Designing For Users Across Cultures: An Interview With Jenny Shen

About The Author

Rachel Andrew is a web developer, writer and speaker. She is the author of a number of books, including The New CSS Layout. She is one of the people behind the … More about Rachel ↬

Email Newsletter

Weekly tips on front-end & UX.
Trusted by 200,000+ folks.

In this new series of short interviews, we talk to interesting people doing interesting work in our industry. Today, we are pleased to feature Jenny Shen who is a UX Consultant and has worked with numerous startups and brands including Neiman Marcus, Crate&Barrel, eBuddy, IBM, TravelBird and Randstad. She is interviewed by Jason Pamental, who has already spoken at our San Francisco conference. Jason is a strategist, designer, technologist, and author of Responsive Typography from O’Reilly.

The web is wonderfully diverse and unpredictable because of wonderfully diverse people shaping it. In this new series of short interviews, we talk to interesting people doing interesting work in our industry and sharing what they’ve learned.

In this video, we are pleased to feature Jenny Shen who is a UX Consultant and has worked with numerous startups and brands including Neiman Marcus, Crate&Barrel, eBuddy, IBM, TravelBird and Randstad. Her current focus is helping businesses innovate and designing inclusive product experiences for global users. She is interviewed by Jason Pamental, who has already spoken at our San Francisco conference. Jason is a strategist, designer, technologist, and author of Responsive Typography from O’Reilly.

In their conversation, we discover how we can approach localizing and internationalizing our websites, over and above simply offering a translation of the material. This is something that Jenny will also focus on in her talk at our Toronto SmashingConf.

Vitaly: Okay, hello everyone. I’m looking forward to having a wonderful conversation today. We have Jason with us today. Jason, how are we doing today?

Jason: I’m doing very well. I’m excited about this.

Vitaly: Oh yes.

Jason: Something new and fun.

Vitaly: This is new and fun. Some of you might know we have Smashing TV and Smashing TV is all about planning some sort of webinars and sessions and interviews and all that. We always look for new adventures. Jason, you like adventures?

Jason: Very much.

Vitaly: Who doesn’t like adventures? In this particular adventures, we’re looking into actually just having conversations. Like, you know, you take a cup of coffee, sit down with a person you admire or you like or you feel like they have something to share. You just have a conversation. This is not about slides, it’s not about presenting, it’s all about really just kind of human interaction between two people genuinely interested in a particular topic. And so, with that, I’m very privileged to have Jason with us today, who’s going to be the interviewer, and who’s going to introduce the speaker or the person who he’s going to speak with. We just came from Smashing Con, San Francisco two weeks ago. It was a wonderful experience because Jason would just come on stage, sit down, take a cup of coffee, work through his design process and stuff. And he’s very curious, right? This is something that you need in a person who can run interviews really well. You might see Jason more often in the future. Maybe, Jason, you can introduce yourself. What do you do for life? What’s the meaning of life for you?

Jason: Well, I suppose in the order of frequency, it’s spending time with my wife, walking the dogs which, most people see on Instagram, riding my bike, and then a whole lot of stuff about typography. Which, is what I was demonstrating when I was at Smashing, San Francisco. The thing that is sort of common for me that runs through is just being curious about stuff and learning new things so the chance to actually learn from more amazing people who are gonna be getting on stage at other Smashing events was too good to pass up. So, I’m pretty excited about this.

Vitaly: We couldn’t be more excited to have you. I think it’s time for me to get my breakfast. I’m sorry, I’m so hungry. I woke up four hours ago, was all about meetings and Jason will take over. Jason, have a wonderful time. I’m looking forward to seeing you when they’re wrapping up this session. Okay? Jason, the stage is yours.

Jason: Thanks, Vitaly. Well, I’m super excited about this for a whole bunch of reasons. But, the main one is I get to introduce to you someone who, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the first time you’re speaking at a Smashing Event? Is that true?

Jenny Shen: Yes. It is the first time.

Jason: Okay. Well, The voice that you’re hearing and the face that you’re seeing is Jenny Shen who is a UX and localization consultant who’s worked with all kinds of big brands including Neiman Marcus, Crate and Barrel, and IBM. In the course of your travels over the web of a number of years which has some pretty amazing lists of credentials. I mean, some things that really stood out to me, that actually I think kind of made you a little bit more compelling in terms of who I really wanted to talk to first: is that not only are you doing all of this incredible work but you’re also a regional director for EMEA for Ladies UX, which is an amazing organization, and you also started your own mentorship program. That teaching aspect, you know, I think is one of the things that I love about getting up on stage and giving talks and workshops and stuff. So, before we actually jump into what you’re gonna be talking about, I’d really love to hear a little bit more from you, about your journey from Taipei, to where you are now, to how you came to be in this industry.

Jenny Shen: Yeah, sure. Thank you, Jason, for the amazing introduction. Yeah. So, as you were saying, I started from Taipei. I was born in Taipei, Taiwan. My journey was…I moved around in a lot of places. My family moved to Canada and I studied there. I studied in Vancouver, Canada.

Jason: Oh, wow.

Jenny Shen: Yeah. I studied Interaction Design. At the time it was like Human-Computer Interaction.

Jason: Right.

Jenny Shen: And then I moved to Singapore and now I’m based in the Netherlands consulting regarding UX projects/localization projects. And just like you mentioned, I am a volunteer EMEA director at Ladies UX and I also run my own mentorship program in the spare time. Yeah. I’ve also been speaking in [crosstalk 00:04:59]

Jason: Because you must have a load of spare time then? So, tell me a little bit about the typical day for you if there is one.

Jenny Shen: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Typical day. These days I have more of a typical day because I’m working with clients and then I am basically just taking my to-do list and doing the job that can help the organization, can help shape product strategy, offer feedback to designers, do some consulting on localization, working on research. And, yeah, like a typical day I could be reviewing a design, giving feedback to my design team. I could be helping a client with more of an approach to hire a designer and I could be running a workshop on product strategy, like really talking about, “This is model canvas and valid composition.” And some days I’m drafting a user research strategy and on some days I am flying over to a different country to actually conducting on-site localization and culture research. So, yeah, there’s not really a typical day because I really do different types of work, types of projects, and I get to work with really amazing clients.

Jason: That’s amazing. I’ve looked at your resume. Your speaking schedule last year was incredible. You were at some of the best events on the web. You were speaking on all kinds of different things. It makes me feel so monotonous. All I ever do is talk about web typography and you seem to cover an incredible range of topics. That really is fascinating to me. And I love that your focus is so well-rounded in that it’s not just about UX it’s also about how design can impact the business. And that’s something that I think is really fascinating and it’s really starting to gain a lot of prominence with research from InVision and McKinsey about what design can bring to the rest of the organization. So, how long has that been more of the focus about business model innovation and all those kinds of strategic topics?

Jenny Shen: Yeah. I actually just transitioned from a designer to a strategist in a little bit more than a year ago. I’d been in the design-

Jason: Really?

Jenny Shen: Yeah. I’d been in the design industry for like six, seven years and I’d been doing, you know, wireframing, the same type of thing the designer would do. Wireframes, prototypes, icons, and stuff like that and it was to the point I really wanted to be more involved on the business side of things. Now that I’m in this role for like more than a year, I really see how being more business-minded and being aware of the business goals and how that needs to work together with a strategy and a design to actually move the needle. Really, the starting point just because I’d been a designer for like six, seven years and I really want to do more. I really want to actually see the impact of my designs. So, that seems like the natural step. And I think learning from a lot of experts from my community as well as going to different conferences and listen and learn from those people who do strategy and are leading design. So, I’m very honored to have a chance to be in those conferences and learn from these leaders.

Jason: That’s really amazing. I hope we’ll have time to come back to that a little bit because I think a lot of designers, as they advance in their career, really look for ways that they can achieve a greater level of impact than just this one project they’re working on. And I think it’s really hard for designers to kind of figure out where they can go.

Jenny Shen: Yeah.

Jason: So, that’s amazing to hear that you’ve made such a great transition. I can’t help but think that there’s a really great relationship between multi-lingual, multi-cultural and localization as this sort of central part of business strategy and how it relates to design and I gather that’s kind of what you’re gonna be talking about in San Francisco. Is that…I’m sorry, in Toronto. Is that true?

Jenny Shen: Yeah. So, my talk will be on moreover how culture affects the design and then I’ll also be touching on how…what are some of the reasons…how can companies benefit from localization. How can companies benefit from expanding to a new market? So these are the type of things that I want to talk about in my talk in Toronto as well as showcasing some case studies. How do reputable companies…how do big companies approach localization and market expansion? Because I have been doing this specifically designs with multiple cultures since 2013 and I’ve definitely learned a lot and then also learned from the companies who are really experts in doing internationalization and localization. So, yeah. I am really excited to share about this.

Jason: That’s really great. And I think for a lot of people, when they think about a language addition to a website, they kind of lump adding a language into what people refer to when they say internationalization. But I know I learned a ton when I listened to Robin Larson from Shopify talk about their work over the past year or so in adding multiple languages to their system. But the phrase you used was localization and that was the thing that really stuck out to me and what I wanted to ask you about because that was something Robin spoke about where it’s not just the language but it’s the phrasing and it’s the cultural things about other aspects of design. So, I’d love to hear more about what that means to you when you’re designing and the kinds of things that you consider in adding a language…whether it’s English and Chinese or Korean or whatever the other kind of cultural implications that go along with that.

Jenny Shen: Yeah. So, regarding localization, for me, it means in all kinds of ways how to adapt a product, an interface, an application to meet the needs, the preferences, expectations, and behaviors of the local users. Like you mentioned, it’s not just about translation, but there are many things from icons, from symbols and colors and sometimes you have text direction and of course the content…all these sort of things that can help a local user feel like, “Hey, this app or this software is designed with me in mind. It’s just not some foreign company…they only hired some translators and they expect me to feel connected to the product.” So, localization, that’s what it means for me and that’s the kind of work that I like to do.

Jason: Mm-hmm (affirmative) And so how often is that work…just for frame of reference, I’ve mostly worked on web content management systems. So, when that first comes up, the first thing that comes to mind is, “Okay. I need to add a language pack. I need to factor this into the language encodings for the theme,” and that sort of thing. But I know there’s a lot of other considerations and there’s a whole range of what people work with. From things that are sort of static sites, where you have a lot of freedom to customize things. But I think a lot of us end up dealing with either its an app infrastructure or a website infrastructure that has to support those multiple languages. So what kind of scenarios have you had to deal with in terms of the technology behind…you know and how you…I’m trying to phrase this better. You know sort of implementing that design and finding the freedom to change the icons to change the phrasing to chan — you know, to make it feel connected. Are you often involved in the technical implementation of that or at least mapping things properly?

Jenny Shen: So actually, on a technical side, not really and there is really different kinds of clients. And then some of them I come into a project and they have already things mapped out, and then usually when I come in is when they have decided a market, or maybe they are thinking about localization. They haven’t decided what market, but they have the infrastructures in place, so I can’t really speak to about the technical infrastructure. But then I’m thinking like what might be useful for someone to know about like why rolling the process, and how to actually even think about, “Well should we change this icon?” It’s all related to — We should think about the business case of localization. I mean we don’t do it just because we can we don’t do it just because its fun, but localization or expanding to a different market or supporting multiple languages. There must be, well, there should be a business reason behind it: is because we want to expand markets, we want to expand to a different market, we want to reach the users, and definitely we are hoping for some success matrix from that market. And if we deem that this is a market that is likely to succeed, or we want to experiment and then the users of that culture/of that market, and they have a strong tendency to let say go for applications that are feel more native, feel more intuitive. And as user experience practitioners like we know that designing the user experience like is going to make the users more loyal, more engaged. So its also considering like the user experience business matrix to decide: Okay, do we want to have this customization available, do we even want to customize it, or do we just want to go for like the minimum localization effort which typically is translations and content localization.

Jason: And so how often does it go further than that? So I mean the things that come to mind that we had kinda gone back and forth a little bit in the questions beforehand: language length, or color, or typography, or layout. How often does that come into play?

Jenny Shen: Mm-hmm (affirmative) That’s a really good question. I would say that it really depends on the industry, it depends on the company stage, it also depends on like where are they, what their business goals are. For just a start-up it’s unlikely that they will fully customize it. They may even not expand into multiple markets when they are just figuring out their product market fit. But lets say for a really established company like Spotify, Shopify as well, they are… they already have a like a market that’s a home market that’s doing really well, and they want to expand and for the — for some target market where they have a really distinct culture like Japan for example, where there’s a lot of different like influences and that can actually affect the layout or the localization element, for example, Singapore or China. And then we look at evaluating what is the — what do we have to do to be successful in the market? For some market, it might not be necessary, like maybe for some markets, they might require less changes than the other. So, I would say, this is a really — it depends, kind of [inaudible 00:17:06] answer to kind of, for us to know, what is actually required and how often does it actually go beyond the basic localization?

Jason: Right, and so in your role, sort of advising your clients on these sorts of things… Do you actually go so far as think about what would the team look like that could do this successfully? Like, what kinds of designers and skills sets you would want to see, to help them be successful?

Jenny Shen: Hmm. Yeah, in my experience, the localization team — then again, depending on the state, depending on — are they in the beginning of setting up the team? Let’s say if they haven’t gotten a team set-up, usually, there is a localization team that takes care of the localization elements, or maybe some, to make sure there is consistency but there is also certain customization elements with the differing market but while the other product team could be focused on specific features. So let’s say like, the whole market team will design the checkout flow, the localization team will then take that checkout flow and customize it for a different market. And, depending on the company size, some more established companies, they could have like the Germany team, the Netherlands team, the Nordics team, the Latin team, to actually hire people who are aware of the culture differences, of the local expectations, the legal requirements and all those things that can actually make or break the product. They either hire people on the ground, or they hire people with that experience, with that knowledge, in their office.

Jason: Right.

Jenny Shen: But there’s really multiple ways we could go about it. What’s really most necessary is people with that knowledge, people with that cultural understanding who can actually design for that target market.

Jason: That’s great. I think that leads into a couple of other things that I really wanted to ask you about. One is, I mean, your background is so geographically varied. How much has that influenced your career direction, in terms of what interests you, and the kinds of things you’ve wanted to focus on?

Jenny Shen: When I was still studying [inaudible 00:19:36] people always like set out their career goal, and what they wanted to be, in 5 years, 10 years, what I want to do. I honestly have never thought that I would be in this industry, in the localization industry. And, I really love what I do, and I think the reason why I’m doing this and maybe like, what shaped my path going here is just having curiosity, you know, towards other cultures and towards the world. I guess, as I traveled more and more, my mind started to open and to really understand cultural differences, the local ways of life. And, being a UX designer like understanding how important it is to have our product user-centered. Then I look at people who are living in other countries and I see, you know, what kind of things do they actually use: What kind of apps, what kind of website, and how that’s so different from what we know and what we’re accustomed to. That’s one of the reasons, curiosity. I really love to travel and I also have moved to many countries just to really be immersed in the local culture, really connect with the local people, try to learn some local language. I’m terrible at Dutch (laughs), but I try where I can. I think it really has enriched my life, it really has enriched my professional experience. I mean, when I moved to Singapore, that’s actually how it gave me the opportunity to design for Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia and countries in that region. When I moved to Amsterdam, I was able to design for Spain, and France, and Germany, and Turkey, like all the countries in this region. I feel very blessed and I really love what I do. I think, again, my curiosity and passion for traveling definitely have played a role in this.

Jason: Yeah, sure sounds like it. So, if you were to try and take — well, so, there’s two parts to this one: I’m wondering if there’s something that you would want, if you could go back to do differently? Like, is there something you had wished you learned more. You’ve moved into business strategy quite a bit more, do you wish you would have studied business? What are the sorts of things that you’re looking to fill in now, that you maybe wished you had learned earlier?

Jenny Shen: Yeah, I think about this sometimes. I think it might have been quite helpful if I studied business administration. But, at the same time, having a degree in design, and having a solid training background in research…I think that’s also a huge asset. Often times I talk to clients and they actually need a researcher. They need somebody who has done this a lot, and somebody who understands the science behind user interface, visibility test and how to like, minimize bias in the whole research process. So I feel like, maybe I should’ve studied business but at the same time, I’m also really happy that I studied design.

Jason: Sure.

Jenny Shen: But, something I’m definitely trying to make up where I don’t have so much expertise regarding the business side. It’s just that I am talking to experts in this area, I’m reading books and listening to podcasts. But definitely, if someone who wants to take on a strategist role, I would say that would be really helpful. Right now that’s actually something that, rather than the design and what tools to use, I’m definitely more interested to learn about the business side of things.

Jason: Mm-hmm (affirmative). At an agency I worked at a few years ago, a bunch of us actually took a Coursera class together, and had a little discussion every week about — It was an MBA focused program to learn about business models, structures, and what is the business model canvas and all those kinds of things. That was really fascinating, I certainly appreciated that. So, the other side of that last question was: your advice to designers who are looking to do more work like this. What are the kinds of things that if a designer wants to understand localization more, and start to move into this world, what kinds of advice would you have for them?

Jenny Shen: I think one thing that quite helped me to do my work in localization is just to be, again, be curious. Not just curious, and physically traveling. Let’s say at the designer who might not have the opportunity to go abroad and do a research trip in another country, we can at least look at international tech news. I still say in [inaudible 00:24:38] my contact in Singapore, and I read tech news in South East Asia, in Taiwan, in other countries where there are English versions available or at least in a language that I can read. You can also download apps or go on websites and really just try to be more aware of how designs or how the software can be different. And, definitely keep an eye out what the other companies are doing in other markets. That is definitely really interesting. We can follow that news like tech crimes to next lab, there’s a lot of news sources, just to keep an eye out and also learn on what people are actually doing regarding localization.

Jason: That’s amazing, great. That’s awesome advice, thank you. The last thing I’m going to ask you about — I think we’re probably getting close to a good time to wrap up but, for you, now, with all these things that you’re doing, what’s getting you really excited? What’s the new thing that you see coming that you’re really excited to learn about and incorporate in the work that you do?

Jenny Shen: Something that’s really new and really exciting… For me personally, I’m just really happy that more and more people are thinking about localization and sharing that knowledge. Like what you just said, Robin is great, and I really like the work that she does, and so people like her, people like me, who are sharing/ raising the awareness of the importance of considering the local cultures, considering the nuances when developing a localized product. Overall, I’m just happy that people are raising awareness of this issue. I really hope more and more companies who actually doing it would be on-stage, or like writing or speaking more about it so other people can ultimately learn from the successful companies. I’m sure like, Facebook does a lot of things, DropBox does a lot of things, but then it’s just that so far we haven’t seen people actively talking about localization or internationalization, so that’s something I’m really excited about.

Jason: That’s great. Well, this has been absolutely amazing, I can’t thank you enough. For anyone who is going to be in Toronto, I hope that — if any of you are listening, I hope that you take this to heart. Go say hi to Jenny, tell her how much this work has influenced you. It’s such a big part of being at these events to be able to people and learn more about what they’re working on. Don’t hesitate, that’s what we’re all there for. We’re all learning together, some of us have just read a couple of pages ahead, and we’re happy to share what we’ve learned. Thank you so much, Jenny, this has been amazing.

Jenny Shen: Thank you so much Jason. I’m so happy to take part in this, thank you.

Vitaly: Thank you so both of you for actually making it all happen. Wonderful interview and also wonderful insights from you Jenny, thank you so much for that. Just a quick note from me, this is just one of the little sessions that we have about people who are going to kind of speak at our conferences but also just interesting people doing interesting work. This is important. I think at this point there’s a lot of failure of highlighting people who are kind of passionately and working hard behind the scenes doing incredible work to change the world. So this is kind of just our humble attempt to bring a little bit of spotlight to those people. With this in mind, thank you so much for watching. Looking forward to the next one.

That’s A Wrap!

We’re looking forward to welcoming Jenny at SmashingConf Toronto 2019, with a live session on designing for users across cultures. We’d love to see you there as well!

Please let us know if you find this series of interviews useful, and whom you’d love us to interview, or what topics you’d like us to cover and we’ll get right to it!

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (ra, i, mrn)