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How did you get started in user experience (UX) design? I got started around 2005 with a bootleg copy of Dreamweaver—yes, I’ve more than paid for it with Adobe’s exorbitant Creative Cloud rates, so don’t @ me—and taught myself to code. It was a tactical decision at the time. I needed a website, but over time, I also learned PHP and how to build WordPress sites. Then, after moving to New York in 2010, I started focusing more on UX design, and how it intersects with culture. I spent a few years first at a publishing company and then at a design agency, where I got the chance to learn strategy and design craft.

I’m fascinated by how UX has become such an established field today. When I was starting out, many of us were fumbling our way through and learning as we went. The internet was also not as ubiquitous as it is now, so learning from our peers and finding the “right” ways to do things was a lot more difficult. Time is a fast-moving river, and it’s great to see where we are today.

What inspired you to write your book Cross-Cultural Design? I gave my first-ever conference talk at the Future of Web Design NYC 2012, titled Beyond Responsive Design: Culture as a Factor in Web Design. In the talk, I went through how to use social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model as a way to understand the role of culture in design. Eight years later, the first chapter of my book explores the very same thing. After speaking and writing about cross-cultural design for years, writing a book was a natural next step.

More fundamentally, as the internet continues to expand, the role of designers and UX professionals becomes ever-more critical. I want designers to focus on how to design experiences for people who live in different cultures, use different languages, and are surrounded by different social structures. The UX and creative choices we make have an effect in places far beyond our immediate surroundings.

What should designers take into account when they’re creating websites for global audiences? A few years back, I was looking through a Sketch icon set, and one in particular kept bugging me. It was an icon of a hijab, with another hijab upside down next to it. I had no idea what it meant, or why it was in the sports section of the Sketch file. I grew up in Jos, a city in Northern Nigeria. It’s a predominantly Muslim city, so I automatically associate that particular shape with the style of head covering that’s popular there. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized it was not a hijab at all; it was a pair of scuba flippers! That’s why it was in the sports section, but my brain just refused to make the connection.

Creating websites and design systems that unconsciously replicate our Western cultural norms means that it’s much harder to use them across cultures. We need to take into account how imagery, language and even color are perceived by different people in different parts of the world.

There is also a rich vein of content on marketing blogs about products that were introduced in a market but failed because the company hadn’t done their cultural research—for example, Pringles trying to sell bacon-flavored potato chips with the message “Ramadan Mubarak.”

What tools do you find indispensable for your work? As a vice president of design, much of my time is spent in documentation and Google Docs, ensuring there is structure and strategy for the organization. Previously, I spent a lot of time in Sketch and Creative Cloud, working on design and branding projects. My personal work has recently shifted a lot to using Procreate on my iPad. Industry tools change as priorities do.

The UX and creative choices we make have an effect in places far beyond our immediate surroundings.”

How has COVID-19 changed how you approach human-centered design? This tweet from astrophysicist Elizabeth Teng sums it up: “am I working at my regular capacity? no. but am I prioritizing and taking care of the most important tasks? no. but am I at least taking care of myself and my mental health? also no.”

There is no part of our working lives, or lives in general, that has not been touched by this pandemic. Many of us have lost loved ones, jobs, our routines and our common spaces. My design practice has been in maintenance mode for the past year, and has also been coping with what we are all going through. I think design researchers, in particular, have had to make huge adjustments to how they approach their work, being more conscious of the trauma others are going through.

What led you to create Pixel Fable, your collection of interactive Afrofuturist stories? My whole journey with Pixel Fable started by taking the stories told by the traditional Tiv, my ethnic group in Nigeria, and putting them online. Now, it’s focused much more on Afrofuturism, but the urge to catalog our narrative culture is still strong.

I’ve also always been eager to try out new code and digital tools. For instance, when parallax-scrolling stories were all the rage, I created “Why The Sky Is Far Away.” As the short story goes, the sky used to be very close—close enough to touch. Over time, the sky became infatuated with a beautiful woman who lived on Earth, and kept getting closer so he could watch her during the day. One day, he got too close. As she was pounding some food in her village, she accidentally hit the sky in the nose. He decided to pull back a little bit, and he kept backing up farther, finally settling where we see it today. That’s why we can’t touch the sky!

What is a recent short story that you’ve worked on for Pixel Fable that you’re especially proud of? A few years ago, I published “The Voyage of Captain DaCosta,” an interactive narrative about a sixteenth-century African Portuguese ship captain named Captain DaCosta, who traveled to Japan on a trade voyage. I started doing research for the story ages ago, when I saw these Japanese paintings from the 1600s called Namban (南蛮), which roughly translates to “the Southern barbarians.”

During that time period, also called the Age of Expansion, Western missionaries and traders started to arrive in southern Japan. These paintings show the Western ships, which were filled with foreign goods. Many of the sailors were people of color, a mixture of slaves, indentured servants and navigators picked up in Southern Asia to help the ships get through the southern seas. The Namban paintings showed an honest view of the people coming off the ships, and the foreignness of them. Through my character Captain DaCosta, I wanted to ask, “What would it have looked like if one of those Black sailors was the leader of an expedition?”

What is the most exciting work in interaction design that you’ve seen recently? In the past, I’ve noted that the next revolution—for lack of a better word—in interaction design will be using machine learning and algorithms to help us design sites and experiences. Right now, much of the machine learning I see in the creative sphere seems focused on generating images and video, or text, like the language generator GPT-3. I see a future iteration of all these systems where people can input moodboard images, colorways and brand characteristics, and, in return, the “machine” will offer a full design system or pattern library. This could be interesting in that designers could then focus more on strategy, no longer tasked with creating the interface piece by piece in code or Figma. Instead, we would act more as conductors, using different levers to tweak and expand interfaces. However, as with every tool, the chance for terrible misuse and abuse is one that creators will have to grapple with. Machine learning and algorithms have so much inequality built into them, and these tools would certainly accelerate that.

What do you think of the UX industry at the moment, and where do you see it headed? In December 2020, I attended the Made In The Future Fellowship Summit, a career-building design program that provides an immersive foundational curriculum, community-support network and access to preeminent industry mentorship for aspiring underrepresented designers. Though not exclusively focused on UX, it was great to see multiple early-stage career folks, many who will go on to be leaders and mentors in our industry. It would be foolish to say this will be an easy shift, but I’m excited to see design become more representative of the world we live in.

Senongo Akpem is a designer, illustrator and the founder of Pixel Fable, a collection of interactive Afrofuturist stories, and also a vice president of design at Nava. For the past fifteen years, he has specialized in collaborating with clients across the world on flexible, impactful digital experiences. He is the author of Cross-Cultural Design from A Book Apart, which explores a clear methodology and techniques for designing across cultures and languages. The child of a Nigerian father and a Dutch American mother, Akpem grew up in Nigeria, lived in Japan for almost a decade, and now calls Queens, New York, home. He speaks at conferences about cross-cultural design, digital storytelling and transmedia, and loves all science fiction.


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