Problem solving often depends on where you’re from as much as the problem itself. This is my first of a seven week stay in Peru. Having spent a great deal of time here before I am fairly familiar with the way things work, but I have noticed a couple things that didn’t really register for me before.
While the majority of Peru gets their food at traditional open air markets I am staying in a very modernized section of Lima at the moment. That means supermarkets. One of the supermarkets that is a couple of blocks from our apartment has something in the produce section that I’ve never seen before, employees running the scales.
If you want to buy produce, you pick it out, put it in a plastic bag, and take it to the scales. You place it on the scale and a worker rings up how much each bag of produce costs, placing a sticker on each bag of produce. If you forget this step and try to pay for your food at the register they will send you back to have things weighed in the produce section. Why is it this way? Is it less valid than what we’re used to in the United States? Is it more or less efficient?
I don’t want to claim a winner in my just-invented produce weighing wars. It seems like adding unnecessary workers to not have the person running the register weigh the items at checkout. Perhaps the registers in Peru typically don’t have scales? On the other hand, moments can be saved by having the register scanning barcodes instead of weighing vegetables. So maybe the efficiency argument is mute.
One thing I can say is that using the worker-run scales provides an opportunity to represent your brand with people, rather than machines. This can backfire if the employees are rude or unpleasant, but it provides another moment where a positive impression can be made. In a Peruvian supermarket it is never difficult to find someone to help you with a question or point you to the cherimoyas, whereas it is possible to walk every aisle of a store in the United States without encountering any help.
One thing that I never noticed before, because this is the first time I have used a credit card regularly in Peru, is that ID is necessary for almost everything. We decided shortly after arriving to buy cheap prepaid phones and save our iPhones for wifi usage. International rates for AT&T are a joke. We had to show our passports to sign up for a prepaid phone, which is understandable. Afterwards I was given a receipt and sent to another register in the store to pay. In order to use a card to pay I needed show ID again and write my passport number next to my signature. I had left my passport copy (never carry your original passport if it can be avoided) at the first desk with my wife. So I trekked back across the store to retrieve the paper. When I returned and showed the passport the woman asked for the passport number to write on the paper. Her look of surprise when she realized I did not have it memorized is what stood out to me.
Peruvians use a government issued ID with associated number for everything. Assuming the powers that be have their ducks in a row almost any credit or business transaction could be tracked to an ID number. This is similar to how we use our social security numbers in the US, except we would be alarmed if we had to supply that number for everyday credit card transactions, hotel reservations, etc. Using your government ID number is just a way of life in Peru, and something to keep in mind when visiting from the United States.
A common mistake when confronted with foreign cultures is to see differences as points of competition. When I first lived in Peru for two years as a nineteen year old I made this mistake more often. As I have returned every few years I think I have gotten wiser in at least that one way. Different does not always imply better or worse, it just implies different choices and solutions to problems.
It’s good to realize that there is no single right way to do things in design projects as well. UX conventions may seem universal and well established, but they may have their roots in a single culture or mindset and may not communicate globally. Familiar conventions help me feel comfortable when I use a website or app, but learning a new way of doing things is invigorating. Different cultures can broaden a designer’s experience, from which they can draw innovative solutions.