"It's less about perfection and more about perspectives," says Traveloka's VP of Design, Amelia Hendra
Indonesia (and Southeast Asia in general) is having quite a moment now. The tech ecosystem is rapidly expanding; the vast talent pool is maturing, and we can see a few prominent startups gaining global recognition—Traveloka being one of them.
Traveloka's VP of design, Amelia Hendra, has a fascinating journey behind her. She went from difficulties finding a job after her graduation to working for IDEO in China, studying in Cambridge, and now leading over 70 designers while living in Bali. In this interview, we discuss her experiences, design leadership and strategy, Indonesia's potential and how her passion for learning and nature helped in these challenging times.
By Jan Takacs, 11th May 2021
Story of my life
Jan: Hello Amelia, thank you for taking the time. You have quite a journey behind you in your life so far, living and working in multiple cities, in different countries, experiencing various cultures. Can you talk about your journey so far? How did it all begin? Amelia: Hello Jan, thank you for having me. I was born and raised here, but left Indonesia because of the 1998 riots—as the home I was in was raided. My dad then sent me out overseas to Malaysia, then to Singapore. Later, I returned to Jakarta because I couldn't find a job when I finished my studies. I was a diploma graduate, not many jobs there for foreigners at my level in early 2000 in Singapore.
I managed to get my first design job in Jakarta, but the problem was that I had many ideas that were seen as a bit too “futuristic” for some of the clients. They were like, "Oh, this is a bit too progressive for us. We couldn't use these ideas yet." And that kind of made me feel like, "Oh, maybe this is not the place for me." So, I left Indonesia by choice this time.
I went back to Singapore for a third year Undergraduate, could not find a job in Singapore (again), I decided to go on with my friend’s idea to explore China, so I moved, never realizing that it would be for so long. My original plan was to go there for six months for a Mandarin course. And then at the end, I left after nine years, just crazy.
"Design school projects exploring 3D concepts brought to life through various mediums of storytelling – from photography, product design (a table clock), publication design (a bilingual design magazine), and interior design (mixed retail concept). These experimentations were my ‘tools’ for making sense of the world, thanks to my design teachers/mentors who introduced me to everything-design and supported me early in my career. I shared these examples as part of my “portfolio pitch deck” to illustrate designs beyond the digital world to showcase my background."
How was your experience working in China? You spent nine years between Beijing and Shanghai. You also worked for an award-winning design firm IDEO for over three years. I was trying out different jobs between Beijing and Shanghai for a while. At IDEO I had a fantastic time with my last project, designing a playground for children. 1,700 square meter, two-story-high playground in two cities (Wuxi and Tianjin). I loved that project so much because it was end-to-end. We started with research where we wanted to understand what parents think about play-time for children.
We realized that the whole ‘tiger-mom’ persona is all about achievements and schools. But what do they think about play? We started with exploratory research and uncovered many things about children’s play; I got passionate about the project, and I wanted to learn more. I wanted to go back to school to study this, to understand what play has to do with children's wellbeing and human development. As I was planning for school, the playground company said, "Hey, while you're applying for your studies, why don't you work for us full-time to help conceptualise the playground?"
So, I switched from IDEO to the client's side and worked there for eight months as their Creative Director. It was a team of three, essentially a startup. We worked with the architects, the IT team, educators, product designers and storytellers. It was all about the orchestration to make the playground concept come to life.
Testimony video from parents at ZipPiTeeDoo's XinXingYuan, China’s first character-building club, where the Positive Psychology concept brought to life via its play and learning curriculum.
After that project, I went off to the UK (to study MPhil in education at the University of Cambridge - note). After finishing the studies, I was initially not supposed to return to China, but to move to Hong Kong for the same client because I didn't want to be in China anymore. I've lived there for nine years, it seemed enough, and the language was a limitation. My Chinese was just not good enough for me to do work beyond what I already knew.
"The day I’m most proud of: earning an MPhil in Education from Cambridge University accompanied by my family (from left to right: sister, brother, me, mom, cousin, aunt, late aunt). It was the most intellectually-challenging journey I’d ever been through to date, and highly rewarding experience nonetheless researching children's play and wellbeing."
So, I thought, "Well, maybe Hong Kong will be a nice in-between place." But then, because those playgrounds were in China, it would mean that I would have to travel a lot, which was not something I wanted. I decided to stay in Indonesia again after being away for 11 years.
When I came back in 2014, it was a completely different country compared to when I left in 2003. Suddenly, Google Maps were there; Uber was there. All of these tools made me feel I could be mobile. I didn't know the city; I knew Shanghai much better than Jakarta then.
And so, I decided to stay. Around that time, many startups and NGOs were curious about design thinking. Me being physically in Indonesia allowed me to expand my network and kicked off my contributions to the design scene.
"When I came back in 2014 (to Indonesia), it was a completely different country compared to when I left in 2003."
Not many people have such personal experience from both Western and Eastern environments, including knowing the world's two major languages. That is putting you in a unique position. Could you share your point of view on eastern vs western mentality? What do you feel that the Westerners or the Western culture should learn from the East and vice versa? To be honest, I'm a little bit uncomfortable with the term “East versus West”. I work with a lot of people from all over the world. When you talk about “East versus West”, it just means people of Chinese descent versus white people, and that's not reflective enough. I think it depends on how we frame it. The “East and West” is like a language for geopolitical divide. I've just finished this book, The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. I think that the book is fascinating in terms of mapping the spectrum of comparison. It's not always about how it is different, but in between the spectrum, where you are [as a country] compared to the other countries.
Having worked with a lot of these different people from different backgrounds, I definitely could better understand their point of views and the way they think. There's a lot to be learned. I would say that, what the developing countries or emerging countries like Indonesia could learn from those developed countries would be around the idea of, especially in design: IP protection, ethical practices in handling data, or when you look at the country itself in terms of urban planning, an integrated public transport system, I think we are not very good at those yet.
When it comes to communicating what we have here, when you think about tech, you obviously think of Silicon Valley, or perhaps about London or Munich, not yet Indonesia, despite we have a few tech unicorns. I would say the mindset of efficiency and being a lot more pragmatic rather than bureaucratic is something we can learn also.
But on the other hand, I would say that Asian culture is somewhat more holistic in our mindset. If you look at the whole Chinese traditional medicine, it's not about fixing that single problem; it's about the overall holistic wellbeing. And there's also a sense of humility. You see a lot of Western perspectives being broadcasted, but not many from the East yet. I think it's what, by culture, the Eastern people have. It's more about collectivism rather than individualism.
And the last thing I would say would be we have outstanding food.
Post-AAA group photo with fellow Traveloka Designers back in 2019. AAA stands for Ask Amel Anything where Designers can ask me anything, and the above was my first when I was still on a Design consultant contract prior to shifting into a fulltime role as their VP. We still continue this event although now we’re doing it online. Questions I often get asked usually are around my experience working with different types of entities (for-profit vs non-profit), in different cultures, and in different roles (as an individual contributor vs. a lead).
Design leadership at Traveloka
You have been a design leader for a long time. I am curious about your approach to a design leadership role. When you join an organization like Traveloka, how do you usually connect with different stakeholders to enable the company to be more customer-centric, possibly even design-led? How do you make sure that the design is more embedded within the business? I have been lucky to join a great design team at Traveloka. I think the mindset, the customer-centric mindset came from the co-founder himself, which is fantastic. His name is Albert. He's one of the three co-founders, and he was the one that advocates a lot for the customer needs. Powerful advocacy from the co-founder makes it easier.
Traveloka offices across Southeast Asia and Australia.
From that perspective, at Traveloka, we are lucky because design has always got a seat at the table. Now, my job is to continue that legacy, and to make meaning in terms of, "So what are we going to do with it? I got invited to all of these meetings. What other value can I bring to the table?"
We're still trying to figure it out. I'm quite new to this job; this is only my second year. I would say that from my experience so far, a close relationship is built based on your credibility, as much as trust that forms out of it.
There is this framework that I adopted from IDEO. There are three things: there's a craft, there are relationships, and there's impact. Those are the three significant areas that you can hone to build your credibility in an organization.
I also instill this mindset in my designers. There are about 70 of them now. You have to be good at what you do first to gain credibility. And then, you need to involve people during the process, build a relationship over time. Hopefully, there is a positive impact on you putting in the craft, involving the people, and then creating a product together. I would say that’s the credibility framework that we use a lot.
What I learned from consulting practice is keeping the stakeholders informed along the way—not waiting for your final decision to only then tell them—to involve them during the process early. We try to build from their ideas, as they are intelligent people. They understand perspectives that designers don't. The way is to cross-pollinate those ideas and then to utilize the power of storytelling to get people aligned.
"There are three things: there's a craft, there are relationships, and there's impact. Those are the three significant areas that you can hone to build your credibility in an organization."
You were born and raised in Indonesia, currently the biggest economy in Southeast Asia with a quarter of a billion people, thousands of islands, various cultures, and environments. The country seems to be having a moment right now. We can see some famous startups coming out. We can see more and more people involved in the tech scene. How would you describe the role of design in Indonesia? Can you talk about the ecosystem and what's happening there at the moment? You mentioned the right keyword there, which is an ecosystem. I feel like with a big nation like ours; we are the fourth most populous nation in the world; we have over 17,500 islands. It's super diverse. The culture from the west to the east of the country is entirely different. You take a two-hour boat ride arriving at another island, and they have completely different belief systems. It's fascinating. I think the ecosystem itself is what we're trying to do. And I believe design could be the linkage to bring everything together.
The role of design, obviously it's massive. I guess probably what we need to address first is what does design means. In Traveloka, we define it as a rendering of intent. It could mean designing a lot of things. How do you want to design something and make it purposeful?
I would say that Indonesia also has a lot of young population, which is very tech-savvy. They're comfortable embracing technology. It's amazing to think like, you know, somebody who is sitting in the countryside is accessing and enjoying the user experience of all of these tech giants—Google Maps, YouTube, Instagram, you name it—which is also experienced by those in London or New York. And Indonesians also enjoy the local digital products, like Traveloka’s superapp or other technology companies from Indonesia. Whereas in the Western countries like in America or Europe, they may be less exposed to the superapp concept in a way as there's already a very mature technology there. I feel like there's a lot of innovation that you can expect to come out. Indonesia has a very creative landscape. As Southeast Asia’s lifestyle superapp, we continuously explore innovative solutions. For example, two of Traveloka's creations would be: 1) We're doing a livestream for travel and lifestyle products. We're building an in-house capability for this. 2) Our financial service team enables the underbanked people to conveniently and easily get access to financial services through our PayLater product. I think the potential is massive. We are just at the beginning.
"I feel like there's a lot of innovation that you can expect to come out. Indonesia has a very creative landscape."
Traveloka's Empowering Discovery brand video from 2019 as we positioned ourselves as South East Asia's lifestyle super app, starting with becoming a discovery platform rooted in our travel business.
Bali life & Remote working challenges
You live in Bali right now. I think we can say that COVID certainly boosted prospects of remote working globally. How do you see this evolving? Do you see that more and more people or companies in the region will adopt this approach? It has been quite a year, of course. I think we have to be very specific when it comes to the sectors that enable remote work. Not many sectors are doing that. Indonesia is still heavily reliant on, for example, the mining industry, the manufacturing industry, and so on. And obviously, they don't have that kind of advantage, but for a tech company like ours and a few others, this pandemic is like a massive remote work experiment.
Having moved to Bali in November 2020, this is my fifth month here; I think what I uncovered is that the infrastructure is not yet properly set up for continuous remote work. For example, many places that I stay don't even have a proper table and chair for office work style because they are resorts. They have good beds; they have pool chairs. And then high-speed internet access could be scarce too in areas like Candi Dasa, with lesser variety of food access. When you're working on Zoom from nine to five with not much time to cook, you’d want something you can order instantly and with variety.
But I could see that a lot of these places are adapting very rapidly. And this is part of my job and gives advice on some of the places that I've stayed at and what else they can do to support people like myself who can work remotely. But in the future, I think there's also a downside to working remotely. We already heard about Zoom fatigue. You know, managers sometimes do not know how to, including me, maintain the people's morale over a long period of time. Because I guess remote working during COVID and before COVID is very different. Before COVID, you can still go out and work in a cafe. In COVID time, you can't. It's just you and your room and the screen. It's very different.
I would like to think that we can enable this more. It has to do with how we set up our offices as well. You know, putting small little things, like having a big screen that everybody can be captured and then having the mics in front of everybody so that the sound comes through. Little things like that, I think, need to be set up. Ideally, we could do half and half. Or maybe a third and two-thirds in allowing the kind of flexibility while, at the same time, the need for seeing another person, your colleagues face-to-face in the same room, is still essential.
"The need for seeing another person, your colleagues face-to-face in the same room, is still essential."
Many people in leadership positions are struggling to maintain the hold on their teams and keep motivation levels high, as you just pointed out. Do you have anything to share from your own experience? How to perhaps mitigate or even solve these issues? For me, the way I resort to this would be... I'm very passionate about the world of learning. Last year, we established the Design Academy for Traveloka. We do a lot of training online, and then we invite external trainers to speak on specific subjects.
We conducted events. We call it, A Night to Celebrate Failure Stories (in Indonesian: Pada Suatu Malang, a pun from ‘once upon a night’). We invited storytellers from Design and from outside of the Design function too, to share their stories of “failures”. And then we have Kafe Socrates, which is a night where we ask big questions in life ‘cos life is not just about design, there are so many other exciting topics that we can argue and discuss. We’ve got one of our Designers telling her WFH story here, which quite represents how we all learn to adjust.
When it comes to the online, remote-working world, I think the design team that exists within their little mission group; they do like a chill-out afterhour. We also have an unofficial room where anybody can go in at any time and see who's there and then work online together in silence, or play online games as a bonding activity. Little things like that. I think that has been helpful. But mainly at this point, we just moved our HQ as well. We have this new, beautiful environment in BSD (just off of Jakarta), and everybody cannot wait to go back.
Traveloka Campus, our new ‘nest’ at BSD area in Greater Jakarta – the area was developed in the 90’s and was the most ambitious urban planning scheme in Indonesia to combine housing, business and commercial properties – and we’re proud to be part of the BSD smart city and digital hub ecosystem.
Looking at the sea
Moving on from design and work life, ... If you could choose any movie or any artwork you would like to spend one day in, what would that be? I guess my definition of art is maybe different from yours. To me, just looking out at sea and the greeneries, that to me is good enough of an art, exactly like the view I am having here in Bali right now.
Looking out the window in Bali is like looking at a living art where the skyline changes everyday and one just cannot predict what “the canvas” will look like tomorrow. As one of my top character strengths is “Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence”, the pandemic has brought me closer to nature which has helped me overcome challenges the past year.
Was there ever a piece of entertainment that left a long-lasting impression on you? A few years when The Crown just got started, that was very interesting to me, because you know, the monarchy... Of course, this is fiction, but having lived in the UK, the monarchy is something you always think like it's untouchable. I think they have done it successfully and with beautiful writing, cinematography, costume design, and everything is just amazing. Excellent cast as well. The storytelling is so powerful. I think having that glimpse of what somebody would do with that kind of power, a female persona and how it would feel like in the leadership position... that was just mind-blowing. I learnt a lot from The Queen’s leadership style.
What is the best advice you ever received? Well, there were many, obviously, but the one that I use a lot as a designer... I can't remember who said this or where this came from. It's something along the line of, "It's less about perfection, but it's more about perspectives." And I think this rings through to me in my career as a designer because when I started as a graphic designer, it's all about that little tiny pixel to perfection.
As I moved towards human-centred design methodology and design-thinking approaches, it's about understanding human perspectives and seeing the problem from their view. So I like that quite a lot, "It's less about perfection; more about perspective."
"I've always been curious about wanting to know and find something new, new knowledge and skills."
How would you describe yourself in three words? Well, this is the most challenging question. I would say "love of learning", which pretty much sums up my life. I've always been curious about wanting to know and find something new, new knowledge and skills. So it’d be ‘love of learning’... three words tho it's a phrase, but I hope that's okay.
Awesome, that wraps up things beautifully. Thank you for your time, Amelia. Thank you, Jan!
About Amelia Amelia is the VP of Design at Traveloka where she leads >70 interdisciplinary digital product designers. Since her graphic design training in 2000, Amelia has accumulated depth and breadth of experiences within the field of design and education. When Amelia was about 7-years-old, she enjoyed making little booklets for her younger siblings and taught them ABC's, and decorated their names on the hand-made book covers. It also turned out that her grandpa was a typesetter for a newspaper in West Kalimantan while the other grandparents were teachers. All these only made sense to her why she loves looking at beautifully-crafted typography in the first place, collecting well-designed printed publications, and passionate about the world of play and learning in general. You can drop her a note via LinkedIn here.
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