Why UX Designers Should Learn about Cross-Cultural Design

Designers at global level oftentimes have to work along with the geographically distributed teams. They work on digital products designed for global consumption for clients that are located all over the world. Yet designers, overlooking the wider world out there, continue to work in a bubble and tend to be focused only around their local culture, language, and traditions. Coronavirus updates on CNN Live Stream. Indisputably presenting complex challenges, a cross-cultural design refers to variations in both linguistic and cultural patterns of product design. Despite this fact, most designers unintentionally assume that designing products for various cultures simply requires switching currencies, language translation (localization), and upgrading a few images to represent a particular local culture. As a matter of fact, the road to successful cross-cultural design with effective UX is far more complicated, and rifle with pitfalls. Examples from history When launched in 2008 in India, Amazon faced issues for the lack of cultural insight and comprehensive UX research. They couldn’t find out why customers in the country weren’t using one of their chief drivers for revenue: searching for products to buy on the homepage of the mobile site.It appeared that the magnifying glass wasn’t something people associated with search in India. It made no sense to them. When UI was examined, most people found perceiving the icon represented a Ping-Pong paddle.Amazon, as a solution, continued the magnifying glass but assimilated a search field with a Hindi text label to make people know this was where they could start a search. Who will not remember the seminal cautionary myth behind why Chevrolet’s “Nova” flopped in Latin America? The whole event refers to branding failure because the name “Nova” means “no go” in Spanish. This story of substandard branding remained an object lesson for business students, reminding them about the failure to carry out reliable, in-depth cross-cultural research.However–whether or not the branding was fallen short–there’s one problem with this story: It’s not right. What should be focused? Designers–while they’re designing the cross-cultural products–should not just rely on contending with various languages, dialects, and dimensions of national culture. They certainly need to develop an even broader understanding of the cultural differences in color psychology and mental models of peoples from different target markets. Additionally, learning directly from culture to culture further adds an extra layer of complexity as text can be written right-to-left (RTL), left-to-right (LTR), and top-to-bottom.Beside some languages, “mirroring designs” is something designers need to consider when designing for both RTL and LTR languages. Consideration should be given to whole lot, i.e. from text to images, to navigation patterns and CTA (calls-to-action). Facebook homepage in EnglishFacebook homepage in Arabic where the layout is reversed (mirrored)Another thing to consider is that an image can be considered OK in some Western cultures but probably recognized inappropriate in some Middle Eastern regions. Therefore, using culturally acceptable imagery in products while reaching across cultures is also something designers should be aware of. Varying attitude towards religion, gender, and clothing in different parts of the world asks designers to become extra careful when working with images, as referred in a study by weather channel. Let’ say; a designer is not having a good know-how of a particular culture; it may become crucial for them to spend some time researching what’s appropriate from culture to culture. This way, they can be ensured about what to include in their product’s UI, i.e. text, imagery, microcopy, iconography, and more.Designers, for sure, have to account for text in different languages, acknowledged as “text-expansion.” Multiple languages, i.e. Japanese, German or even English, can yield very dissimilar results when worked for the same piece of text. For instance, proceeding from English to Italian phrases will be at times bring an expansion of around 300%! In short, not accounting for variations in word length in a range of different languages or offering UI elements ample padding will cause a boatload of work down the line. This will happen because a tsunami of screens will need to be adjusted to accommodate the switch to another language. The sign for the translation office manager in German.The seven dimension of Cross-cultural Design Designing for global customers — in some way — precedes designing for digital products and has been around for a long time. Cross-cultural design, in the context of global markets, has been rooted primarily in the work of two individuals: Fons Trompenaars and Geert Hofstede. A Dutch by birth, Trompenaars is known for “The Seven Dimensions of Culture,” a model he provided in his book “Riding the Waves of Culture.” This model is the outcome of interviews wit

Why UX Designers Should Learn about Cross-Cultural Design

Designers at global level oftentimes have to work along with the geographically distributed teams. They work on digital products designed for global consumption for clients that are located all over the world. Yet designers, overlooking the wider world out there, continue to work in a bubble and tend to be focused only around their local culture, language, and traditions.

Coronavirus updates on CNN Live Stream.

Indisputably presenting complex challenges, a cross-cultural design refers to variations in both linguistic and cultural patterns of product design. Despite this fact, most designers unintentionally assume that designing products for various cultures simply requires switching currencies, language translation (localization), and upgrading a few images to represent a particular local culture.

As a matter of fact, the road to successful cross-cultural design with effective UX is far more complicated, and rifle with pitfalls.

Examples from history

  1. When launched in 2008 in India, Amazon faced issues for the lack of cultural insight and comprehensive UX research. They couldn’t find out why customers in the country weren’t using one of their chief drivers for revenue: searching for products to buy on the homepage of the mobile site.
    It appeared that the magnifying glass wasn’t something people associated with search in India. It made no sense to them. When UI was examined, most people found perceiving the icon represented a Ping-Pong paddle.
    Amazon, as a solution, continued the magnifying glass but assimilated a search field with a Hindi text label to make people know this was where they could start a search.
  2. Who will not remember the seminal cautionary myth behind why Chevrolet’s “Nova” flopped in Latin America? The whole event refers to branding failure because the name “Nova” means “no go” in Spanish.
    This story of substandard branding remained an object lesson for business students, reminding them about the failure to carry out reliable, in-depth cross-cultural research.
    However–whether or not the branding was fallen short–there’s one problem with this story: It’s not right.

What should be focused?

Designers–while they’re designing the cross-cultural products–should not just rely on contending with various languages, dialects, and dimensions of national culture. They certainly need to develop an even broader understanding of the cultural differences in color psychology and mental models of peoples from different target markets.

Additionally, learning directly from culture to culture further adds an extra layer of complexity as text can be written right-to-left (RTL), left-to-right (LTR), and top-to-bottom.
Beside some languages, “mirroring designs” is something designers need to consider when designing for both RTL and LTR languages. Consideration should be given to whole lot, i.e. from text to images, to navigation patterns and CTA (calls-to-action).

Facebook homepage in English
Facebook homepage in Arabic where the layout is reversed (mirrored)

Another thing to consider is that an image can be considered OK in some Western cultures but probably recognized inappropriate in some Middle Eastern regions. Therefore, using culturally acceptable imagery in products while reaching across cultures is also something designers should be aware of.

Varying attitude towards religion, gender, and clothing in different parts of the world asks designers to become extra careful when working with images, as referred in a study by weather channel.

Let’ say; a designer is not having a good know-how of a particular culture; it may become crucial for them to spend some time researching what’s appropriate from culture to culture. This way, they can be ensured about what to include in their product’s UI, i.e. text, imagery, microcopy, iconography, and more.
Designers, for sure, have to account for text in different languages, acknowledged as “text-expansion.” Multiple languages, i.e. Japanese, German or even English, can yield very dissimilar results when worked for the same piece of text. For instance, proceeding from English to Italian phrases will be at times bring an expansion of around 300%!

In short, not accounting for variations in word length in a range of different languages or offering UI elements ample padding will cause a boatload of work down the line. This will happen because a tsunami of screens will need to be adjusted to accommodate the switch to another language.
The sign for the translation office manager in German.

The seven dimension of Cross-cultural Design

Designing for global customers — in some way — precedes designing for digital products and has been around for a long time. Cross-cultural design, in the context of global markets, has been rooted primarily in the work of two individuals: Fons Trompenaars and Geert Hofstede.

A Dutch by birth, Trompenaars is known for “The Seven Dimensions of Culture,” a model he provided in his book “Riding the Waves of Culture.” This model is the outcome of interviews with more than 46,000 managers in over 40 countries.

Trompenaars — rather than distinguishing cultures only by language — established seven varying qualities of culture for designers at the global level. These qualities include:

1) Universalism vs particularism

Do people in a particular region place emphasize on rules, laws, and dogma? Or do they postulate the world to be circumstantial?

2) Individualism vs communitarianism

Do people in a specific part of the world trust in personal freedom and achievement? Or they consider a group is greater than the individual?

3) Specific vs diffuse

Do work routines and personal lives kept isolated or do these have an overlap?

4) Neutral vs emotional

Do people make considerable efforts to express their emotions or they like to remain self-controlled?

5) Achievements vs ascription

Are they valued for what they do or who they are?

6) Sequential time vs synchronous time

A distinction needs to be made between people who like events to occur in a striated order and the people who believe in an interwoven continuum of the past, present, and future.

7) Internal direction vs outer direction

Some cultures profess to control nature and the environment, while others respect the opposite.

Greet Hofstede — in his part of cross-culture design formulation — questioned conventionally narrow view of language and culture. The point he made is everyone knows that people’s spoken ascents develop based on where they grew up; less talked about, though, is that how they feel and act is also a type of accent influenced by their locale.

Cultural dimensions, at the core, are cultural tendencies that separate countries (rather than individuals) from one another. The countries score on the dimensions are relative, as we are all human, and at the same time, we are all unique. For example, culture can only be utilized meaningfully by comparison.

Differences in cultural dimensions in Argentina and China by Hofstede’s country comparison tool

Do cultural dimensions really have an impact on designing?

Here we’ve shared three examples in cultural differences with regard to how people react to authority:

1) Are people see themselves as individuals?
2) Do they consider themselves a part of the group?
3) How calm are people in various cultures with changeability?

These examples fit into cross-cultural user experience design as well as into the behavioral design, where the focus on different aspects become really important to design products for various diverse cultures successively.

How do Users react to authority?

Dutch social psychologist, Geert Hofstede has sited every country somewhere on his power distance index (PDI), which estimated how societies embrace power inequality. Some cultures may expect information to come from an authoritative position, while others probably put less consideration in certification and expertise.

The implications of this for digital design are that authoritative language or imagery may work well in high-power distance cultures, but users in low-power distance cultures may respond poorly to the same and would choose to see something like the less informal popular imagery of everyday life.

What should designers be aware of people’s thinking as an individual or as part of a group?

Hofstede projected multiple aspects on his individualism vs collectivism index (IDV), where countries with more individualistic behavior are characterized by relatively higher scores.

In his IDV, Hofstede stayed focus on three things:

1) how do we inspire people in an individualistic culture versus a collectivist one?
2) Does the specific product promote individual or collective achievement?
3) Some societies place importance on youth, whereas experience and wisdom are valued elsewhere.

How much are OK people with uncertainty?

According to the uncertainty avoidance (UAI) dimension, cultures that believe less in rules are more inclined towards positively responding to the emotional indicators in specific product design.

On the flip side, a society that’s uneasy with uncertainty prefer clear and distinct options. Now the question is that “how these different cultures respond to something unanticipated, unknown, or away from the status quo?

Let’s consider an example of Germany, which scores high on the DIV index; therefore, it generally avoids unpredictability. As a result, products designed for German customers, i.e. should offer them a rational sequence of decisions to make.

Countries that appear low on Hofstede’s IDV index are expected to exhibit an improved level of freedom and comfortable exploration of the product with more attention to emotion.

Risk aversion is another factor that needs not to be neglected when designing products for different cultures. Let’s consider an example of risk-averse Japanese customers, who when asked to submit their credit card information during registration for an e-commerce site, may respond in a high rate of abandonment.

The essence of conducting user research in cross-cultural designing

Collecting micro-level insights via the direct observation is at the core of human-centered design thinking methodology.

When getting into the cross-cultural designing projects, proper user research becomes essential to achieve friction-less digital user experience across regions. Generally, this refers to leaving out into the field to meet people where they work and live. Doing this helps designers understand specific needs and imagine pertinent future opportunities.

The thing is that the need for designers to systematically research and understand local customs, cross-cultural psychology, cultural dimensions, and local UI patterns cannot be understated as it will either lead to success or result in failure.

Types of user researches and elements to consider

User research for an effective cross-cultural design generally involves the primary devices used by the target customers as well as the potential challenges they’re facing with internet connectivity.

With mediocre devices operating on less powerful network connections, designers could take advantage of AMP technology (accelerated mobile pages), use progressive web apps, or use adaptive design to boost up mobile sites.

Designers — in their part — can also design mobile apps in a way that detect slow network connections and subsequently serve up stripped-down basic functionalities to work offline or with spotty connections.

While getting into research for the better product design, not only is it essential to have a content specialist perform cultural checks, it’s equally important to have a local native speaker to gain linguistic prospects.

The cultural checks surely can include images, abbreviations, colors, idioms, and phrases to know they’re culturally appropriate and resonate with the local audience.

Any type of research–either qualitative or quantitative–can be done to find cultural differences among target markets. However, digging deep into the local customs, behaviors, and attitudes requires that a combination of both qualitative and quantitative research should be performed.

Quantitative UX research typically involves intercepts, interviews, and ethnographic studies, contextual observations, and field studies; quantitative research generally progresses using secondary data and carrying out competitive analysis, and surveys.

Qualitative research is somewhat a direct evaluation of behavior based on a number of observations. It is about conceiving people’s beliefs and practices on their own terms.
For instance, observing people in their local environment allow designers a better chance to understand the way people live and use digital products. It helps them design products that are inherently relevant to people.

Quantitative research, in its part, quantifies the problem by way of generating data that can be converted into useful statistics.
Some of the conventional data gathering techniques in quantitative research include different forms of surveys, website interceptors, longitudinal examinations, product usage analytics and online polls.

Examples from local phrases, idioms, and customs for text and imagesA handy selection of design tools, workflows, and fonts
When looking at the practical side of a cross-cultural design project, we can say that before going any deeper into the project, designers must ensure they’ve selected the appropriate designing tools for them.

For instance, many design tools don’t deliver the complete provision of fonts, or certain characters for a range of different languages, including Arabic, Russian Cyrillic, Japanese, and Chinese.

Designers, therefore, needed to be careful while considering design tools and workflow and their final deliverables.

Testing the cross-cultural design workflow during the beginning stages of the project is also very crucial for the achievement of effective final product design.

Making a right selection of design tools — such as fonts — is very important because some foreign language fonts may work on the desktop in a design tool but will not render as proposed on the web with the web font version. Here’s the point to consider: Web fonts hold support for various different languages, but not all.
A decent amount of focus will be required while selecting fonts that endorse support for particular language or script.

Consulting with developers early about character encoding, employing web fonts, and font embedding depending on the type of digital product (site or app) will eventually pay off in spades, as will wide-reaching testing and QA.
A UTF-8-encoded Japanese Wikipedia article on the web when interpreted as Windows-1252 encoding.

The thing is cross-cultural design is not a walk in the park. Therefore, designers not only necessitate to contend with varying cross-cultural challenges but also often need to bridge the cultural divide with clients in terms of text expansion in different languages, communication styles, edit a variety of a languages, solving issues using their keyboards to input, and wrestle with design tools and web browsers not rendering fonts or the foreign language characters accurately.

Example: Working with designers and clients across borders surely carry a significant set of challenges. Let’s consider an author (a Russian designer) worked on a project with a Brazilian client and had to actively manage the cultural gap between the client and himself throughout the design process to sidestep any misunderstandings.

Working on a cross-cultural design project can raise issues with Cyrillic fonts in various design tools not rending rightly. An on-screen Cyrillic keyboard had to be used in the absence of a Cyrillic keyboard for text input and edits that can slow things down insanely.

Cross-cultural design and the need for human-centered solutions

At the time, companies at the global level are looking for ways to explore across-the-border business opportunities. During the process, they’re facing challenges in different areas, i.e. adapting to the local features of various new markets, cultural system, and the sociopolitical environment.

Clearly, leaders of global businesses want to get their products to reach to the global markets as quickly as possible. But, in order to achieve best-in-class user experiences, the cross-cultural design asks for special attention.

For instance, a great UX is deep-rooted in the careful examination of social and cultural context; therefore, it becomes more a designer job to put the brakes on and call for a slowdown.

What has become vital for UX designers is the precise execution of in-depth UX-research, aiming to explore what people think, say, do, and feel to reveal fresh insights that help craft human-centered solutions.
Experts of UX designing know that cross border projects need to be researched and tested comprehensively.

Final words:

At its heart, the cross-cultural design calls designers to embark on a journey, which is less traveled before. At times, it may appear a little bumpy one; until the designer get an understanding of the seven cultural dimensions, seek the best workflows, and investigate an informed perspective, tools, and processes, they’ll cover the road successfully.

Have you ever conducted any UX-research for your cross-cultural design? Share your experience with us.


Why UX Designers Should Learn about Cross-Cultural Design was originally published in Muzli - Design Inspiration on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.