International Stories: Petter Karlsson

I consider myself lucky to have the opportunities to work with Petter in several occasions. To me, he’s not only really good in what he does, but also an interesting and inspirational person, professionally and personally. Petter is currently Senior Design Manager in Spotify. This interview, however, is not about specially about his work at Spotify, but it is to capture his knowledge, thoughts, experience and stories focusing on design, international and team (all three together).

You’ll enjoy this interview with Peter Karlsson. I know I did.

Hi Petter, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Sure. I first got interested in design when studying informatics at university. As a way of giving myself a break from learning programming syntax, which did not come easy to me, I started to read a lot of science fiction, authors like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and the like. The interplay between technology and social change struck a deep chord in me, and when I started to take courses in HCI, and later UX and what is now product design I was hooked. 

My work and my curiosity has since taken me to various tech companies in Europe and North America. Living in other countries made me aware what part of me was really me and what was part of the culture where I happened to grow up in my native Sweden. The cultural part is surprisingly malleable and that being an outsider is a great way to get to know yourself. By the time I returned to Sweden years later I had formed a very diverse family, for a family of 4 we now have 7 different passports! 

The products you designed (digital and physical) throughout your career life are used or sold globally. What are the most common design decisions you make to ensure your designs cater for local customers’ need and give them the best experience?

More than anything I try to cultivate a sense of being humble and curious about other cultures, their realities and what the jobs to be done truly are for a certain audience and market. I try not to be too clever with design solutions, not to make too many assumptions. Creating something simple is useful, because users will then have greater opportunities to co-opt the experience, and I will learn faster about what is truly useful. 

I have also learned to be quicker and more ruthless in killing off ideas that don't work, or to revive old ideas for a new audience. Too often we write off ideas for the wrong reasons. 

You’ve got an impressive portfolio! Both in-house and agency experiences with companies such as Spotify, Electrolux, Microsoft, Nokia and Apegroup. Are there any differences in terms of how you go about approaching designing for international users in these companies? What are the primary differences?

This is a difficult question to answer because you always work for a company during a specific point in time. Over the last two decades we, as an industry, have become more aware of taking international users into account, and so the companies I worked for recently invest more in research and building empathy than the ones I worked for earlier on in my career. 

I sometimes feel an over-reliance on research findings as a source for new ideas. Designers should feel free to adopt a more carefree attitude to research, to treat observations as a source of inspiration, as a springboard for new ideas that will get some time to mature.   

Another interesting distinction is between physical and digital. If you work within the white good industry you need to design something that will age well and still feel relevant in perhaps 10 years time, which often means longer design cycles and more conservative design choices. Digital solutions are much more transient, we can allow ourselves to take on more uncertainty, move to market faster and iterate as we go.  

What are the key challenges you often face when it involves designing for various markets?

There is a difficult balance to strike between tailoring the experience to local market vs maintaining a consistent experience and avoiding fragmentation. A common pitfall is to focus only on the differences between markets because we tend to notice those first. Digging deeper we also might find interesting similarities. Users in a mature markets have had more time to adapt to something that might still be perplexing  to people in newer markets. Solving for opportunities that are discovered in new markets but applies to many markets are the most impactful, they're just harder to see at first. 

Another challenge is to find the balance between intuition and supporting data. Understanding the impact before investing in exploration is difficult, there are simply too many opportunities we can take on  and we need to choose the biggest ones, but it's not obvious which ones those are. The risk is then to choose what's easy to measure. We need to find a balance between riskier and safer bets. 

We worked and travelled together for several projects in the past. I always admire your critical, yet creative thinking. What is your top advice to design professionals and organisations who have products that are sold globally?

Assume that you know less than you think. Adopt a beginners mind and try to see things for the first time. Expect that although you probably start off with wanting to validate your pre-existing thinking that you will return with something different. This is not failure. 

What are the key mistakes you often see companies or designers make when designing for international audiences?
Ignoring the differences and hoping that what you have developed for your home market will work everywhere. Or ignoring the similarities for the seemingly exotic differences. Letting your assumptions blind you to brand new opportunities. 

How do you (and your design team) make sure you capture the required local knowledge to inform your design decisions?

Always collaborate closely with people closest to the market. They might be non-design colleagues already working in the market or local experts. Immerse yourself. Leave the hotel room and the research facilities and walk around. Bring a good camera! It will make you observe with more attention. I try to do a good job of bringing back photos and other artefacts to paint the picture for those who couldn't come along on the research trip.  

You work with team members from the different cultural background and located in different countries. When recruiting for designers, apart from having an ‘eye for design’, what would be the key characteristics and personalities you look for to make sure they can design for users in different markets?

Diversity, resilience and curiosity. Hiring designers from important markets is great but not scalable, I'm rather talking about the value of having different backgrounds and skillsets in general. This will keep everyone on their toes, and will remind the team that we design for people different than ourselves.

Being genuinely curious, and resilient to change. Change is constant and although it may sound great to embrace change it is often difficult to change a direction that we may be passionate about, or realising that we've been going about it the wrong way. 

Finally, I always love the stories you bring to the table. Could you share with us one or two interesting cultural related stories that you’ve heard or experienced?

Ha! Where to start? Most of my stories will probably make me look a bit dumb. Like when I relocated to from Europe to the Pacific Northwest and I was dismissive about how everyone dressed down. Then I experienced 60 days of continuous rain ... well, almost. When I relented and went shopping for my own rain jacket I realised people were not dressing down at all, I just had not learned to tell the difference yet. Check out the Arc'teryx Veilance brand for dressing up Vancouver style and you'll get what I mean. 

Or how about the first time visited my wife's family in South America? My non-existing Spanish skills made children feel sorry for me for being born mute! The notion of different languages is not a given when most of the continent share the same language.       

Thank you so much for your time, Petter!