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Evolution of UX in the UAE

Sudipt Shah | Founder & CEO, Digital of Things

Image source: Photo by David Rodrigo on Unsplash

Rumour has it that by 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product quality as the key brand differentiator. In a time of increased competition, shorter attention spans, and most things available at the touch of a button, this makes a lot of sense.


The e-commerce industry is growing at a significant rate, and therefore a big part of customer experience is now online user experience (UX). Since moving to the United Arab Emirates from UK three years ago, I was initially disappointed at the user experience of many websites and apps in this region.


I’ll be discussing why UX has been suboptimal in the region in the past, but more importantly, why it’s about to change at an unprecedented level and what companies can do to stay ahead of the curve.


Previously...

Traditionally in the UAE, customer experience, and specifically user experience, has been behind compared to the rest of the world. I can give you lots of examples of ‘bad’ user experiences here in the region - you just have to take a look at some of the banking websites where simple transactions are a complete pain. Some of the larger ecommerce stores make you checkout online and pay over the phone and the number of companies with websites still not optimised for mobile.


If you speak to any UAE resident, one of their pet peeves will be the quality of websites and how frustrating the experience is. There are a few gems though, including Uber, Fetchr, Deliveroo, Washmen and Cafu, however they are relatively new in the market and few and far in between.


The big question is, why has UX traditionally been so poor in the UAE? E-commerce generally has lagged behind other regions, and the key priority for companies was just to have an online presence, with UX being a secondary priority. There are a number of reasons in my opinion for the slow growth of e-commerce. Here are just some of them:


Culture

Families preferred visiting the mall instead of shopping online. Going to the mall is an experience in itself - people love to escape the heat and spend a day with their families. The malls themselves were planned in a way to ensure that people spend a long time there doing a variety of activities; catching a movie, enjoying a family meal or even skiing. We've also seen that UAE residents love deals and promotions, hence the malls are packed on sales seasons. Going to the mall is an experience so online shopping already had strong competition.


No postage system

The UK and some others in the western world have a centralised postal system so it’s easy for companies to fulfil orders in a cost-efficient way. The UAE on the other hand has no postal system, so e-commerce companies have to rely on couriers to deliver products, which adds to their margins and ultimately to the price for the end user.


Skills shortage and understanding

There was limited understanding around UX, people didn't really know what it is. As companies' online presence became more mature, they hired UI designers and combine their title to make them UX / UI designers, but the skill set and experience required for these roles is completely different. Finding and employing the right UX talent has always been challenging - firstly, there is a limited pool of people that are willing to uproot their lives and move here and secondly, you have to find professionals that have a solid understanding of human behaviour, customer journeys and human-computer interaction principles.


Low investment in user research

It still shocks me that companies invest limited time and money in user research. The importance of this is extenuated in this region given the diverse population living here. How do you create a user experience that understands and caters to the different behaviours, habits and cultural nuances of 200 nationalities? You can’t base your UX decisions on subjective opinions or assumptions anymore and you have to bring your customers into the heart of all decisions. This was one of the main reasons I decided to launch a UX consultancy and a UX lab here in Dubai.


Limited competition

In the past, starting a company in the UAE was somewhat difficult, so first movers had the advantage of limited competition. That also meant that they could get away with a bad user experience because customers simply had no alternative.


Uncomfortable with online payment

Customers have always been cautious about paying online, and this is typical throughout the Middle East. Due to security worries, as well as habits from shopping at a mall, where they examine the products before purchasing, cash on delivery was a preferred method of payment - a concept that is unheard of in the western world. This has knock on effect for companies selling online. As well as delayed payment for companies, it also costs them money on fulfillment if customers have a change of heart, or are not available at delivery.


The change is coming...

This is all about to change, and at a significant speed. UX is becoming extremely important and a focal point for companies in the region.

The Digital Evolution index by MasterCard shows the UAE as one of the stand out countries - considered the digital elite, who are digitally evolved and advancing quickly.


Because of the huge potential in the region, large players such as Amazon, Noon and Deliveroo, to name a few, have entered the market, mainly through acquisition. This has put a spotlight on the market for investors, start-ups and companies wanting a piece of this growing pie.


The government has also created many initiatives to help drive the market forward. They have been clear that they want the UAE to be known as a start-up hub and have outlined many initiatives to make it easy to operate here - only last year the government announcement a new 2.1m sq foot freezone area designated for e-commerce companies. They have removed many barriers to entry specifically around visas and foreign ownership, and they are encouraging the adoption of innovation and cool technology to make the UAE a smart city.


At 90.6%, the UAE has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the Middle East, and eMarketer has predicted that by 2021, the ecommerce market will be worth $49bn.


Put all of these factors together and we’re going to see increased competition in the digital and e-commerce markets. As more and more companies come online, and e-commerce really takes off, this ultimately means that customers are not going to be as forgiving as they once were for bad user experiences. New apps and websites will provide seamless experiences, flexibility and top notch service. Customers will not hesitate to switch from their incumbents, regardless of price, as they get used to, and expect, good UX. Even the most loyal customers will start demanding better UX.


What can companies do?

Companies need to focus on user experience to ensure they stay ahead of the competition. It’s not going just enough to have just an ‘online presence’ in the region.


Companies should invest heavily in user research, usability and true UX talent. It’s critical to understand their target customer and put them at the heart of everything they do. Consider nationality, demographics and interests - you’ll be surprised at how differently people behave online and how varied their expectations are. At Digital of Things, we’ve seen first hand the impact of cultural differences on expectations and user behaviour. Identifying these and addressing them in the right way can greatly affect conversion, revenue and even brand loyalty.


Companies also need to keep abreast of where the region is heading, with government initiatives, new competition and changing user trends, and ensure they align to this or risk being left behind.


To summarise, while user experience has been suboptimal in the region, it is about to change. We are on the cusp of a significant shift in the digital space and companies need to ensure they provide a seamless, beautiful user experience, catered to the diverse population of the country. If they don’t do this, they risk being left behind - a new wave of companies will enter the market and acquire their customers by providing an unforgettable user experience.

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