The second in our series of 'The Culture of Techology' blogs from our Head of Innovation, Hadrien Jouet, looks in more detail at his experience in South Korea and observations about how this culture uses digital technology.
Naturally user behaviour and web development and design vary significantly across geographic and cultural boundaries. We asked Hadrien to look at this in more detail throughout his travels, investigating how businesses and users maximise on the Internet globally.
"South Korea has one up on the UK with some of the world's fastest Internet connections.
"On the other hand, while the Internet is fast, South Korea operates a certain level of censorship, deeply rooted in a somewhat overprotective, relatively conservative culture. Certain websites simply aren’t accessible, opinions are sometimes filtered (not that this doesn’t happen in other countries too) and websites like YouTube have their bandwidth capped. Most websites requiring registration will require your national ID to verify your identity. In fact, the South Korean government constantly pushes Internet giants to enforce these rules. This can be very costly, and the result is that a lot of websites have entirely different versions just for South Korea, or simply don’t exist there (Amazon for instance).
"So how does this affect usability and the general experience on the Internet?
"One of the first things you notice a lot on Korean websites is the abundance of images, even images used to display text. This is a practice a lot of web agencies have moved away from for quite some time now, for a number of different reasons. The main one being the unnecessary bandwidth it requires - but why would you care when your Internet connection can load 10 megs of data in the blink of an eye? Issues arise in that you can’t copy-and-paste or use Google translate, and if you’re planning on having a truly global presence this becomes a fairly restrictive factor.
"Then you have character encoding. A large majority of Korean websites don’t explicitly specify what language they’re in. So on a Korean operating system you’ll be perfectly fine since it defaults to the Korean character set, but try it on another machine and you’ll see ‘?????’ all over the place (Firefox and Chrome allow the user to set character encoding manually which can come in handy).
"What's more, if you’re going to purchase something on a site, in 90% of cases, you will be asked to install a piece of software to 'ensure your protection'. This is never the same piece of software from site to site, it’s buggy, and well, generally rather hostile. It also requires the visitor to use Internet Explorer, and in case you’re not aware of it yet, Internet Explorer is often not the friendliest of browsers.
"All these points refer specifically to my experiences in South Korea, but it’s the general idea that really matters. It’s how much of an international presence you want to have, how willing you are to implement technology properly to make yourself more accessible in the international scene.
"And then you have design considerations - the way you organise your website and what you want your users to see first. Different cultures, with different alphabets and customs, will react very differently to colour palettes, text density, the position of menus and calls-to-action, etc.
"Another important factor if you want to integrate third-party services to your website is how accessible those services are to your target countries, how familiar they are with these technologies and functionalities, and if these services are even used at all. For instance we take Google (and its various services) for granted. A large majority of people in the Western world will assume other people simply use Google, or other such major services, the same way they do. While it’s generally true on a relatively local scale, things change across cultures.
"For example, here are some services we in the West would tend to use against the South Korean counterparts below:
"We can see they behave very differently and that information is not presented in the same way. I personally find them quite reminiscent of Yahoo’s older days, but interestingly enough this sort of “one page with everything” design is very common, even in the streets, on restaurant menus etc, and while this may seem rather confusing to us, it’s funny to see that Koreans find our “empty” designs more perplexing, even though we’d generally promote them as a lot simpler to use.
"Businesses wishing to operate internationally need to be aware that sites such as Twitter or Yelp aren’t used in South Korea, so you must think carefully before you put too much value on integrating a third-party service.
"My advice - make sure your target audience will see the value in what you’re presenting to them, and that you’re not simply forcing your own trends upon your users. Personally, I believe this should apply when developing any web application and that's why great digital agencies like After Digital invest such time into understanding each client's business and users."
In Part 3 of "The Culture of Technology" Hadrien moves to Vancouver, Canada, and describes his observations so far within this new and exciting city, drawing comparisons from his experiences in San Francisco, Busan and the UK.