Cultural characteristics, such as norms or values, influence product design. Most people can give an example of cultural influences when it comes to tangible products. For instance, toilet seats are designed differently in the US and Thailand. Online, these cultural differences might be less explicit, but this does not mean they don’t exist. Just as with other products, the way we interact with a website is in large part defined through our culture.
In order to ensure that web sites are globally accessible and equally appealing to different cultures around the world, user experience designers need to be aware of how culture affects the way we think, communicate, and consume information. I’ll explain how culture affects us in terms of visual design, navigation design, and information design.
Visual design: metaphors and color preferences
Visual design is the graphic treatment of interface elements. It is the ‘look’ in ‘look-and-feel’ (Garett, 2000).
As in the real world, the digital world uses colors and metaphors to enhance user experience. Metaphors help users associate familiar ideas and concepts with less familiar ones, while colors have the power to influence the way we perceive something.
On the web, designers use color for various purposes—to draw attention to certain elements on a page, to make a page more visually attractive, to create a desired mood, or to make text easier to read.
However, research in the cognitive sciences has demonstrated that both metaphors and colors are culture specific. A good example are the different meanings associated with the color green in the Islam and Irish cultures.
While in Islam green has always been a sacred color and is used in a number of Islamic flags, in the Irish culture green has had various associations and meanings throughout history. The shamrock for example, was a symbol of rebellion against the English in the 19th century. The three-leafed clover has also been associated with Saint Patrick who is said to have used it to explain the holy trinity.
Visual representations mean different things in different cultures. By being aware of these differences designers can communicate more effectively with their target audience.
Navigation design: culture and navigation elements
A clear and intuitive navigation helps users find what they are looking for as efficiently as possible. Various studies on how navigation elements are being used among different cultures show that these vary according to the communication style of the culture.
For example, a study conducted by Dormann & Chisalita (2002) which uses Hofstede’s masculinity cultural dimension to categorize web sites from different cultures, found that countries with a higher masculinity index (masculine countries) had fewer links per page than countries with a lower masculinity index (feminine countries).
Another study, comparing high context and low context styles of communication, found that Japanese web sites preferred to use images instead of text to represent links while Scandinavian web sites opted for plain text.
Culture influences how we access our memory, process information, and navigate through a website. UX designers need to be aware of these cultural differences to offer a navigation design that meets the specific interaction requirements of their target group.
Information design: culture and the organization of content
Ying Dong and Kun-Pyo Lee (2008) compared how East-Asian (holistic thinkers) and Westerners (analytic thinkers) perceive a website. The eye-tracking maps that resulted from the study showed that people from these different cultures browse web pages differently. While Chinese and Koreans scan the entire page to get an overall picture, Americans focus on information groups.
Based on their findings, Dong and Lee propose that when designing web pages for holistic thinkers (such as Chinese and Koreans), UX designers should pay attention to the harmony between the foreground and background as well as the relationship between the different content areas.
When designing for analytical thinkers (such as Americans), Dong and Lee suggest to emphasize on independent content areas.
How content is organized on a web page affects the ease with which users are able to consume and digest the information presented to them. By focusing on the target audience’s specific cognitive style, designers can enhance the perception and usage of a web page.
There is no question that cultural differences pose a challenge to global web design. By understanding and paying attention to cultural preferences from the outset, user experience designers are better equipped to cater to an international audience. From a business perspective, developers are able to determine whether or not in some cases a localized design might be a better solution.
As the list for further reading beneath suggests, the information I covered on this topic is just the tip of the iceberg. I would really like your opinion on this cross cultural challenge. Did you ever have to adapt a design for another culture? Can you recall misunderstandings that were easily explained by cultural differences afterwards? Please let me know!
- Nisbett and Norenzayan (2002) Culture and Cognition.
- Riding & Rayner (1998) Cognitive styles and learning strategies: Understanding style differences in learning and behaviour.
- Hofstede, Geert (1997) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival.
- Trompenaars, Fons, and Charles H. Turner (1998) Riding the Waves of
Web cross-cultural studies:
- Ackerman, S. K. (2002), Mapping User Interface Design to Culture Dimensions. Paper presented at International Workshop on Internationalization of Products and Systems (Powerpoint presentation)
- Callahan, Ewa, Cultural Similarities and Differences in the Design of University Websites.
- Dormann & Chisalita (2002), Cultural values in web site design.
- Schmid-Isler, S. (2000). The language of digital genres-a semiotic investigation of style and iconology on the World Wide Web.
- Würtz, Elizabeth, A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Websites from High-Context Cultures and Low-Context Cultures.
- Ying Dong and Kun-Pyo Lee (2008). A Cross-Cultural Comparative Study of Users’ Perceptions of a Webpage: With a Focus on the Cognitive Styles of Chinese, Koreans and Americans.
This post was written by Anneke Schapelhouman, our new online communications expert. Say hi to Anneke on Twitter, or leave a comment.