Product Pros 03 | Seoul

Olivia Dumnicka
7 min readJan 23, 2024

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👋 Hello! In this series I ask product pros from different cultures just three questions. Seoul edition.

Meet Joonseo: Currently a clerk at the 89th Artillery Battalion, product designer, and formerly growth at LOVO AI. Most recently, he became the first Korean to receive the 1517 Fund Medici Grant as a junior at Yonsei University.

😊 How does your country’s or culture’s uniqueness influence your approach to UX Research?

From Seoul, Chicago, Bogota, and Qingdao, I’ve had a pretty nomadic upbringing, so it’s hard for me to choose one specific culture. But I guess the most relevant answer that I can give is my experience in the army. I have the pleasure of serving in Gangwondo, and if you’re familiar with your Korean geography, you know this basically means nothing but mountains, bunkers, and a stoic expanse of curved, lifeless, brown land.

You feel like you’re stuck in this little inescapable bubble, where you can’t do anything productive in your life, where you feel this constant dread that you’re falling behind. I think it was this state of urgency that pushed me to build as many projects as possible and try to build a portfolio, any portfolio (https://www.joonseochang.com).

I have limited resources, so in my time here I’ve set up a few custom shortcuts and life hacks (setting up Apache Guacamole on the base computer to remote connect to my home computer, setting up integrations to smoothly enable edits across different apps and devices, etc). One of my largest hurdles was constantly being stuck using the mobile versions of Figma and Framer, which was honestly a nightmare, but we all make do with what we have. I’ve written more about my experiences working on projects in the army here: https://read.cv/joonseo/3Aqr0DHkxM5ZmG9lsUHq. Hopefully it can work as a template for others in the same boat.

In general, Korea has a big Super App culture. Each industry and sector is essentially monopolized by a certain few tech companies. Thus, the benchmark of good consumer/enterprise design in Korea has come mostly from Naver or Kakao, not only because they actually have good design, but because the design language that they have built has become the one most Koreans have become accustomed to. The Naver and Kakao design language has essentially become the metric in which all startups in Korea compare themselves to.

Koreans are pretty tech savvy. We’re used to having everything and anything crammed into one screen, which comes from our extremely selective use of just a handful of daily apps. The content you see from these apps is kind of overwhelming at first glance. From one screen, you can order furniture, get food delivered, watch short-form videos, see invoices, access your government documents, membership cards, and even get your credit score. It’s literally packed with everything an individual might need. I might be wrong, but I don’t think Koreans appreciate minimalism when it comes to apps. They might say: “If it can do this one thing, why can’t it also do this? Make it happen.” So, in many cases, quantity not necessarily quality is what is expected from clients and your traditional corporate superior.

Naver’s bento boxy interface subtly hides just how much information and options has been compressed into one screen

The standard that Naver and Kakao have set makes it especially hard for startups and MVPs to find success in Korea, especially because we Koreans are very set in our own little routines. We use apps that either feed into our current routine, or make a strong enough case for a new routine. For example, most teenagers in Korea will visit Naver Webtoons almost daily to get their dose of comics released on specific days of the week (so every Monday they’ll look at their favorite romance webtoon, every Tuesday their favorite fantasy webtoon, etc). It’s incredibly hard to convince a person in Korea to change their habits, to change their views on what apps they might want to or should use.

Every nation has their own set of priorities for UI. For Koreans, that’s having as many options and as much data as possible. This means having a single dashboard for every single aspect of their life, where they can customize everything and constantly access a stream of new content with a click.

⭐️ Your top 3 favourite products

Recently, my favorite product to use has been read.cv and its cousin Posts. Being a member of this community feels like you are a part of a small online village populated by the most creative people. You get to see behind the scenes of their personal projects and beyond their polite resume personas. Scrolling through is a breath of fresh air compared to the noise that you get from the overwhelmingly infinite feeds of Twitter, Instagram, etc. It feels stripped down and “paced,” meaning each post feels curated, artisanal, almost handmade. The app’s small community thrives in that curation and gently paced feed. Needless to say, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some amazing people there and constantly feel inspired by the projects people share on the site.

read.cv

I originally had my mind set to buy the Fuji XT30II, but as I walked around the Namdaemun camera market, I miraculously set my eyes upon the elusive, internet-famous phenom that is the Fuji X100V, used and noticeably slippery from the previous owner’s natural oils, but not completely worn down. Encouraged by my friend Tima’s eager recommendation (“the best camera I’ve ever used — it made photography fun again”) and the fact that it was suspiciously fairly priced (pretty similar to the price tag of a used XT30II body including interchangeable lens), I made the purchase. And a few months in, I can happily report that I am in love with this camera. It has now become an irreplaceable extension of my arm. I also use the Sony FX3 for video.

Fuji X100V

KakaoTalk is my favorite Korean superapp, because while it still has a plethora of different features and screens, it still feels manageable (perhaps due to my constant proximity to the app). I think once you get used to it, you’ll find your very own set of frequently visited Kakao features: sending messages, purchasing gifts for friends, venmoing money, storing my vaccination certificate, etc. A comfortable life in Korea is simply impossible without Kakao (you can sort of make do without Naver in my opinion).

Kakao Talk

💡 What’s one piece of advice you’d offer to aspiring product designers or researchers based on your experiences?

I’ve noticed that whenever people start pursuing product design, they commonly go through one of two mistakes.

One is that when they try to choose their first portfolio project, they feel this pressure to go big. That means they attempt a complete rebrand of a company site, or they attempt to create their own, completely new fashion/cooking/reading app. And that’s all cool and nice, but it’s very hard to test the validity of such projects, especially because they are working on a completely theoretical foundation. Most people, and enterprise companies especially, are probably on the lookout for something more singular and simple. For example, an improvement on a specific feature or user flow, or expanding the use case of an existing product/feature to a new specific market niche or stakeholder.

Keeping the project scope focused to one specific feature is much more tangible, much more actionable, because it shows that you can 1) work with the existing design system of a company, 2) tells people that you are familiar with the complexities involved in the technical implementation of design, and respect the existence of a realistic timeline for a certain project, 3) it shows that you actually know how to improve on existing products.

So one of the project ideas that I give to people for their first portfolio project, is to choose a product they like or frequently use, and look for a specific aspect of the app that they don’t like, for example the site’s navigation, user onboarding flow, etc. My first portfolio project was improving Webflow’s Editor by adding the ability to add annotations, and fixing the Editor’s redundant sign-in flow.

Two, young product designers (I mean, I’m young and inexperienced myself so I mean youngerrrrrr) have trouble finding reliable sources of inspiration. When I got started, I had no point of reference, no roadmap laid out for me, so I made the completely understandable rookie mistake of trying to learn design from Dribbble.

Dribble is home to incredibly beautiful designs and illustration, don’t get me wrong, but the truth is, 99% of the designs on Dribbble are just design fantasies. They will never be implemented. Nothing but a museum of the latest morphisms (there just simply aren’t many apps that have successfully added glassmorphism or neumorphism into their interface design).

Instead of learning from Dribbble I always recommend people use actual applications or features that have been released and tested as inspiration. Some good sites for reference include Mobbin, Saaslandingpage.com, and the individual portfolio pages of active product designers (which you can find in sites like https://www.cofolios.com and https://www.bestfolios.com/).

Hope this helps! I’m honestly figuring stuff out myself so hang in there :)

Connect with Joonseo on Linkedin

Visit his website

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Olivia Dumnicka

Product Designer that understands marketing. Based in Berlin. Working freelance 👩‍💻 + Running creators agency - swai.social