How culture impacts UX

How culture impacts UX

The Internet makes the world a smaller place. You can make money or gain users outside of your demographic with a digital product or service easier than a physical business. But, is selling the exact same design of the product or service in each and every country a smart approach?

Considering the importance that culture has in our everyday lives, the answer is a resounding ‘NO’. If a business plans to expand globally, first they have to understand every market; to get to know and respect their culture and regulations. Digital products should reflect the diversity of its users and customers in order to be successful in a given market.

Culture in its broadest sense is a cultivated behavior encompassing the customary beliefs, traditions, social norms, social habits, and values of a group of people. It reflects the expected or correct way to think and act, determining what is acceptable, important, and right. It is known that cultural differences pose challenges, as well as opportunities, for the way people interact with each other but also it influences Internet usage, e-commerce trust, information and communication technology adoption, Internet marketing, and website development. That is why cultural awareness is a very important aspect of design, and designers who adopt a cross-cultural user experience strategy are more likely to come up with more usable and useful designs. It is a well-known fact that users prefer digital products that reflect their cultural characteristics.

The recommended way of discovering what factors should be taken into consideration would be by conducting a thorough user experience research before designing a product for a specific culture. The more you know about your target customers, the more you can understand how they will perceive and react to it.

One tool that can be successfully used to be better prepared for culture-specific user experience design is personas. The personas should incorporate the cultural dimensions from your data gathered in the research phase, form hypotheses about how your personas might differ from one another based on how their culture typically is represented on those dimensions, and include that into the description of their values, needs, and patterns of behaviour.

In addition to your user research, there are some commonly used models of culture that have dominated the psychology literature for a very long time and I will talk about these best practices.

Hofstede’s model is the most cited when it comes to investigating the impact of culture on usability. The model has a sound empirical basis. Based on his results, different cultures can be clearly represented on bipolar scales using a relative arrangement.

Hofstede’s findings ought to be used as a tool to aid in designing the most culturally optimized and specific User Experience possible.

Using factor analysis, he identified the following six cultural dimensions:

1. Power Distance

The central question in this dimension is how a society handles inequalities among individuals.

A high power distance means that people within a society have accepted a certain hierarchical order and the inequalities that come with it, while a low power distance means that people are constantly trying to equalize the distribution of power, especially those who have less power.

Translating that into your UX strategy, it means that:

Small power distance cultures don’t like to be controlled and they only accept leadership if it’s based on true expertise. A good approach is to offer enough objective and detailed information on your website to allow people to make up their own minds. Meet your website visitors on eye-level, treat them with respect, and show interest in their needs.

The communication style should be informal and direct if you want to gain their trust and get them engaged.

Big power distance cultures are used to authority and solid structures. They will take you as an expert and trust you as an authority figure. Make sure you offer them facts and clear statements and don’t give them too much responsibility.

Users belonging to this group are less critical and less driven to search for detailed information in order to make up their own minds.

2. Individualism versus collectivism

The second dimension describes how much people in a group focus on themselves and on the group as a whole. The position of society on this dimension is reflected in whether people refer to themselves as “I” or “we”.

Individualist cultures take initiative, act upon their own needs and desires, and make their own decisions. They are concerned with their own well-being and take responsibility for themselves and their decisions.

Translating that into your UX strategy, it means that: users from this group visit your site in their own interest, with their own goal, making their own decisions. You need to focus on these very individual requirements in order to convert them into loyal customers.

Collectivist cultures act in the interest of the group, rather than their own interest. They make decisions based on the opinion of others and on what’s common or popular, not so much on their individual desire.

Translating that into your UX strategy, it means that: you have to offer enough reference points, such as “most popular” categories, testimonials, or social media sharing options to gather instant and personal feedback from friends.

3. Masculinity versus femininity

The central questions in this dimension are what are the motivations and core values of a society.

Masculine societies are competitive and driven by achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and materialism. Feminine societies are consensus-oriented and prefer values, such as cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak, and quality of life.

The users belonging to a masculine society are constantly striving for success. They want to prove themselves by being the best in what they do. Once success has been attained, there is no hesitation to show it. These expectations not only apply to themselves, but also to the people around them and for example to the products and services they use.

While designing a digital product for this audience make sure you are prepared for their critical evaluation and offer them high quality. Competition or incentives can be used as attention grabbers.

The users belonging to a feminine society don’t want to stand out from the crowd, rather than that, they want to avoid conflicts and enjoy life.

Keep in mind that the positive experience with your website or product is more important than technical details, the prize, or whether you are the best in the field or not. This group likes to get engaged and entertained. As long as they are enjoying your product, they are willing to forgive minor flaws. Make sure you offer contact information and be open to feedback and questions.

4. Uncertainty avoidance

This dimension describes how people from a society deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. The main idea behind this is how people handle the fact that they can not control the future.

Cultures with a high uncertainty avoidance stick to what they know and avoid unorthodox behaviors or ideas. On the other hand, cultures with low uncertainty avoidance prefer practice over principles and welcome change.

In societies with high uncertainty avoidance, people prefer deductive rather than inductive approaches. They like to think things through and base their decisions and actions on a systematic evaluation of all available and relevant aspects. Also, they like and prefer the familiar over the unfamiliar.

Translated into your UX strategy, this means that you should present as much relevant information as possible in a structured and clear way. People from this group need to be able to balance different options against each other in order to make a reliable decision.

In societies with low uncertainty avoidance, people are more open to new ideas, willing to try something different, and take risks. This group of visitors is spontaneous and thinks practical, which means they can easily adapt to new situations. This type of users allows you to take more risks and try new things with your designs.

5. Long-term versus short-term orientation

This dimension describes how much a society is concerned with its virtue.

Societies with short-term orientation are normative in their thinking. They value traditions and are interested in establishing the absolute truth of the moment. They live in the here and now and don’t worry too much about the future.

A long-term orientation, on the other hand, results in a society that believes truth depends on the situation, context, and time. People believe that traditions can be adapted to changed conditions, they plan their lives ahead and set long-term goals.

The users belonging to a short-term orientation culture are interested in quick results that are in line with known values and traditions.

When designing for this type of population, make sure you offer short cuts and options to take immediate action. Also grab people’s attention with something they are familiar with, not with an outlook to the future.

The users belonging to a long-term orientation make thorough decisions for the future.

When designing for this type of population, offer detailed information and advantages that truly convince them of the value of your product. You can for example work with installment-sales or a long-term discount. Also, you can offer ways for your visitors to save their browsing history, such as wish lists, or social media sharing options. This way you don’t force your visitors into an immediate decision.

6. Indulgence vs. Constraint

The last dimension describes the degree to which a society allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun.

UX Designers ought to keep in mind that cultures that rank high on the indulgence scale will not be offended by the notion that they ought to indulge in more. More food items, more color options, more modes of operation, etc.

Cultures with low indulgence are not likely to respond well to an abundance of options — this can often be perceived fearfully, especially in countries where socialism is the dominant social movement.

Hofstede’s findings ought to be used as a tool to aid in designing the most culturally optimized and specific User Experience possible. By gaining insight into your target culture’s values, you’re more able to understand how they perceive certain design elements such as:

Colours have different values in different cultures and care should be taken to ensure that the colour combinations used while designing a website don’t affect local sensitivities. For example, yellow is associated in western cultures — North America and Europe — with warmth, summer and hospitality while, in Latin America it is quite the contrary: it is associated with death and mourning.

Symbols are often used as a metaphor, which helps your users associate familiar concepts or ideas with unfamiliar ones. But as you might be aware, there are certain metaphors that, when translated, lose their meaning.

One example of a misused symbol due to the lack of comprehensive user research is the famous case of Amazon launch in India. The company couldn’t figure out why customers in India were not using the search feature for products to buy on the homepage of the mobile site. It turned out that the magnifying glass icon was not something people associated with search in India. It made no sense in the Indian context as people thought the icon represented a ping-pong paddle.

The specific design patterns are another important factor when designing digital products. Even though there has been an increasing trend in moving towards a cleaner and minimalistic look, with more emphasis on content with explicit use of typography, these trends might not be applicable everywhere. While for the Western countries we can see an increasing trend in the adoption of minimalist design, it seems that in most Asian countries it is the other way around, as design layouts have a high density of information.

While designing for localization, some of the things that need to be considered regarding the translation of the product to the local language are the following:

Some languages are more verbose than others, meaning your design must account for text expansion and contraction in translated languages.

One way I estimate translation lengths is by using Google Spreadsheets. Using the Google Translate function, I can get machine translations in a bunch of languages at once. Within seconds, I can get a rough idea of how long the translations might be in each language.

Another aspect to consider while designing localized sites is the language structure. Most languages read from left to right but there are a number of languages that read from right to left. For these cases, just doing a text translation is not enough, and aspects such as placement of design elements and controls must be taken into consideration.

There is a bit of science when deciding on what font to use for the localisation of a digital app. We have to consider the languages we’re supporting and the special characters that they have such as diacritical marks or accents. The languages that require non-Latin characters like the Russian language, Greek language, etc. are available only in the most commonly used commercial fonts. If you decide to choose other font families or special fonts, these languages will have to use other fonts that support the corresponding characters and the final layout will look different from the English or the original version.

Example of how the “lookfantastic” website did not consider fonts that support diacritical marks required in the Romanian language.

Last but not least, a lot of care should be taken with small details. A successfully localized website is one that appears to have been developed locally, even if it wasn’t. In order to make your product successful, don’t forget to pay attention to details such as:

  • Date format: DD/MM/YYYY vs. MM/DD/YYYY
  • Units of measurement:: Be mindful of the type of measurement units being used in that country
  • Time: 12-hours vs. 24-hours
  • Currency: Pay attention to conversions and formats
  • Phone numbers : Different formatting around the world
  • National holidays: Holidays are country and region-specific

Designing for international markets can be tough — especially when you’re a foreigner with no familiarity with that certain cultural background. There are many cultural dimensions that influence these perceptions, which in turn, influence your users’ decision-making as well. The extent to which each cultural dimension influences your users’ perception of your UX is not always constant though. And this makes it even more challenging to design localised UX and also, builds a stronger case for cross-cultural awareness in design. But, with intense research and usability testing, you can design better experiences and bypass our cultural nuances.

This article originally appeared on uxdesign

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