As a designer/researcher, I cannot help noticing the user experience of everyday things, services I encounter, and the interactions of people. When on vacation, I had even more time to observe and reflect on such matters. Here are some of my thoughts based on my observations from a recent vacation from the United States to Vietnam in March of 2018.

The customer experience of airline travel is disturbingly bad (e.g. United)

I think this is so obvious, but my recent experience on airline travel have only reinforced this. Where do I begin? We made the mistake of traveling from my small town of Rochester, MN, where limited options exist in the case of delays or mechanical issues. What could go wrong with taking a flight via United? Apparently, everything. Engine failure. Airline re-booking system failure. Losing two days of your vacation based on delays, because United cannot rebook you on other competitor airlines. After finally getting out of Rochester to Chicago, we get more bad news. More mechanical failure. Being told that we will not make the connecting flight. Told one thing and then another. Gate change. Oops. Back to the same gate. Ok, another plane will be rerouted for us once it lands, so that we don’t need to stay the night in Chicago. By now, you get the drift. Pain points at every corner.

There was only one thing that United did right as far user experience goes. There are actual queues at the gates for each group that boards. Group 1 line up here. Group 2, Group 3, and so forth. I cannot tell you how much time that has saved when boarding a plane.

When we finally got on a plane out of Chicago headed for Tokyo, the in-plane service was between average to horrific. We were taken aback by the insensitive nature of one flight attendant. I just needed a drink of water, and I was told to go to the wash room to get it myself. Whuut? Everyone sitting next to me just rolled their eyes. After landing at our destination in Tokyo, I can wholeheartedly say that I will never book another United flight again. Thankfully, the Japan airlines experience was much different. If there is one thing I noticed, it was how polite and attentive all the Japanese flight attendants were. I should not be surprised, since the culture in Japan is one of respect and mindfulness of others.

What is the solution here? Airlines need to hire service designers badly, and strategically act upon the findings. The end to end customer experience is filled with pain points. Here is a sketch of my customer experience journey map.

Journey map of flying United from United States to Vietnam

Cultural probe and ethnography

I had an unique opportunity to spend one month in Vietnam. So what should I do? A cultural probe of course. The last time I visited the foreign country of Vietnam, it did not look like it does now. Two years make a huge difference. All the roads and highways are now built up and running. Foreign investment is evident everywhere you look. The people of Vietnam are experiencing all the luxuries of western life now. Whatever you want to eat, you can find in the metropolitan city of Ho Chi Minh City, or the northern capital of Hanoi.

Stay in one place and chill

I am a big believer in immersing yourself in the culture of the locals like Anthony Bourdain tells us. One of the ways is to stay in one place and just chill out for a week, instead of taking guided tours where you are spoon-fed an experience that is unlike what the locals experience. They feed you differently on guided tours because they think foreigners will not be adept to the exotic flavors of the local cuisine.

Local food experience

One fascinating thing is that even though there are lots of different ethnic restaurants (Indian, Japanese, Korean, American, Chinese, Italian), the locals still prefer their own cuisine over any others. This is something I have noticed in America as well. Most Americans still stick to their tried and true (burger and fries, steak and potatoes), and do not venture out of their comfort zone.

Bun Cha Huong Lien in Hanoi (AKA the place Obama ate dinner with Anthony Bourdain)

American food

Speaking of burgers, I had trouble finding a decent burger place in Vietnam. McDonald’s and Burger King were the only two spots I could find. In America, almost half of all restaurants serve burgers. Pizza is popular among the tourists and the younger generation of locals. You can easily find a Pizza Hut and Dominos in almost every tourist district in Ho Chi Minh City. Business opportunity: American food. Can it work here?

Dog meat

Finally, there are places that still sell dog meat (Tít cho). I was told that some dog owners have had their dogs stolen from their homes, presumably for this exact purpose. As a dog owner, this always breaks my heart. Many locals in Vietnam don’t eat dog meat (with the exception of people from the North). You can easily find stray dogs as well as pet dogs with their owners on evening walks. I find this conflicting cultural dynamic of old versus new, north versus south, fascinating. Design opportunity: Can the traditions of the old (eat dogs) versus the new (dogs as pets) be phased out?

Vegetarian (chay)

Being a vegetarian is absolutely a wonderful experience in Vietnam. There are vegetarian versions of all the popular dishes, including banh mi and pho. You can eat at restaurants dedicated to vegans. Just look for signs with (nhà hàng chay). Design opportunity: America needs this now.

Banh Mi Chay – Vegetarian banh mi sandwich

Transportation

As far as getting around, it couldn’t be more easier. Scooter and motorbikes are still the number one mode of transportation for locals. However, taxis, Uber, and Grab have all taken a significant share of the landscape. People in Vietnam primarily use Grab (a ride share service similar to Uber or Lyft in Vietnam). I was already setup with Uber, so it became my number one way of getting around. It was cheaper than taking a taxi. If you feel adventurous (ok, crazy), you could rent a scooter or motorbike and try navigating the traffic. One thing that has not changed is how crazy it is that order comes from chaos when it comes to weaving around traffic. Roundabouts are everywhere. Pedestrians still cross the street with amazing resiliency in the face of peril. My biggest tip as a pedestrian crossing streets is to be slow and predictable. The bikes and cars will look like they are about to hit you, but will swerve out of the way. Design opportunity: How to design safe streets and traffic for all types of transportation? Traditional public transportation (buses that stop at designated routes) was nowhere to be found. Can the American modes of transportation work here?

Big grocery

Big grocery stores are popping up. One day my wife and I went to an eMart to buy milk and ramen. Anyway, you need to be aware of several things while shopping otherwise you might get culture shock. They really take shoplifting seriously. Security guards are in every second aisle. You need to check in your bags with security before entering. Make sure you bring your purse out of your hand bag. We forgot as we checked out to pay. How embarrassing was that? Also, fruits and vegetables need to weighed at a separate counter before checking out to pay. We forgot this as well. By the way, if you break something, you bought it. The shopping experience was not ideal since we were not aware of these cultural norms. Design opportunity: We take a lot of our North American ways for granted. Which system is truly more effective?

Designed for disposability and convenience

It is quite evident that recycling is not a thing in Vietnam. The garbage trucks that pass by to pick up the garbage, do not have a separate recycling pickup. At least garbage bins are becoming common place. It used to be that people just threw their garbage on the street. Go to any restaurant, and water is served in plastic bottles, instead of poured into a glass. Disposable wet wipes, instead of washable dinner cloths. Design opportunity: Although sustainability is still a growth opportunity in North America, it is an even larger design opportunity in Vietnam.

Why can’t I find a clothes dryer here?

I stayed in a few houses via AirBnB and through my wife’s family and friends. Inevitably, at the end of the week, you need to wash your clothes. Ok, Vietnam has modern washers, but virtually everyone hang dries their clothes. I am sure the fancy hotels have dryers, but I never stayed long enough at a hotel to find out.

This means hang/line dry
This means dry flat

What did this cultural research teach us?

Why go through all this trouble in doing user research? Empathy? Yes. We also discovered design opportunities. Staying for an extended period, allows you to experience life as seen through the eyes of a local person and not of a tourist.

Additionally, it is the importance of cultural immersion in a design team. If you are part of a UX team, you need people with diverse perspectives on your team. This is not to be mistaken for just being racially diverse, but including people who have experienced different cultures other than their own. Experiencing a different culture allows you to empathize with someone who has taken a different path. When making design decisions, this allows us to think about how a decision to label or make something might be interpreted differently somewhere else. Those people on your team with diverse perspectives can speak out, whereas a non-diverse team will not have understood the context of their decision fully. When you have culturally diverse experienced people, your team becomes open to more possibilities. The result is better designed systems and experiences. As the saying goes, you are not the user.