First real disadvantage of being an expat

Posted: October 19, 2013 in Thailand

I have been living in Thailand for more than ten years now. It was an adjustment at first (major understatement). But after figuring out how to find the things I need and get things done I have settled into a very comfortable lifestyle. For me, it is far superior to living in the U.S. Your mileage may vary – many westerners never adjust and bail out after the honeymoon period.

There are a few things I miss about the U.S. Being from Southern California where we are spoiled for choice of Mexican food I do miss that. There are just a handful of Mexican restaurants in all of Thailand and they are all located in Bangkok. I don’t live there so the best I can do is buy some packaged seasonings and make my own. Recently the local Makro mega store started carrying tortillas so that is a plus, although they are not fresh for sure, and seem kind of weird as if they are specially processed for long shelf life, nothing like the fresh ones back in SoCal. Ok, so lack of Mexican food is a pretty trivial issue given how many other great food choices we have here. So what are the real disadvantages of being an expat in Thailand?

After all this time I finally encountered something that I consider a real issue for an expat in Thailand like me. It came up during the first week of a Coursera course I am taking called Human Computer Interaction. I am taking that course as part of a program to flesh out my web app development skills. Recently I completed 10gen’s MongDB for Nodejs Developers. MongoDB is a NoSQL database that is rapidly gaining usage. Prior to that I completed the Stanford Startup Engineering course where we put together a complete development flow and built a web app using Git, AWS, Nodejs and Bootstrap. When I built mine I added MongoDB, hence the 10gen course to boost my skills there.

So now I am developing skills to put a top quality user interface on my web app via the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) course. One of the first steps in creating an effective interface is what is called “needfinding”. It involves directly observing users performing the tasks that you are attempting to address with your system, noting how they do things and the issues they encounter. The tools and methods for doing this that we are learning in HCI are very effective. With great interest I am diving in.

And I have encountered an issue. Because of where I live and the nature of the surrounding population I am pretty well inhibited from doing any real needfinding. My interface is in English. That means the vast majority of the Thai population cannot be engaged for needfinding. In my local area there are no Thais I know of who can read English. So that leaves me with a few choices.

  1. I could translate the interface to Thai and do needfinding with locals. This is quite cumbersome because translation also involves localization to reflect local usage norms. That could be as big a project as the interface itself. That would make sense if my target was Thai people, but for my initial interface my target is a particular segment of the English literate population.
  2. I could try to do it all online via Skype or screencasts. This has potential but one of the main thrusts of the needfinding step is to observe users in the actual environment they would use the interface. Another strong theme is to avoid investing a lot of time in a high fidelity mockup in the early stages, certainly not before you have done neefinding. Creating a screencast is just wrong at this stage. Trying to observe via Skype is just such an incomplete observation.
  3. I could try to connect with westerners and “internationalized” Thais in Bangkok. There are a number of meetup groups and co-working locations where I could potentially find users for my needfinding efforts. This would require a lot of scheduling to coincide with meetup dates and travel (3 hours drive each way from my location to a meetup in the Sathorn area of Bangkok).

Given my constraints it looks like I will have to settle for the Apprentice track of the HCI course rather than the Studio track that I wanted to follow. I do plan to complete as much of each assignment as possible but will not have the types of observations and interviews that are required to be graded. However, the interface I am developing is for the itinerary rating app I previously created and the motivation for it came from observing the issues on travel forums. So I am going to do try to do the observation steps, albeit indirectly, by analyzing forums postings.

The motivation for this post came from reading a story by someone who wrote about bootstrapping a startup in Thailand that I saw mentioned on Linkedin. The writer talked about how great it was for 6 months in Thailand and kept mentioning how cheap the food was. Those are typical impressions of a short term resident, newbie impressions if you will. Food is cheap until you get tired of eating cheap food. If you want a decent steak you will pay at least triple what it would cost in the U.S. Electronics are more expensive. Cars are way more expensive. The list goes on. But the newbie comments weren’t what motivated me. It was the discussion of isolation. In some ways that is good. But when it comes to doing UI/UX development isolation is not good.

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