Why It’s Important to Develop Cross-Cultural Design Processes
Modern design is very broad concept. How do you ensure that you design for the many, not the few?
Interesting fact: If you search for the most influential art and design universities in the world, you’ll find that the entire top 10 are located in either Europe or the U.S. The first university outside the West comes in at position thirteen, and it’s not until position sixty-one that you reach a listing for anywhere within the entire Indian sub-continent.
Placing those two realities together, we can deduce that modern design thinking—that is, the way we think, approach, and apply design—is heavily influenced by the activities, cultures, and beliefs of Westerners. Despite this, the majority of people who will inevitably be affected by that thinking live in different parts of the globe, with entirely different lived experiences.
The gravity of that situation may not be immediately obvious. Nonetheless, its effects are far-reaching. When one set of people decide how our world looks and how it works for all people, the results for the vast majority can be confusing at best, and derogatory at worst. Experiences that feel homely, familiar, and safe to some may be interpreted as antagonistic, tone-deaf, and unhelpful to many others.
As designers, whether professionals in the industry or business owners feeling our way for ourselves, we’re likely to be designing for people whose outlook, beliefs, and perceptions of the world are, at least to some degree, different to our own. It stands to reason that we have a duty to ensure that they benefit from our understanding rather than being disadvantaged by our assumptions.
Today, we discuss how we can design for the many, and not the few.
What Can I Do to Improve the User Experience?
If you’ve been involved in user experience (UX) design for any length of time, you’re likely familiar with the term localization. At its most foundational level, it can be taken to mean translating an experience into the language of a target locale, or ensuring that payment can be made in a local currency. So often, it’s assumed that this is enough to discharge responsibility, when in fact, these should be the absolute minimum considerations.
Take the example of when Amazon launched in India back in 2018. Analytics revealed that customers weren’t using the search bar at the top of the page at all to browse for products. When they asked a sample of Indian customers why that was, they said they hadn’t realized the magnifying glass icon related to search. Instead, respondents thought it was a ping pong paddle.
This simple example of neglecting local knowledge shows ever-so-starkly how easy it is to take for granted the paradigms that may seem blatantly obvious to us, but to others, are utterly meaningless. And, it raises another point: If something as fundamental to the web as search is a design element that can be misconstrued by those outside our immediate sphere of understanding, then it stands to reason that the experiences we’re creating every day could be actively hostile to vast swathes of users.
But, all is not lost! Here’s what we can do to increase inclusivity for our users through cross-cultural design techniques.
Ask the Right Questions
Everybody is different. It may seem like stating the obvious, but it bears repeating. After all, the majority of issues with cross-cultural design stem from the simple fact that we so easily forget this universal truth. To help us remember this, we can start our design process by asking a number of simple questions about our users:
How do users respond to authority? If your users come from more authoritarian countries than the U.S., chances are, they’ll respond more positively to direct language where they’re told in explicit terms how something will work or what to expect. However, if users beckon from more liberal countries, an informal approach using more colloquial language could be better suited. Remember, this isn’t a point about your users’ political standing. Rather, it’s about recognizing the reality of people’s situations and, as a result, designing for their needs and requirements.
Do users see themselves as individuals or as part of a group? This one is particularly important when designing experiences that reward users in some way. Gamification of user experience is an entire topic of its own, but suffice to say, not all gamification is equal. So, how you approach that is important dependent on your users. For example, when designing the “Log on” journey, you may wish to consider how profiles are created. Do users sign up as individuals, teams, or families? How competitive is the experience? Equally, it’s worth understanding how people approach reward—in some countries, individual successes are revered. Others prefer recognizing group effort rather than singling out one member.
How comfortable are users with uncertainty? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the notion that not all people are as comfortable with uncertainty as others. With UX design, this can have pretty material consequences. In E-commerce, prevailing thought is to design a customer journey that funnels users from their initial interest in purchasing through to payment. Some countries, such as Japan, are more risk averse than others. For that reason, asking Japanese customers for their payment details early in the journey has been shown to discourage them from parting with their money. Whereas, if you explain in detail security features and the process for how payment is taken ahead of time, uptake is entirely different. Conversely, in countries such as the U.K. where online payments are an accepted part of life, designing that self-same explanatory process would be selling well beyond the close. It could even dissuade sales, as customers bounce to competitors with a more straightforward buying process.
Understand Cultural References
As well as asking the right questions, it’s also worth observing cultural norms:
Color is a staple of any designer’s toolkit, with entire theories built to explain their usage and meaning. This is all well and good if you’re designing for people who share the same experiences or background as you, but to those with different cultures and histories, color can take on a wholly different meaning.
Take blue, for example. For some reason, major tech companies love it—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, PayPal, Shazam, Photoshop, MyFitnessPal. All of them, and many more, use it pervasively in their branding. You might think this isn’t an issue. It’s just a color, right? Turns out, different cultures attach different meaning to colors. For example, in the Middle East, blue signifies mourning, heaven, and spirituality. In India, it defines sport and strength. In Asia, femininity, healing, and relaxation. And here in the West, when we feel blue, we’re said to feel down.
Knowing this, you could come to the conclusion that using blue for users in the U.S. or Europe is something to be avoided, whereas in Asia, it might be the perfect choice. This is why organizations are waking up to the idea that their brand doesn’t need to be identical for every user. In fact, it could be ameliorative to make tweaks, such as color, in order to include as many people as possible.
Whenever you visit an app or website, chances are you’re seeing it expressed in left-to-right (LTR) layout. That is to say that the content starts at the top left-hand side of the screen and ends at the bottom right-hand side. However, large portions of potential users consume content in entirely the opposite manner, which, you guessed it, is called right-to-left (RTL) layout.
Reversing content and layout in this manner is called mirroring. That is, swapping the content so that elements that would sit on the left in LTR layout move to the right in RTL layout, and vice versa. The primary reason for this is to accommodate the direction in which we read the written word. For Western countries, this occurs left-to-right, but for many people—Central Semitic language speakers in particular (there are about c. 1.7 billion, including large parts of the Arabic world, which currently has one of the largest populations of internet-using under 25)—this occurs right-to-left.
You may be forgiven for thinking that mirroring simply means taking everything on the page and running it backwards, but it isn’t that simple. For example, logos and trademarks shouldn’t be reversed. However, anything that describes movement should be reversed. Think about it like this: on a flat screen, forward motion follows the way in which we read, so a transport icon would be reversed in RTL layout as forward motion is illustrated in the opposite direction. But wait—not all movement is the same. For example, clocks operate the same way in all countries. You don’t have some that run clockwise and other counter-clockwise. So, reversing a clock or progress indicator wouldn’t make sense as it doesn’t follow the way in which the real-world object actual works.
Families of icons should also be presented in reverse, i.e., if you had a family of three icons in a horizontal line, then what appears as Icon 1 in LTR would appear as Icon 3 in RTL The gotcha here is that the icons themselves aren’t flipped, just the order in which they are laid out and the side of the screen on which they appear.
Conduct Better Research
My final point really should be your starting point—research, research, research! Remember, the whole reason why cross-cultural design is such a broad topic is that we’re prone to making assumptions that all humans work the same. Ideally, you’d want a detailed analysis of the specific users you’re targeting because even splitting users by nation often doesn’t go deep enough. However, even a basic understanding of the customs, beliefs, political patterns, and cultural dimensions of your users is a solid starting point.
Better still, speak with a portion of your users before you design anything. This isn’t always easy, but it’s essential if you want to avoid frustrations, bad reviews, or an entire rework of your project.
You may employ a translator to transcribe your project into the target language. However, it’s also essential to complete other cultural checks. For example, imagery needs to represent your target audience. Check abbreviations, idioms, metaphors, and colloquialisms to ensure they aren’t either lost in translation or strike the wrong tone.
And finally, never assume that the entire globe runs the same super-fast internet connection as you. Believe me, this one has taught me a lesson, and the horror show that unfolds when a site crashes because your gargantuan images and complex animations can’t load is neither good for your nerves, nor for the user experience. One click in your web browser’s dev tools is all you need to simulate a throttled connection—don’t be me!
The Many, Not the Few
There are now almost eight billion people on our planet, each one with specific needs and requirements. Designing with the assumption that all of them will instantly understand your creation is not just a tad naïve, it also decreases dramatically the size of your potential customer base. Just like accents, our thoughts, feelings, and actions are influenced by where we’re born. So, next time you start a new design project, remember: 90% of internet users that live outside the U.S. represents a considerable opportunity, one that’s readily available to you with just a little thought and consideration. Now, go design something awesome!