So you have these different dimensions that you talk about. Maybe you could describe some of these or all of these in the book, because they’re kind of very useful ways – sort of like lenses – through which to view cross-cultural design.
So the idea of cultural dimensions was something pioneered by Geert Hofstede, who was a cultural anthropologist, and he worked in big business – IBM, and so on – for many years. It’s important to have some historical context for this as well, in that the time that he was doing a lot of his work was right around the time when the idea of globalization was first really hitting us as a planet – so in the 60s and 70s, when companies were starting to become actually global, and they needed their workforces to also become global. This type of research about what it meant for different groups of people to work together and interact became a lot more important for companies. They needed to make money and still be able to do this work.
And so he looked very specifically at how different cultures worked and how they organized themselves, and how then they related to others. And the best way that he came up with to do that was these cultural dimensions. And so there’s power distance, which is the first one, and this means the separation between those who have power in a society and those who don’t. A very common example is do you call your boss by their first name or do you refer to them as Mrs. So and So? And the way that we treat politicians as well – do we put them on pedestals, or are they men and women of the people? The next one is individualism versus collectivism, so societies that value the individual – you know, the rugged Marlboro Man aesthetic versus ‘We are a group and we operate together’ – which is very much, as I found in my time in Japan, the way that Japanese culture is.
There’s femininity versus masculinity, and this doesn’t refer to the ways that we think about feminine and masculine in mass culture, but much more about how people care for and value each other. And there’s uncertainty avoidance, so how willing you are to tolerate things that are not set in stone. Long-term versus short-term orientation, how far you look to the future – do you value what’s happening now versus planning out quite far. And lastly, indulgence versus restraint, which is pretty self-explanatory. It’s how much do you spend on your own personal happiness? So I wanted to take those cultural dimensions and then apply them to the practice of design. What does it mean to build an interface for a more collectivist society? Maybe you use language like ‘We do blah, blah, blah,’ or you have pictures of people with their families instead of a solitary individual on top of a mountain going hiking or something like that. And so I think that they provide a really interesting way to look at what we can do in design, as long as we’re able to identify the societies or cultures that we’re designing for and where they fall on those spectrums.
It was interesting – I’m just thinking about the gender one as well – because I know in the book you make the point that you just made, which is those dimensions were developed a while ago and they don’t really necessarily fit how we are talking about gender, especially right now. But you use an example of Shefit. Shefit is a custom sports bra ecommerce site. And you’ve got these – I’ll describe it for people. So the homepage says ‘Join the sisterhood, get rewards’, and there’s a picture of women in sports gear, wearing sports bras, and they’re all kind of either doing sort of fist pumps or victory signs and stuff. I’ll let you describe what that is saying, and why that might be something you want to think about.
So I think in terms of that, what that specifically was starting to look at was how we display competition. What are the reward systems that we build into a UI? Now, one of the interesting things about the Shefit site is, not only does the page that I’m identifying in here talk about ‘If you join the sisterhood, you get rewards’ – so there’s some kind of point system – but then there’s also a big block on that same page that says, ‘Get 500 points on us free just for joining.’
500 crowns, right.
Crowns, there you go, right? So that it’s even more kind of elite or elevated. And then there’s also a little button in the bottom corner talking about rewards. And so the whole interface is built around this idea that health and fitness can be a healthy competition. You can participate with your friends, and although there’s points involved and you can get these crowns and you can win stuff, it’s not this solitary venture. You don’t have to be out there running a marathon by yourself; you can be there with your sisters. And so it’s just a very interesting way of framing unhealthy competition in a very healthy way.
Although, what is interesting about it – and the reason why I can pick that one out or it stood out for me – was this idea that competition and comparison are a core part of the user experience and that, in those dimensions, they are traditionally considered masculine qualities, right? That’s why I was pulling it out, because it’s one of those things where you’re not really talking about gender, but you’re talking about the traditionally perceived ideas of gender or the characteristics of gender, rather, and how they play out. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, I think so. And another interesting thing is that, because all of this is on a spectrum, these cultural variables, it’s never an all-or-nothing thing. And so you’ll often have societies that fall somewhere in the middle, but then you also have other variables which in many ways compete. It’s a very tangled web, as they say, and so you can have a very individualistic society, and that may influence the way you design things, and then you have a more feminine society as well, and some of those things will be part of it. And the last point that I’ll make about that is – and I say this as well in Cross-Cultural Design – that Hofstede’s research was very much focused on national culture. What we’re seeing today, especially with the way that the internet has blossomed into this weird, slightly scary thing is, the idea of national cultures – while it’s of course still valid and still true – is I think starting to break down as people form these smaller tribes that have their own cultural characteristics, both online and offline. And so, you know, Reddit is a great example of a completely country-agnostic culture, if you will, that exists online. Twitter is another one. But even other examples, like Shefit, you know – they are forming a culture which is independent, essentially, of the national culture that they’re from.
I mean, it’s interesting because we’re living in an age where there’s this amazing juxtaposition and dissonance in a sense that, on the one hand, the internet or connecting everyone together has created these niches. There are groups of people who are like minded and it doesn’t matter if I was into miniature horses – I don’t know why I came up with that, but there we go. In my small town in Germany, I might find one or two other people if I’m lucky, but worldwide I find my tribe, my group and then we can kind of dive into that online. You get that typically in popular culture. You get people – Trekkies and the whole thing, right? And at the same time, we’re living in an age where everyone’s literally putting up walls or kind of de-federalizing in some respects or de-globalizing, and putting up barriers. Although, we’re speaking at the time of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak that suddenly reminded everyone that that doesn’t respect any boundaries at all.
So you’ve got this kind of thing. Are there any examples that you have where – well, there’s two things I guess I’m interested in: one is where a brand has rolled out globally and completely failed in another culture because they haven’t done this.
There’s a million of these.
Let me rephrase that. Do you have a good story of one? And what might they have done differently?
There is the classic story of the IKEA cataloguein Saudi Arabia, which is probably slightly apocryphal, but it’s a good story, so we can go with it. Essentially, for those who don’t know, there was an uproar some years ago, where IKEA had produced a cataloguefor the West. And it was pictures of, you know, a mom and a dad and a kid or whatever, in their IKEA home with nice furniture, and it’s all very nicely put together. We all know the aesthetic. And in the catalogueand the pictures for the Saudi market, they had photoshopped out the mom. And so it was just the dad and the kid – for cultural reasons, you know, the showing of women in that way, perhaps more skin than is culturally acceptable and so on. It wasn’t good for their market. So instead of just taking some more pictures at that photoshoot – you’ve already paid the photographer, you’ve already paid the models, you have everything set up; just take some photographs of the guy and his kid – what they did instead was they paid a designer to Photoshop out the woman. I mean, there’s other examples like that. I know there’s one from Microsoft where I think they darkened a white person’s skin to make them look black. You know, all these types of things where if they had just done a little bit more upfront, I think they would have not had that cultural faux pas. If they had just chosen a different photograph or cropped it slightly differently, then their cataloguewould have gone unnoticed and it would have worked brilliantly for the Saudi market and then also the Danish market or whatever it was.
There was a university – I think it might have been in France, but I could be wrong, could have been in the States – that did this thing where they had a picture of a load of students, and they darkened the skin of some of them because they wanted to make it come across more multicultural. It’s such a kind of weird loop to have got into, which is ‘We wanted to be more diverse so we’re going to Photoshop people’s skin darker’, instead of actually being more diverse, right. And then, of course, someone who was in one of those photos said, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ and they kind of outed them and it backfired. All of which kind of says – and both of those examples are good examples of doing the work upfront, of being prepared. Because it seems to me that part of what you’re saying in the book is not so much to design for every single culture you possibly can. It’s set up your system, set up your way of thinking, set up your process to be prepared and be resilient. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, I think that that’s a huge part of it. There’s so many things that we have to do as designers, so many things that we’re trying to account for in our heads – icon sets and color schemes. The cognitive workload is so high now for the work that we do. We’re falling back on design systems which spell out by the half pixel where we should be placing things. So it’s okay to plan ahead. It’s okay to think about these things beforehand. We’ve all experienced it’s two hours before you go live, and you still have a 50-item punch list of things to do. And you’re like, ‘Oh, crap, I need to find a culturally relevant image. I’m just going to darken some of these faces.’ You know, so planning the things ahead of time. Hopefully this book – and there are other ones as well – will help people figure out where they should be planning ahead of time.
The classic argument is going to be – you know as a designer that you will probably have had this discussion where you’ve said, ‘You know, we’re going to need to spend some time working on this upfront’ and someone said, ‘We just don’t have the time and budget for that. It’s not really so important. That’s not a big part of our market’ and so forth. What’s your response to that?
I would say that that’s going to come up all the time, and I can’t think of very many clients or managers, business owners or whatever, who are going to be like, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea; you have free rein to just go and do whatever you need to do, and here’s a bag of money. Have at it.’ Apple, maybe? But even then they’re pretty cutthroat in how they approach their business and their bottom lines. So there’s always going to be those push and pull situations with your managers and with clients and so on. And just like we want to make sure that they understand if they are, for example, a museum and they’re launching a new website, and they don’t account for accessibility, they might get sued – which there was just a Supreme Court case in the United States where Domino’s lost at the highest court of the land.
That was the case of the blind guy who sued them, right, for their site not being accessible?
How many millions of dollars did they spend when they could have just paid a group of accessibility professionals a little bit extra money to do the work. It’s amazing. So I would say there’s always going to be that for designers. And the point is just to make sure that you are clear about what you can actually do. If it’s only going to be localizing icon sets, be honest about that – don’t pitch it as ‘we’re going to make the entire thing culturally responsive’. You know, if you can’t translate an entire website, that’s okay; choose the one page or the two pages that are going to be appropriate for your different audiences, and translate those. So I think for designers, just being honest about what you can actually do, and then pitching that to your clients or your stakeholders is probably a way that you’re going to get stuff done.
So in that trade off, if there was sort of one, two or three things that you think well, okay, there’s always time and budget constraints, what would be the one big thing or a couple of big things that you think ‘if you’re going to do anything, do this’.
I knew it was coming. I had a feeling you might say that.
Because if you haven’t done any research and you get to the ‘Woo, I’m going to localize my icons’, you have no idea what you’re talking about. So just don’t, you know. Just save your time doing guerrilla research – really, really just simple – upfront, like ‘I’m going to talk to people’. Something that we’ve done before is, in order to localize a site into a different language, just put out a call on LinkedIn and say, ‘I need the user experience professionals who speak X language. Is there anybody out there who can help me? I’ll give you a few hundred bucks, or whatever your rate is.’ Just start with at least some frame of reference for your research, and then you can start to make your design decisions after that.
The good thing about that is, if you do a kind of a testing session or validation session and record that, that stuff becomes incredibly compelling for making the case to stakeholders of why they should be putting a bit more time and effort into this. Because if you see someone massively struggling to use a site or you see someone just go, ‘Oh my god, this is so offensive’, that triggers response often quicker than a designer saying, ‘You know, I think it’d be nice if we did.’
So listen, we’re coming up to time. As I mentioned, before we started recording, the show is called Power of Ten – after the Eames film Powers of Ten, which is all about the relative size of things in universe – and it’s really about design operating at different levels and how small things can have an outsized difference or big things going on in the world. As we’re speaking right now, everyone’s working remotely, for example, because of the coronavirus. It’s kind of suddenly made everyone realize what it’s like to be like me, which is to work remotely most of the time. And that has a ripple effect down to individual touchpoints. So I imagine there’s a lot of people right now who are realizing how terrible the in-house corporate video conferencing tools are, for example. What one small thing can you think of that’s either undervalued or underappreciated that has a big effect on things and is well designed, or one small thing that really should be redesigned that would have an outsized effect on the world?
It’s a great question. I think that my answer is much more rooted in the physical world than it is in the digital world. And I’ll just give you a quick example. I live in Astoria in Queens in New York City. And New York still hasn’t come to terms with the fact that its car culture needs to die. There are way too many cars on the street. The police are not proactive at all about ticketing people, even the speed cameras and so on. People can get, you know, 10 or 15 tickets, their cars are not impounded, and it’s just like we’re suffocating in these metal hunks. They just sit there on the street. Anyway, it’s a personal peeve of mine about how dangerous it is to walk on the streets. And Astoria is no exception. There’s a street, Broadway, which is 10 blocks away. And a few years ago, I was crossing the street, I had the green, I’m just walking along, it was raining a little bit and I had my umbrella. And this guy almost runs me over in his car. He didn’t see me, so of course I whipped my umbrella out, and I’m banging on his car, screaming at him. swearing at him. He almost killed me, you know?
Of course, because you live in New York.
It’s my right to cross the street when I want to, and I have the green light. And of course, he was upset, but also he knew that he was in the wrong. But what do you do in that situation? Do I ask him to get out of the car and we fight? There’s no upside for anybody. So he drives away and now I’m frustrated. I walk across the street. Everybody’s staring and they’re like, ‘Man, that guy almost got hit by a car.’ Well, a few months ago, I’m walking on that same corner and I realized what the Department of Transportation has done. They’ve got these – they’re probably about a meter and a half, maybe two meters long – kind of like plastic road bumps that are yellow and black striped, just made out of plastic. And they just drilled them down into the asphalt. They’ve put them at angles, so that the car turning from Crescent onto Broadway can’t make that sharp turn anymore; they have to go all the way out and then turn – almost at a 90-degree angle. It makes it impossible to just run over somebody as you’re cutting the corner.
Because you’ve got a little bit of buffer space.
Yep. And so even if you go at full speed, like you’re going to hit that bump. And so it’s just a small thing, but just adding two of those without changing the light timers, without painting more zebra crossing, it has reduced the speeds at that corner so dramatically that now people are like, ‘Oh, I can cross the street when I have the green.’ So my answer to the small thing that I would change is just first of all more of that, and then one step up would be finding ways to just eliminate car parking on streets. I want to plant trees instead of having space for these metal hulks. There are all of these small interventions that I think the city can do and they’re not doing mostly because they’re so beholden to this mythical car culture. I mean, the majority of people in my neighborhood don’t drive and don’t have a car. Where are these cars coming from? They just sit there.
It’s a generational shift. What’s it like right now? Have you even been outside to see? Is it quiet on the streets?
It’s getting a lot quieter. I know that they said train ridership is down 10%. Of course, that probably means that more people are getting in their cars, but it’s definitely quieter. We’ll see.
Lots of cycle paths everywhere here. It’s very good.
Yeah. And I’ve heard that Paris is doing a great job as well. I mean, they’ve managed to reduce their car parking or something like that by 30% over the past 10 years. I mean, it’s just amazing.
Well, one of the ways of getting rid of cars in the city is to get rid of cars in the city. Everyone forgets that Amsterdam wasn’t always like it is now, that they made a decision. There was a whole campaign. It was actually a whole campaign about ‘stop killing our kids’ that kind of swung public opinion – I think it was in the 60s – to switch Amsterdam from a car city to a cycle city. Because the general thing is obviously people go, ‘Yeah, but we’re not Amsterdam’, but Amsterdam wasn’t always Amsterdam.
That was a very good small thing – and a big thing, actually – that would have an outsized effect. Congratulations on the book. It feels sort of more needed now than ever. You can be found at senongo.net. And also on Twitter, you are @senongo. I’ll put all the links in the show notes. Pixel Fable is also @pixelfable on Twitter, which is really nice to see. Now I’ve discovered that I’m going to show that to my daughter. Anywhere else people should look for you?
I think that those are probably the big ones. Of course, if they pick up the book, it’s at abookapart.com. We’d love to hear people’s reactions. Just email me, hit me up on Twitter, send me a picture of you holding the book – whatever it is, we’d love to hear what you think.
Thanks so much for being my guest on Power of Ten.
All right, thank you.
You can find the transcript to Power of Ten on thisishcd.com, where you will also find the other podcasts on the network. My name is Andy Polaine. You will find me online as @apolaine on Twitter and most other places, and also polaine.com. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.