New Country, New Culture. What was your greatest surprise?
This was my first time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I am familiar with and comfortable in Dubai and Bahrain, but I knew that things would be very different in the Kingdom. For starters, we went on an Abaya hunting trip on our last day in Bahrain, complete with loose hijabs - prepping ourselves mentally to cover up for three full weeks.
I was slightly concerned about our typically gender-neutral research methodologies. We pride ourselves on trying to live like locals, immersing ourselves in their culture and being mindful of our personal and cultural biases to empathize with the people we are designing for. We use an eclectic mix of street side immersions, shadowing and spending hours in the homes of strangers, talking to them and learning from the small nuances of cultures and design. And given that we were spending time with some of the most successful and elusive members of Saudi society, from leading CEOs to members of the Royal family, I wanted to ensure that we follow social protocols while remaining true to our key objective - getting a deeper understanding of specific cultural shifts and unmet needs to design a new financial service. One that will hopefully make a greater impact upon Saudi society in the decades to come.
My greatest surprise was how quickly we adapted to a new culture, and how open people were with us in the interviews - it was incredible to see how willing people are to share deeply personal stories with strangers, trusting us with their secrets, frustrations and wishes. Even our key client, a Saudi national himself, was amazed by the rich stories we brought back. I always feel we have an advantage as foreigners, the luxury of being able to question things that are obvious to a local and learning from underlying motivations - but this particular trip was exceptional.
In fact, we will be heading back to the Kingdom next month and I can’t wait to see what we will learn this time around.
Of course, the experience of deep cultural immersion always comes with personal rewards and challenges. And in my next blog post, I will share some thoughts around maintaining a happy team culture and paying attention to our mental health when we spend a long time away from home, immersed in foreign cultures.