Being a UX Designer at a Southeast Asia E-Commerce Company!

For the past year, I’ve been working at a Southeast Asian (SEA) e-commerce company as a UX designer and I thought I would share some things I’ve learned about design in this market.

Think Locally

I came here already knowing that there was going to be a lot of design localization, but I wasn’t aware of the extent of it and how much it would affects my day-to-day workflow. The products I work on operate in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore. Designing a single product that can cater to all of them can be quite a challenge.

  1. The Languages

I’m currently based at our regional HQ in Singapore and we create all standard mock ups in English. The finalized design then gets translated by each local team into different languages. One of the common problems that we found was Bahasa and Vietnamese are almost always 2 or 3 times longer than the others languages. It wasn’t always a problem but often times we needed to redesign the whole module just so it’s more flexible for these languages.

This even happens with the pricing information. A product that costs SGD100 can be up to VND1,739,845.94 in Vietnam. That is a 9 digits difference. Before you know it, a design that looks clean and minimal can suddenly be stuffed with text when it rolls out to different markets. I now always get the local team’s help on translating the key content during the design phase. Using the longest possible language on the mock up and see how that fits before the design gets finalized is something I try to always do now as well.

Apart from the different lengths of different translations, how people read their language also needs to be considered. I was recently working on a category landing page revamp. The team wanted to introduce more image-based category lists, so I made a 3 column grid design emphasizing the product images instead of listing the category names (as we had previously). The number of unique visitors (UV) in every venture went up a week after the design was launched, except for Thailand.

I was confused at first, but luckily I’m Thai and I can read the language. I looked at the design in Thai and could totally see why they didn’t like it. Thai sentences don’t have spaces in between words, and having to look at that in a grid system made it difficult to skim the screen. Sometimes we just need to do a one-off customization, which although doubles the development time and resources, it is for the best result.

2. Information

Of course, there is information that is universal. Everyone wants to know the price of a product before they buy it, but some information that maybe less important to one country can be very important for another.

I was the designer for product tile redesign, and the product managers and I were discussing which information we can remove from the tiles because we wanted to highlight only the key information. I suggested only showing whether the product is ‘local’ or from ‘Overseas’ instead of spelling out where in that particular country the product is coming from. Living in Singapore now and having lived in the US and Thailand, it never matters to me if the item I ordered online comes from a different city. The logistics and last mile delivery nowadays have improved so much that the timing differences is almost unnoticeable, in my opinion.

screenshot from Google Maps

Later I found out that the reason why we have to show the specific city of the product origin was for countries like Indonesia and Philippines. The geography of these countries makes the logistic of product delivery much more complicated since the countries are made up of thousands of islands. The shipping location of a product can make a significant difference in delivery time and the return process time.

3. Culture

We also have to consider cultural differences in our designs. We run a continuous survey to ask people’s satisfaction rate for the app. We found Thai people always give us the best rating and we always get slightly lower rating in Vietnam. The customer experience team did some investigation to find out that Thai people are taught to be polite, and Vietnamese people are taught to be more outspoken and critical.

Now we know to consider cultural differences when interpreting our feedback data. Higher ratings from a market like Thailand versus Vietnam doesn’t necessarily mean we are doing a much better job in Thailand and there is nothing we need to improve. We also consider other market specific issues in our feedback data. Sometimes there are technical problems that only affect one market, and it shows in our feedback data.

Quantitative Data

I used to work at a SaaS start up company with around a thousand active users. Focus group, guerrilla testing, and usability testing was important for the UX validation process at the time (You would know if you read my previous posts). Now I design for an e-commerce product with tens of millions of users from many different countries and backgrounds. The validation method is almost 100% reversed.

We measure how well the product is doing by A/B testing and using big data analysis techniques. Watching the improvement in retention rate, UV, etc. depending on the feature is really important. With this method, we launch things first in order to get validation. Therefore, we can’t make big changes because it can go really wrong and we won’t be able to pin point which part exactly that bring the number down.

Sellers are as important

Working with brands and sellers is another thing we do. They both have almost completely different approach, scale, audience, and power. Brands sellers are usually quite global (Apple, Samsung, Philips, etc.) and they have their own localization methods. We need to be able to give them the flexibility to cater to all of their customers as well.


Local sellers are the people who we like to do usability tests with for our seller facing side product. I think getting insights from local sellers is so valuable because they have direct contact with the buyers, so we get insights from both sides at the same time. These sellers usually don’t only sell on our platform since selling things online is their full-time job for most of them. They really know what they are doing. We usually get to learn about the pain points they face on different platforms and what tools they really need in order to improve their sales in each markets.

Function before Fashion

This is a little painful for a designer but when it comes to the look at feel of the app, the users don’t really care. Since our platform is targeting audience who want to look for the cheapest price product that comes the fastest, those are the only things they look for. The color of the action button or the font style doesn’t matter. Minimalist design also doesn’t always work if the most important information is hidden. I have realized why all the e-commerce apps look so cluttered.

It’s growing..

Also, the internet penetration in SEA is still growing especially in our target group. People are not very tech savvy on both buyer and seller side, so having the latest and most innovative interaction is something we actively avoid. One of the first projects I worked on when I joined the company was to improve the campaign creation rate on the seller side. We want sellers to build more ads. The previous creation flow we had was somewhat sophisticated and we found that not a lot of sellers complete that flow. I then redesigned the whole flow and made it as simple as possible. I’m talking about 1 step per 1 page. After that was launched, the creation error rate went down by 10 times and the campaign starts performing 12% better within the first week. So again, function before fashion for now.


So it’s been an interesting year. I feel I’ve learned quite a lot, not only about working on a SEA e-commerce product, but working in a big scale company with big scale consumers. Will come back to share more.

Update: I started a company that makes user recruitment for usability testing in SEA easier (now focusing on Thailand). Check out Rice Milk Research if you are interested!

On another note, feel free to check my new project: where I interview creative young entrepreneurs about their local businesses and their lifestyle.

Thanks! :)



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