Re-imagining the Expat Hair Salon Experience // my research & strategic expertise
Throughout 2018, I had always wanted to challenge myself by practicing design in a foreign environment. If I truly wanted to pursue a field that was centered around analyzing the society around me, what better way to grow than to plunge into a completely unfamiliar setting?
In the summer of 2018, I got the opportunity to work in Beijing at a Series-B funded startup called XingKeDuo(XKD). XKD is a fast-growing beauty company that provides hair-styling and hair salon services for thousands of customers across China.
Here is some context about their mission:
Beauty practitioners and hair stylists have always had a poor reputation in China due to their social status as individuals who lacked a proper educational background and who were also situated in lower socioeconomic classes.
Willy Chuang, the founder of XKD, set out to attack the negative stigma and reputation that surrounded the Chinese beauty industry by opening a chain of salons that were all held to a high-level level of professionalism, affordability, and service.
Because many of the employees were native citizens who did not know much about the foreign environment, the company’s services were heavily catered towards the Chinese population. And since I grew up in America and was fluent in both English and Mandarin, XKD wanted me to pursue an independent service design study where I would be able to conduct cross-country, international market research relating to usage and design differences between popular American and Chinese digital services in order to utilize service design to improve the foreigner experience within their salons.
role & duration
design researcher & service designer
experience research, market research, comparative analysis, user research, ideation, design strategy
Independent design project
May 2018 – Aug 2018
setting the scene
While you may not think the number of foreigners living in China is enough to impact a company’s success, I was surprised to discover that, at any given moment, over 600,000 expats and foreign students are working and studying in China.
Before I came to the company, XKD was trying to elevate their services for foreigners by creating a ten page English script which they would make their ~300 Chinese employees memorize and rehearse. They thought that this would be the most optimal solution because it was equivalent to the service they provided for their Chinese customers.
I immediately saw many designs flaws inherent in this approach:
- The employees would take months to get a basic grasp of the whole script.
- If a foreigner deviates from the script or something happens that isn’t in line with the script, the employees would not know what to do.
- And lastly, foreigners would care more about the actual service and quality of the haircut instead of how fluid the experience was. If they end up with a bad haircut as a result of miscommunication or because of the aforementioned reasons, there is a very good chance they will not return no matter how great the service was.
I was excited to take on the challenge of finding alternative solutions in order to help XKD better service the expat population and further their cause.
visiting the salon
The first thing I decided to do was to visit a salon and conduct user experience research. Before I could start my market research, I needed to gauge what the current haircut experience was like.
As someone who was fluent in Chinese, I put myself into the shoes of a native customer to see what made their services so well received. So, in order to set up an appointment, I downloaded the application that the services were hosted on, WeChat, and followed the corresponding instructions.
I will talk more about this application later in my research and the difficulties that a foreigner who does not have access to it would face.
I came in expecting a normal haircut, but it ended being unlike anything I had ever experienced.
Not only was I catered for from the minute I stepped in till the moment I walked out, the service was both smooth and professional.
- Appointments were booked immediately on WeChat and hairdressers would use it to determine your hairstyle (if you were a returning customer, it would suggest previous hairstyles as well as new hairstyles to try based on your salon history),
- Promotions, appointment reminders, and other notifications would be directly sent through WeChat,
- From the moment they saw you, the hairstylists would refer to you by your last name (Mr. Mao) and promptly welcome you to your assigned seat,
- The hairdresser would then reiterate the hairstyle you wanted and clear up any details they might have missed,
- Then, they would hand you a cup of tea and use a special, latex-like material to seal up the gap between the cloak and your neck so that no loose hairs would fall in,
- During the haircut, they were extremely gentle when positioning your head and would constantly check to make sure they were giving you the desired hairstyle,
- After the haircut, they would vacuum your head with a specialized funnel in order to suck out any loose bits of hair as well as give you a face towel,
- And finally, you payed through WeChat at the end and it would redirect you to other potential activities around you.
Throughout the whole experience, the hairdresser would have lighthearted conversations with you and you would also be able to use WeChat to alert them of any extra needs or change details about your hairstyle.
I was so overwhelmed by their hospitality that it felt like the needs I had not even thought about were already on their minds.
This meticulous attention to detail and customer-centric attitude that the hair stylists employed were qualities I rarely saw. In America, I was more used to just sitting down, telling them what hairstyle I wanted, and always feeling dissatisfied with the cleanup at the end of the service as my sharp, loose hairs would get stuck in my clothes and stab into my skin.
Not only did I enjoy the quality of the haircut itself, it was one of the most pleasant and worry-free salon experiences I had ever been in, all at an extremely affordable price. This exquisite hospitality coupled with the salon’s modern layout, amiable soundtracks in the background, and a smile on my stylist’s face made me feel welcomed and special.
I had such a great experience at the salon that I was determined to find out what made the service in China so exceptional. Whether it was calling me by my last name, serving my choice of tea, or putting in the extra effort to clean up any loose hairs, I noticed that the salon service had been perfected according to a Chinese customer’s needs. Our hair is usually a lot coarser and sharper, which makes it very annoying if it lands into our clothes, we prefer to drink tea over any other beverages, and our last names are usually used in professional situations. These little details may not seem like a huge difference, but added up it made for a completely different experience.
XKD understood Chinese culture and society so well, that they were able to customize their services down to the minute for their customers.
market research – china
Because of WeChat’s dominant role in China, I hypothesized that this digital application was crucial to XKD’s service. I decided to use it as a starting point for the Chinese portion of my market research.
When you ask someone to name the most popular digital company in China, the one mentioned most often is WeChat. WeChat is a messaging, social media, and communications application equipped with functionality that parallels that of Facebook, Venmo, Whatsapp, and Instagram combined. It was created by one of the world’s largest Internet companies, Tencent, and was launched in early 2011. Ever since then, it has grown at a tremendous rate:
- A few months ago, it hit over 1 billion active users per month (AMU), half as much as that of Facebook’s.
- Its average revenue per user (ARPU) hit a high of $7 dollars; in contrast, Whatsapp (the world’s largest SMS application) only has an ARPU of $1.
- And lastly the gross annual cash flow funneled through WeChat in 2016 was a whopping 1.2 trillion dollars.
How did WeChat become so successful?
Chinese WeChat users can use the application to book taxis, message their friends, order food, buy electricity, purchase movie tickets, play casual games, register for flights, make doctor appointments, get bank statements, and so on and so forth…
The answer was found within WeChat’s mass functionality and accessibility for Chinese customers.
WeChat provides an extensive and broad range of services for its users and is able to supply virtually anything that they might need.
Its groundbreaking application model originates from the implementation of its “in-app applications.” These third party applications and services, also known as applets, are hosted on and their products streamlined through Wechat’s network. As you scale that feature up to tens of thousands of unique, lightweight apps, it creates a fluid system in which WeChat is able to seamlessly integrate third-party content and services into its ever-growing “applet ecosystem.”
These countless programs that reside on WeChat are akin to the numerous web-pages that make-up the Internet, redefining Wechat as not only an application, but also as a completely independent mobile operating system (OS) that has the power to dominate the digital market.
conclusions about the chinese market
One of the main reasons why WeChat is able to cater to so many people living in China is because of the homogeneous population and analogous culture within the country. Most users have already adopted WeChat fully into their lives and Tencent has been able to monopolize the digital Chinese market.
Wechat is powerful in China because it combines the convenience of almost every single mobile commodity into one application. This centralized mobile platform, in a way, reflects the society’s own norms and how its people live their lives. China is a country that has blocked out foreign technologies for decades so that the native companies could have ample opportunities to develop their own products. However, this blockage has effectively prevented Chinese companies from generating foreign awareness as well. These factors, in turn, has created a market where hyper-personalization for Chinese consumers is the only way for new products to survive.
The success of a product in China is directly correlated with two overarching factors:
- the integration of said product within the the digital lifestyle that WeChat has created as a result of its monopolization; and
- how personalized and efficient the product is when used by Chinese consumers.
Because XKD was able to both successfully integrate their services into WeChat AND cater them to the lifestyles of their customers, it has been able to grow exponentially while taking over the beauty industry in China.
market research – america
Because WeChat has been so successful in China, one may guess that international expansion would be an easy task for the company. Along with many successful Chinese companies, WeChat has tried to expand multiple times into multiple countries and has repeatedly failed.
facebook, venmo, whatsapp, instagram
In the United States, Facebook, Whatsapp, Venmo, and Instagram, among many other successful digital companies, are all driven by their core purposes. Unlike how these industries and corresponding functionalities all fall under WeChat in China, they are spread out across multiple companies in the US:
- Facebook: Social Media and Communication
- WhatsApp: Voice Call and Messaging
- Venmo: E-commerce
- Instagram: Photo and Video-sharing
This difference in market behavior can be attributed to two main factors:
- The demographics within the United States population is much more heterogeneous than that of China, making it harder for companies to focus on one consumer segment, and
- there is no overarching platform like WeChat that ties the digital landscape together.
In China, businesses are accustomed to introducing their services to the general public through WeChat integration and are also used to their customers sharing the same demographic and culture.
Therefore, most Chinese companies usually follow the same flawed mindset when attempting to expand internationally: they utilize the same business plans and strategies used within the Chinese market.
These companies all end up unsuccessful because they did not understand how to cater towards more demographics and were lost in trying to find a one-size-fits-all functionality model.
success in the western market
Facebook, like many other successful social media companies in America, is solely focused on expanding its social networks and promoting its services on a global scale.
The platform’s overarching goal is “to allow people to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.”
By concentrating on building its brand around these three objectives, Facebook is able to further solidify its brand image and distinguish itself from other competitors. It does not try to hone its products for any specific demographics nor does it primarily focus on their products’ mobile experience.
People in America are much more diverse and they also spend much more time on computers due to the availability of faster internet connectivity and broader bandwidths.
As a result, the success of most products in America is less dependent on how integrated they are within the “mobile lifestyles” of their users and more upon their accessibility, their functionality, and their general purpose.
From a business standpoint, Facebook is more concerned with the number of weekly and monthly active users on their network, while WeChat is more concerned about meeting the hourly needs of every user on their platform.
Facebook is focused on expanding its reach towards as many different people as possible. The social media company and other western applications are less focused on appeasing a specific audience and are designed to provide the best usability and maximum accessibility.
In contrast, WeChat is focused on building its own mobile lifestyle catered specifically for its consumer demographics. WeChat has catered its functionalities for Chinese residents and further advancements are committed to perfecting this relationship.
Using the market research findings, I had to figure out how to improve the hair salon experience for the 600,000 expats living in the country. I was able to visit the salons a few more times in order to get a more comprehensive feel for what the customer experience was like as well as casually interview both native and foreign customers.
understanding the foreigner experience
Earlier, I mentioned how amazing my haircut experience was at one of XKD’s salons, but that was only because I knew how to understand and read Mandarin. If I did not know much about the language beforehand or if I did not know how to use WeChat, it would have been very hard for me to communicate and understand what was going on.
This confusing situation would have resulted in a poor quality haircut and, as a result, I would not have returned.
Because time was one of the most valuable resources a growing startup had, I decided to categorize my solutions based on how long it would take to implement them. They range from short-term to quick fixes to long-term resolutions.
These are a few short-term solutions that can be implemented within a few weeks. These solutions may not have the most depth or effectiveness but can be temporary placeholders while more intricate solutions are put in place.
- The first method is to teach hairdressing terms in English to the workers so that they can refer to their mental glossary of words when they are communicating to the customers about the haircut. It will be much easier for them to remember a few words rather than memorize a whole script and they will, at the very least, be able to understand what type of haircut the customer wants and give them a quality product.
- The second method is to have a hairdressing translation board in the store that has both English and Mandarin so that the foreigners and the workers are able to point and gesture out what kind of haircut is suitable. This make it even easier for the workers to discover what haircut the foreigner wants because they wouldn’t have to commit English terms to memory and it would facilitate communication between both people.
- And the last “short-term” approach is to hire a hairdresser that is already bilingual and has experience within the beauty industry. This method would be a lot harder to incorporate since there is a short supply of employees that fit this demographic. However, this solution may not always be viable because of the makeup of the hiring pool at the time or because of how expensive these workers can be to recruit.
Next, these medium-length solutions may take up to a few months to implement. Compared to the short-term solutions, they will be more effective in bridging the gap between foreigners and the Chinese hairdressers but may not be permanent fixes.
- XKD can alter their WeChat application in order to implement a built in translation device that automatically translates the foreigners inputs from English to Chinese and vice versa for the hairdresser. This way, the hairdresser is now able to answer most questions the customer may have digitally and also begin to offer the native level of service.
- The second option would be to purchase and integrate translation devices within the stores so that speech would be automatically translated for both parties. This solution would also allow the hairdressers to do more than just figure out what kind of haircut the customer wants.
This mobile application and translation tool will take time to create and implement, but the result will allow XKD to tap into the foreign market. They will also allow the employees to provide a higher-quality service for the customers.
And finally, the long-term solutions for XKD would be to
- Setup an English teaching program for its native employees
- or to keep hiring until they are able to have a bilingual worker in each of their stores.
These solutions may take months or years to fully implement but XKD will completely become a company capable of international scope and can truly cater towards more types of customers. Obviously, this would probably not be enough for international expansion as XKD would need to alter its business model and services even more to acclimatize to the new markets, but this is a great start in that direction.
the end of an adventure
I was able to present all of my research findings as well as share my solutions with the top executives of XKD in a 3 hour-long, bilingual presentation.
Shortly after, XKD took my solutions and drew up a business plan to incorporate them within their bilingual training programs. This training program eventually would flow down into their stores and will allow each of their 300+ employees to comfortably interact with foreigners. I was really happy that they were able to use my work and that I was also able to make an impact in such a short amount of time.
If I were able to work more on this project, I would want to test out my solutions and see how effective they are; it would be interesting to see if the changes affected the native customers as well.
Overall, I was very glad that I took a leap of faith and traveled somewhere outside of my comfort zone and I look forward to the next time I fly back to visit!