Interview by John Maeda @ Publicis Sapient
We bridge strategy and engineering.
JM: The world is looking to Asia for how to manage towards recovery in the C-19 era.
First of all, how have you seen conditions changing in the last month on a personal level, and for businesses over there?
As always, Asia Pacific is a patchwork of individual country situations: China has reacted very strongly with one-of-a-kind control measures that have proven amazingly effective — putting politics aside helps recognize what has actually worked to an amazing degree.
Korea’s test-at-scale policy has paid off. Japan has mysteriously flattened the curve, but trust in the government has been long affected. Singapore did amazingly well, with a huge oversight. All in all, the best and the worst of each country has been exposed.
On the ground, situations vary greatly. China is essentially back to normal — with masks on-, offices, and restaurants are open, business trips have resumed (I’m writing this on a plane between Shanghai and Beijing), Mercedes sales for April are similar to last year’s; Japan is under a highly flexible lock-down, relying on individual civil responsibility; Singapore is closed and tightly controlled.
Businesses are not set up to support the new demands they are experiencing. Whether it’s airlines managing the mass influx of refund and credit requests, groceries whose supply chains are struggling and websites that are crashing, the need to provide digital solutions has gone from important to essential.
Internal organizations are not set up to work remotely and the use of zoom and other interactive medium for hours on end is straining productivity and slowing progress. So we’re helping our clients to better leverage remote ways of working, and introducing new tools and approaches for them to better manage their business is becoming the norm. The “blur” between days and weeks, work days and weekends, is being noted by many. The increase in headaches and discussions around the need to “take a break” for mental health is a fantastic step forward. Mental reprieve is so important to productivity. I would like to see the openness and sharing around mental health continue post the crisis. In Australia we are in month 2 of lock-down, while for Singapore and Japan this is month one and you can see the curve of adjusting to our new norm that everyone is going through.
If Asia Pacific has advantages dealing with COVID-19, I suspect it’s through quickly understand other people’s movements. Systems and patterns of collective human behavior are well set in Asian markets, primarily because this has always been a fast moving, mobile-first region.
For example, contactless payment is sophisticated and widespread. In some markets it has been the key ingredient in enabling those otherwise presumed to be un-bankable. In others, cash is all but shunned by retailers and restaurateurs alike. So, creating a circuit breaker at the payment stage of retail was largely already there and easy to standardize, if not.
What has been personally interesting is seeing this stream of micropayment having societal value. It’s a visible use-case for my data, with an undeniable value exchange. It also comes at a time when the ethics of data collection and its use through customer data platforms (CDP) is a big conversation that we are driving not only with our clients, but within our industry too.
This has also heightened my levels of self-awareness about the data footprint I am leaving too. I feel responsible for lessening my transactions in the physical world and reducing my contact points at this time, which in-turn is definitely influencing my purchasing behavior. I am buying more things in one place, at one time and being less price sensitive. I am also swapping in recipe ingredients I would normally search for and rethinking things that I might otherwise have replaced.
“In the case of China, multiple Zoom-like options have blossomed, each Internet behemoth offering their own, high-performance version in no time: Tencent meetings, Alibaba’s Ding Ding, and so forth.” — David Gompel
JM: What are a few practices that you see are being fully leveraged for greatest impact? And where do you see a few practices failing?
Emma Scales: The Singapore Ministry of Health launched a contact tracing app in late March to allow the government to track and contact people who had come in contact with a known case of C19. While I am not sure if it was the first market, it certainly had strong up take by Singaporeans and has been an effective tool in managing the outbreak and quarantining people who may have been exposed
As for a vast continent (and country) like Australia there’s a lot happening, for example:
- Australia has launched its app and the NHS’ app is collecting publicity around data privacy. While data privacy and security are a hot topic of debate as it relates to the app, the innovation itself has certainly been an effective tool to trace exposure and reduce spread in our APAC markets.
- Small businesses and restaurants in Australia responded quickly to the government measures requiring only take away, delivery or online service. Local coffee shops, cafes, and retail spaces quickly adopted an open store window set up for take away only, many made delivery through Uber eats, Deliveroo, etc available. Some Banks doubled “tap and go” limits (up to 200) to reduce the need to touch devices to input PINs for transactions below that amount.
- Overnight online delivery became a way of life for the car loving Australians who lag behind the US and Europe in online purchasing. Platforms struggled, differentiated experiences were key to the companies that have thrived.
- Home improvement and garden centers saw sales shoot up, careful to design in-store experiences that would comply with government and to manage online traffic to support the increased demand.
- With government restrictions putting millions out of work, government portals to access the stimulus packages struggled under the weight of new transactions.
- Call centers for every industry were inundated and remote working presented organizations with new challenges on how to manage call flows, support customer care and enable solutions.
Symon Hammacott: Data has without question been leveraged to have the biggest impact across Asia during this crisis. Whether considering the effectiveness of contract tracing, situational data visualizations down to a neighborhood level or supply chains coping with changes in buying patterns and demand — the impact is very positive.
It is however, already spoken about as a double-edged sword, with consumer rights groups and data protection bodies raising questions about where the boundaries of privacy and proportional use of data will lie, post-C-19.
As we reach an era where dataful experiences have the potential of significant personal and societal benefits, this is a vital time to recalibrate the standards and reconsider the ethics around data transparency and anonymization practices. People feel the benefit of data collection — we now need to make sure that this trust is enduring.
David Gompel: Asia, and singularly China, have lived in a paradox through the last few years. Nowhere in the world is technology savvyness and adoption stronger, as witnessed by the penetration of new technologies, e-commerce, the active participation in social media, etc. At the same time, working methods had remained fairly traditional, and “in person.”
This paradox has now been resolved thanks to C-19: technology adoption has proven a powerful accelerator to life under lockdown, in a country where working from home, remote meetings were never the norm, it has now established itself as the new normal.
In the case of China, multiple Zoom-like options have blossomed, each Internet behemoth offering their own, high-performance version in no time– Tencent meetings, Alibaba’s DingDong, and so forth.
“In Australia, with government restrictions putting millions out of work, government portals to access the stimulus packages struggled under the weight of new transactions.” — Emma Scales
JM: Given the SARS outbreak early in this century, there’s the strong belief that Asia Pacific is more ready than any other part of the world. Do you agree or disagree?
Symon Hammacott: The muscle memory of this region post-SARs meant many Asian markets were able to simply act, and not think first, about all facets of the crisis.
There are some legacy patterns of behavior in place; from the wearing of masks to the sanitization of high footfall spaces like elevator control panels and escalator handrails. Others were simply reinstated and no doubt iteratively improved upon from lessons learned before. Pausing for thought and consideration, appears to have been critical in other parts of the world, and Asia needed to do this a lot less.
It is also worth considering that some aspects of Asian culture are more physically reserved — making the leap to total social distancing much easier. For example, I can count on one hand the amount of times I have shaken someone else’s hand at a meeting business in the last year.
Radical changes in everyday behavior are inevitably slow, especially if they are counter-intuitive. In my experience, people adapt better with small incremental changes that are much easier to absorb.
“People feel the benefit of data collection — we now need to make sure that this trust is enduring.” — Symon Hammacott
Emma Scales: Early in the outbreak I would have agreed that SARS helped to prepare Asia for C19. Across the region most governments took actions early to implement temperature checking, and monitor health. People and businesses who had been through SARS took personal steps to improve sanitation measures, increased mask usage, and implement social distancing measures.
However, now we see that countries like Singapore and Japan who were earlier touted as role models, are seeing numbers climb. Perhaps its because both markets took longer to limit travel into their markets (for economic and political reasons) and longer to close down non-essential services and begin isolation measures for the population at large. The C-19 infection while similar to SARS, seems harder to eradicate due to its lack of discrimination around infection and also its asymptomatic presentation.
David Gompel: This is the clear commonality across the region. I lived through SARS in 2003 in Beijing, and no country in the region, least of all China, was prepared.
This left scars and lessons learned at several levels:
- Plans were ready for another outbreak, this enabled a speedy response, safety protocols were ready to be activated, including lockdown procedures, strategic stocks of thermometers and masks.
- Some existing behavior, including wearing masks and using hands sanitizer especially in North Asia, was largely a consequence of SARS.
- Communication was much better managed this time around, including in China, although the initial delayed response was heavily criticized.
JM: Design is an important aspect of many Asian cultures, but it often looks backwards towards the classics. How do you think that might be changing right now due to the need to digitally transform?
David Gompel: Here again, each country is in a different place, and C-19 has only accelerated existing trends — the centrality of digital was uneven pre-C-19, this has been the main acceleration, for example in Japan, the most renowned design center in Asia, where physical experience received much more attention than digital design.
The centrality of digital in everyday life and work has clearly been increased and I expect design talent to focus even more on digital especially in Japan.
China is the polar opposite of Japan — it is already the most digital society in the world with the highest penetration of mobile payment; e-administration; e-commerce; social media participation… C-19 was a minor disruption to large swaths of the population as C-19 demonstrated the robustness of China’s leading digital experience platforms.
Symon Hammacott: It is very true that design is both important and a little caught up in days gone by, both in terms of the product, and perhaps more importantly, how design is formed.
I adore the application of craftsmanship and its sustainability in niche and boutique areas. This will always be essential in creating a unique experience, a precious one-off or a legendary story.
However, the same pursuit of perfection and control of every aspect of design cannot be applied to products and services for delivery at scale today. Some parts of Asia are a victim in particular of siloed product creation and overly hierarchical design governance.
Digital pace setters move fast and react quickly, letting the audience’s reaction to a live product help it to improve and adapt to their changing needs. I suspect that during these unprecedented times, a lot of companies are frustrated with their own inability to respond with quickly adapted solutions in the way their competitors are.
In my experience, too many businesses in Asia are also caught-up in convergent tasks — consolidating monolithic digital technologies, rationalizing channels, optimizing the number of disconnected applications and products.
This is especially true of data, where non-digitally native businesses are struggling to get their designs informed by a single, intelligent view of their customers. Whereas their digital native competitors began with a singularity in their customer data that they are successfully using to stay closer to their audience.
The new benchmark for good product and service design means being there when your customer needs you, with the right solution, just in time, every time and tailored to their needs. Without good design agility, the moment to be a hero product will pass you by.
“Some existing behavior, including wearing masks and using hands sanitizer especially in North Asia, was largely a consequence of SARS.” — David Gompel
JM: What are your hopes for the way that experience design capabilities can make a greater impact for clients’ specific needs in Asian markets?
Emma Scales: As we look to lift some of the government restrictions, the design of the physical environments is going to set apart experiences in retail, travel, and education industries. And leveraging no-touch technology to reduce physical contact in-store through digital signage, app development, and other technologies will set apart those whose tactics today are reduced to distance tape on the floor.
One key example that comes to mind for me is helping airlines rethink the airline experience. They’ll need to rebuild confidence in the physical experience to maintain safety and sanitary standards in the era of social distancing practices. Helping their customers manage processes that have become nonintuitive will be a perfect opportunity to rethink and refine better solutions.
Symon Hammacott: I think the roots of Experience Design as a design discipline have gotten lost and are somewhat misunderstood. It is not the user experience (UX) of a single channel, it’s a systems-based way of designing to make multiple digital channels work in perfect, seamless harmony for the user’s situation in that moment.
It’s essential in creating the ability for experiences to scale and respond in a dynamic way that static, page level design for a single state and instance cannot. I hope more clients can make this perceptual leap with us, and adopt together a broader, systemic approach to digital design. This will help close the gap to a more holistic Online To Offline (“O2O”) approach to customer experiences (CX), and ultimately the craft of service design where the businesses capabilities can be optimized and aligned behind the CX.
The more silos that design can break down, the faster design can respond and the impact will be felt sooner in the hands of the audience and to the business bottom line.
David Gompel: I think an increasing number of multinational companies are taking China’s capabilities to the world, both in terms of agile working methods — where experience and engineering naturally work hand in hand, in a cloud-based world, with frequent, imperfect release cycles, in a mobile-only approach; speed of execution; in a platform- and technology-agnostic fashion to rely on existing usage.
Through tourism and business exchanges, China has never been so inspired by Japan as now, especially when it comes to design, physical user experience, and service.
Asia has a unique opportunity ahead: combining Chinese excellence in terms of AI and data, speed and infrastructure, with Japan’s unique attention to detail, and world leading standards in consumer care and experience.
In other words, if you take China’s excellence in light (fast) and dataful (cloud), and Japan’s excellence in ethical (values) and accessible (ease-of-use), you get an Asia LEAD (Light, Ethical, Accessible, Dataful) that can inspire the world!
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