"Hey Google, Find Me Nasi Goreng"

How localized apps win by miles

One of my favourite examples of the subject of “designing for relevance” or “designing with context” is how Google did it with Google Maps for certain markets, like Indonesia and India. Back in 2018, I found this article.

One of the key takeaways from that research is how different it is to navigate certain cities in the world. When originally designing for Google Maps, we bet that the designers only based it on American roads. Little did they know that when rolling the product out globally, there will be differences at how this will be experienced in different cities across the world. When you compare street layouts and condition between the U.S. and India, the difference is stark. One tends to be more organized, spacious and equipped with clear markings and directions. One other tends to be chaotic, at times narrow, and lacking markings or directions. In the U.S., you tend to drive a car and that’s how time is estimated. In India, you tend to drive a motorcycle, ride on a rickshaw, bicycle, and whatnots — and go through all these alleyways, and guess how we estimate time?

When Google Maps Street View rolled out in Indonesia, Indonesians laughed so hard because when they see the 360 degree pictures, they don’t see only the streets and buildings, but terrible traffic jams. It’s a little harder to find a cue on where you would turn when the street is crowded. Also, with thousands and millions of small alleyways in Jakarta (and in general, Indonesian cities), it is really a loss for Google to not consider these as “real streets” for their route planning. There is also lingering problem with location pin accuracy because the nature of “organic” cities make it hard for mappers to properly categorize, label and locate places.

If you want to find nasi goreng, the Indonesian fried rice, in an Indonesian town, you simply don’t ask Google where the best one is. You ask the locals. This is different from the U.S. where you can easily find recommendations on Google Maps or Yelp. You can probably do that now through local apps like Gojek, but that’s the point. Local apps win by miles.

My pledge here isn’t for us to design for every market there is in the world, but prioritize which markets are growing and important for us, and then do all-out in those markets. Some other time, it’s about experimenting. We might launch a pilot project or test a small feature to “test the water” and see what the result is.

When I was at Vrbo, it is an itch for me to see how the term “vacation rentals” is confined to either big Western-style vacation houses or an “exotic-looking” homes far-flung in the Pacific, or certain latin American countries. Of course, we know these appeal to certain audiences, and it’s important to know which one drives more traffic and revenue. However, it is also important to see a little deeper, as to how this would impact certain economies. For example, families across Asia might have a small house that they graciously maintain to give travelers a temporary place of abode. They do this because there has been certain kind of demand in the past, and that they actually have land. They never knew anything like Airbnb nor Vrbo, but they run the business like a pro, at least according to what they believe in. Of course, the “amenities” and “facilities” might not match the average Western comfort, but at least it’s decent.

I am sure there are differences in priorities, and a common goal, between the homeowners in the U.S., vs the homeowners in more remote villages. Both places offer to rent out their place as a way to earn passive income. The key difference is, in the U.S., they would probably offer a place as a base to explore the experience around it, or sometimes if it’s remote, to enjoy the place and the surrounding. In remote villages, it’s a way for the hosts to introduce the culture, and thus culture tourism is the offering.

The above differences sure make a different kind of use case in the user journey, as well as the experience. When you book in the U.S., you would probably look more on the details of the interiors and buildings, but in remote villages, it’s more about the activities and the culture.

One other example that was profound for me came from a simple discussion with some colleagues.

A couple of years ago we were sitting in this nice restaurant overlooking the Singapore river, with some friends from Indonesia and someone who was working for Redmart, the online grocery platform that’s now owned by Lazada. Our Indonesian friends teased this Redmart guy, “why don’t Redmart operate in Jakarta?”

Guess what he replied?

“Well — one thing, we operate delivery trucks here in Singapore. No way it’s going to be working in Jakarta’s alleyway.”

“Use motorcycle deliveries, then!”, we all replied enthusiastically.

“No, can’t be possible. We can’t load a lot of things into the back of motorbike.”

We all laughed so hard, with the final say that seemed to puzzle him even further:

Have you been to Jakarta? Do you know how much of a stuff they load behind a motorbike?”


Fikri Rasyid — Gojek app: https://unsplash.com/photos/HGLCvGWujGE