Build better products by vacationing more

Throughout my life, I've been lucky to do a moderate amount of travel. In the last couple years, my travel has increased significantly, including international destinations for work and play. In fact, over the past 12 months, I've traveled to Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Thailand, Mexico (x2), and even a small town on Canada's Vancouver island (via float plane, of course!).

While traveling, I can't help but notice the differences in the lives of the locals compared with mine back home. I'm talking small things, not the obvious things like income or weather differences. Lately, I can't stop thinking about these differences and how they should change the way I build products. They should change the way you build products. They should change the way everyone builds products.

Below are some of the small observations I've made while traveling this year and thoughts on how they might impact how products are built.



Do you have a manual or automatic transmission vehicle? If you are reading from the US or Canada, you likely have an automatic transmission. About 95% of new cars sold in the US have an automatic transmission. An automatic sure makes it easy for us to do other things in the car, like pull up Waze and get directions to our destination, or accept a new passenger in the Uber Partner app for those of you that drive for the transportation company.

However, outside of the US and Canada, I've observed manual transmissions dominating markets. From old, beat up, compact taxis to large, luxury, 10 person vans, manual transmissions are the norm in many countries (Thailand, Mexico, etc).

Now, think about using Waze, Uber's Partner app, Spotify, or any other mobile app you use in the car. Think your usage would be the same if you almost always have 1 hand on the stick shift? I bet not.

Differences in transportation go beyond that. I noticed in Barcelona and Bangkok, scooters and motorcycles are everywhere! Its possible that there are more scooter riders than car drivers in these cities. Knowing that, if your product was used for or during transportation, would you build it the same for scooter riders as car drivers? I wouldn't.

Also in Thailand, Tuk Tuks are the way to get around! Scooters modified to have seating for 2 behind or next to the driver! However, for those that do drive cars in Thailand, they all have these small, sharply curved mirrors at the very front corners of their hoods. What for? Turns out, Thai's drive through some VERY tight spaces, and this mirror helps the driver know how close they are to hitting another car, a wall, or a tree. They drive within centimeters of obstacles on a regular basis. If you are a car designer who's product will be sold into Asia, you probably should think about this before adding that bubbly fender design!

Finally, while Uber has made getting around a breeze in most cases, I experienced a problem recently that doesn't happen to me in the US. While in Mexico City earlier this month, I relied on Uber to get where I needed to go. It was easy, specific, cheap, and crossed the language barrier. There was one problem though: many of the destinations I wanted to go to where not in Uber's mapping database. I've taken for granted that every business or home that I want to go to in the US can be looked up quickly in the Uber app, pinpointing my drop-off location. Not true in Mexico City. Want to go to that great taco stand you read about on TripAdvisor? Don't expect to type the name into Uber and have a pin dropped in the perfect location! This happened to me about 3 times on during my long weekend there and appears to be common. Time to brush up on my Spanish!

Phones & Communication

If you live in a major metropolitan area in the US, especially on the west or east coasts, you are surrounded by iPhones. About 64% of American adults own smartphones, and about 47% of them use an iPhone. Now zoom out and look at the entire world. Less than half of mobile phone users around the world use a smartphone, and of those that do, Android dominates!

In fact, on a trip to Mexico City recently, I don't think I saw a single iPhone in the hands or vehicle of a local. Samsung/Android phones were the norm. In Thailand, outside of Bangkok, it was rare to see a smartphone at all. What the industry calls Feature Phones were the norm (in-between a basic phone with no advanced features, and a full on smart phone with fast web browsing, apps, etc). Building a mobile product for use outside of the US? You better think about these numbers and make sure you are building a product that your intended user can actually use.

Paying for things

Until I began traveling more internationally, I took for granted my reliance on credit/debit cards. At home, I almost NEVER have cash or change on me. This habit had to change when I began traveling internationally more. Go ahead, try to pay for something with a credit card on an island in Thailand. Almost impossible.

Cash is king in many destinations outside of the US, Canada, and Europe. In fact, even in Europe I am required to us cash more often than in the US. Most cabs in Barcelona have credit card machines, but some literally don't! Its nice to know that before you take a ride somewhere :)

In Thailand, I found that many cab and Tuk Tuk drivers didn't have change! Don't try to take a 30 baht ride and try to pay with a 1,000 baht bill. I did this once, and the Tuk Tuk driver had to take me to a 7-11 where I bought a water bottle and got change in smaller bills.

Even when you can pay with a credit/debit card, there are differences. Until recently, none of my debit/credit cards had chips in them. When paying for something in Europe, I found myself having to show the cab driver or restaurant employee how to run a credit card with a stripe instead of a chip. Seriously, it was foreign to them! Think about this if your product accepts physical credit cards and you want to sell your product outside of your home country/region.

This knowledge isn't just valuable when conducting a transaction. If you make wallets, pants and other personal items, remember that in some countries, your user is typically caring around currency. Paper bills, often pockets full of coins. What can you do to make their lives easier? Reinforce pant pockets to handle the change people carry? Provide more room for cash and less room for credit cards in a wallet? These are obvious ideas, I bet one of you out there has a much more brilliant idea!


These are just a few of my observations, and while small, they could make or break the success of your product. So, what differences have you observed while traveling? What have you done to make your product more accessible to users in regions outside of your own? Let me know on Facebook or Twitter using the links at the bottom of this page!