In 28 years, I have lived in seven countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Romania, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Every time I moved to a new country, it felt like living a new life. And every country has taught me how to be a better observer and eventually a better designer. Here are some of the lessons I can relate to my design process.
Lost in translation
Language is key to conveying a message, but not all messages are understood the same. When I was in London, my roommate asked me, you good, mate? Where I am from, this is more like a statement used when someone bothers you. But in South London, this was a genuine greeting. Even though we spoke the same language, did not mean we used it the same way. Bilinguals are subconsciously converting their throughs into a language. Sub-culture is another influential factor that affects the way we manipulate language. As a designer, I must understand the user’s language and how they use it. This affects the way we design the communication of our system, and the most efficient system is the one that can communicate like a human. Not a robot.
Personas of the urban jungle
User personas allow us to know the people we are designing for, and nothing reveals more about a society than where they live. People of different countries have different motivations, needs, and frustrations. They are a result of their culture, values, and beliefs. For example, in Karachi, Pakistan, people love hanging out late into the evenings. Therefore, it is not unusual for restaurants and cafes to open till 5 am. In contrast, in New York, where I live currently, almost everything closes by 9 pm. I was shocked the first time I experienced this phenomenon because I used to hang out with my friend late into the night. Such information about how people behave is something I found crucial to the design process. No design has ever existed in isolation. It is affected by the people of that time.
The natural habitat
Problems exist in their mini-universes, and as a designer, I have to study that universe and understand its laws. For me, this contextual understanding of a problem was difficult to comprehend until I compared my experiences of living on different continents. Different factors influence the habitat of a country, such as weather, politics, and technology. Growing up in the Middle East, hot sun lightening the sky like an explosion feels like home to me. In contrast, London’s infamous grey weather and constant rain brought my energy down. Tinder is blocked in Pakistan because the political atmosphere is highly religious and conservative compared to where it was designed. Also, you do not see people glued to their smartphones in Pakistan like in the Subway because many people do not have smartphones. Hence, a lot of the interaction is face-to-face and more personal. Having lived in such contrasting environments, I am sensitive to the natural habitat we are used to. As a designer, it is my responsibility to acknowledge it and accommodate it in my solution so the users feel comfortable using it.
Inspired by the senses
Designers are usually visual beings, but that is not true for the general public. People’s experiences range from basic senses of touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. Furthermore, different societies have learned to utilize their senses differently. Being a South Asian, I love eating spicy food infused with caramelized onions and fried garlic. There is no way I can ever get used to using black pepper and salt to season everything. It is too bland for me. I have eaten a lot of pizzas in my life, but the first time I had a cheese slice from the corner of the block in Chelsea just felt out of this world. And don’t even get me started on the flavors you will find in Istanbul. I disliked Turkish cuisine because it seemed too strong for me until I had a kebab from a local shop in Istanbul. Similarly, fashion in London is chic and polished generally, compared to the streetwear culture of New York City. As an interaction designer, it is easy to only focus on the visual aspect of design, but the magic happens when more senses are involved. Also, I feel it is valuable to connect with the taste of the particular region — not everyone appreciates sarcasm and witty humor; I have learned that the hard way.
The nomadic life has been an enlightening experience so far, one I encourage others to take as well if possible. During the journey, I feel like I have lost some of the values and beliefs I was brought up with, but it has made me open to other cultures. Cultures that have shown me a different way of thinking I would have never learned any other way. I hope my experiences enrich my design process even further as I reflect on them and wish to have more adventures coming my way!