How to design for ‘aliens’ to create a ‘human’ experience

My family and I are eight weeks into our life in a new country, with a new house, a new car and a new phone. Our new neighbours (or I should say ‘neighbors’) have been hugely welcoming. But actually immersing and integrating ourselves into local processes and systems has been quite a challenge – and it’s highlighted for me an important lesson about designing consumer experiences in an increasingly interconnected world.

Banks and banking systems here in the US feel very different from the UK. Cheques (or checks…) are still the predominant form of payment in the US – while it’s been so long since I wrote a cheque in the UK, I needed to Google how to do it!  Equally, in the US banks I’ve visited it’s taken many conversations to clarify the difference between payments for which I would incur fees and those where I wouldn’t. I’ve not encountered fees for electronic payments in the UK except for those required by the very largest financial transactions like buying a home. And many US banks seem dependent on third-party providers for these online systems which (in my experience, at least) created an additional layer of complexity that I’ve still not fully resolved…

In addition, without a US credit score (and despite endless other UK and US credentials), it’s as if I didn’t exist before I arrived in the US. It’s been a humbling reminder of how hard it is to start from scratch. If you have no home address or no credit score, even if your identity is unquestioned, you essentially don’t exist to many institutions. I’ve found this with credit cards, with insurance providers and even with store cards.

With phones, I found myself ‘lost in translation’ – a monthly pre-payment package called ‘pay as you go’ is identical to the conventional post-payment contract, except you pay in whole, in advance. The concept we have in the UK of purchasing phone credit that is consumed only when you use it (a.k.a. ‘pay as you go’) doesn’t seem to exist here. And a lot of UK-purchased apps that I’ve relied on for years are now only accessible and updatable with considerable added complexity. I understand there are licensing challenges across borders. But the experience has left me feeling that, while it may seem like a highly connected and global world today, the reality is many of our systems and processes are still caught in a ‘national’ box.

It is not that one system is good and the other bad. US friends who have lived in the UK or Europe have recalled similar experiences when living abroad. But in my work around the world, I’ve found there is often more commonality in human needs and aspirations between countries than differences – yet local systems assuming very different knowledge and interactions create very different results.

As an ‘alien’ abroad, it seems to me that – on both sides of the pond – so many of our systems are now hardwired and unintuitive, and they have lost sight of the human experience. Perhaps we need to look at our products, processes and systems through the eyes of a ‘legal’ alien to find a more human way.