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Recently, I had the opportunity to go on a road trip from California to Texas. Against the advice of friends and family, my travel buddy and I took a detour to cross over into Tijuana. No one I know has been to Tijuana. Yet, everyone had an opinion about the city. As travelers on a road trip, the spirit was for embracing adventures. As a UX designer, I saw this as an opportunity to observe assumptions and study the experience. Here are my design lessons from Tijuana.

1. Doing your research

I have traveled to over 20 countries in all the continents except Antarctica. Considering the spectrum of languages, cultures, and security levels, I have learned to do my research.

Why even go to Tijuana

There are a lot of things to checkout. Here are a couple of resources on what to know and what to do.

Trip Advisor on things to do in Tijuana.

Thrillist’s post on what know about crossing to Tijuana.

UX design lessons from Tijuana - Taco Alley

Taco Alley – All the best of Tacos from Baja

UX design lessons from Tijuana - Hipster Coffee

Finding hipster coffee in Tijuana

Here is a good episode of “No Reservations” where Anthony Bourdain crossing over into the border.

How do you cross over the border?
UX design lessons from Tijuana - car crossing traffic jam - Image Credit: Jay Galvin -

Tijuana and driving over. Truly the busiest land crossing in the World

UX design lesson from crossing into Tijuana - Crossing on foot - Image Credit: Jonathan McIntosh -

Crossing over to Mexico on foot. Going through the revolving gates

After some quick research online, we learned that driving across is not optimal to avoid traffic and messing with parking. Since we were only going to check out Tijuana, parking the car in San Diego and walking across was the best way.

Here is a comprehensive article on how to best cross into the city.

2. Learning design lessons from government systems

Crossing into Tijuana

Walking across the border was exceptionally easy. It took less than five minutes to walk through a turnstile, pass my bag through what I assumed was an x-ray machine, and waltz into Mexico. I felt that I needed someone to stop me to ask if I had everything I needed to go back. The U.S. government did not care who was leaving, and the Mexican government did not seem to care who I was. No one checked my passport.

Along side me was steady stream of workers from Mexico who cross back and forth everyday for work.

UX design lessons from Tijuana - crossing back to U.S. on foot - image credit: Herb Neufeld -

The line to cross back into the U.S.. Not just tourist. Some people do this everyday for work.

Crossing back into San Diego

The next morning I experienced the contrast between the two governments. The government with open exit gates puts its entry under a microscope. The workers that cross over for work usually have to budget about two hours to get through security. The day my friend and I decided to go back over, he used his global entry card to bypass the line. He saved about one hour.

3. Understanding how perception affects decision making

I understand the concern that many people had when I told them of our plans. Historically, Tijuana was known for as an ‘anything goes’ town. The narco wars drove tourist out and sullied a city with an already questionable reputation. Media helped to burn this perception into me.

Actually walking the streets of Tijuana served as my reeducation. While I did not stay too long, I found a city that was trying to reinvent itself. Of course there were tourist traps and red light districts distractions. I also found world-class food and hospitality.

Final thoughts

The border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana offered a few surprises with how I perceived interactions with Mexicans and my own government. Approaching this experience as a designer, helped to keep my mind open to the reasons behind the difficult border crossing, and how different groups experience it. As designers, travel like this offers opportunities to exercise our ability to empathize with how people encounter abstract systems.

Matt Eng

Matt Eng

DesignOps Manager. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.