How Does Culture Impact UX Design?


Netania Engelbrecht

March 30, 2016

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Over 3 billion people have access to the internet. This positive trend in global connectivity means that it’s becoming increasingly common for companies to design global web experiences. To do so effectively though, UX designers need to go beyond designing for seamless use and accessibility; they need to create a cross-cultural user experience. The concept of culture at first glance seems both simple and interesting because we all have a relative understanding of what it is. But what is culture, really? What are the characteristics of different cultures and how do they influence localized UX?

Cultural Dimensions and UX

Before we get into any detail, a national culture refers to the value differences between nations or regions. And one of the most well-known cultural theorists, Geert Hofstede, defined the cultural dimensions that explain cross-cultural differences. 

If you would like to read more about these cultural dimensions, take a look at our two-part article on How to Design for a Cross-Cultural User Experience.

Design Elements and Culture

If you’re a UX designer, you’re probably already aware that culture affects your job – and if not, you should be. This is especially true when creating localized UX for your customers. Each culture places different value on different design elements, just as they do in their society. They also absorb content in different ways due to these cultural perspectives.

Here are a few elements that can greatly be influenced by individual cultural perceptions:

Visual Design  

[bctt tweet=”Visual design is the graphic treatment of interface elements. It is the ‘look’ in ‘look-and-feel’”] (Garett, 2000).

To keep things simple, we’ll break down visuals into two elements: color and symbolism. These are two design elements are commonly used to enhance the user experience and are both greatly influenced by your user’s cultural perceptions. This is the case for both on- and offline design.

Different cultures attach their own meaning (value) to certain colors and symbols as well. Symbols are often used as a metaphor, which help your users associate familiar concepts or ideas with unfamiliar ones. And if you’ve worked with translations you are probably also aware that some things, like metaphors, can simply not be translated well.

Colors on the other hand influence your users’ perception of different UX elements. Color is essential because where you might be designing based on color psychology, your user’s culture might influence what they truly perceive. This is to say that colors have certain cultural values attached to them as well. For example, while white in most Western cultures symbolises purity or peace, in other cultures it is attached to mourning and sadness and these cultural values influence the opinions your users form while on your site.

Site Navigation

The most important thing about a site’s navigation is that it’s intuitive and clear to all users. It is one of the most, if not the most, important interactions there are.

Our culture influences how we take in and process information, and therefore also how we access information in memory. Combined, these factors influence how a user navigates through a website as well; where they start, what they pay attention to and the opinions they form about the content.

The reason why culture influences navigation has to do with cultural communication, meaning that depending on the culture, there’s a specific style and manner of preferred communication. For example, feminine oriented cultures tend to favor more links on a landing page because they prefer having multiple options and making connections between more elements. Also, cultures with long-term oriented (i.e. value pragmatism and future thinking) cultures interact better with content that includes more images, while short-term oriented (i.e. value traditions) cultures prefer a more focused site where there are fewer distractions.

Information Processing

As mentioned above, the way individuals process and retrieve information differs per culture. Research has shown that there are two distinct ‘ways’ of thinking: holistic and analytical.

The holistic approach to thinking is generally associated with Eastern cultures, where your users would be more inclined to scan through a whole web page before forming an opinion. From a design perspective this requires the background and the foreground content to be more neutral. This is because it should be easier for holistic thinkers to scan the page without distractions.

Analytical cultures (mostly Western) tend to focus on individual information elements, this therefore requires your UI design to be more structured. When designing for more analytical users it’s best to have individual content elements stand out. This means that content sharing the same theme should be grouped together, so that one piece of information can be processed at a time.

How can you use this knowledge?

Visual design elements mean different things to different cultures. So when designing localized UX, be sure to do your research and be aware of the differences. In doing so, your UX design work will be more effective at conveying the messages or ideas that you want it to.

  • Understand the value that different cultures place on certain colors; they can be, and are, also a symbol.

  • Understand how metaphors, and therefore symbols, can become “lost in translation”; local values and norms influence how people relate the ‘known’ to the ‘unknowns’ and it’s vital to understand why this is so.

  • Understand the cognitive needs of your target users and design accordingly; cultural dimensions influence your user’s perspective on information and what’s important.

Take a look at Modelling a User’s Culture and see how localized UI is influenced by different cultural elements to design optimal cross-cultural UX.

Let’s look at how Philips’ website changes from East to West:

This is the Philips website in China:

How Does Culture Impact UX Design? by Usabilla

The image below is the Philips website for Saudi Arabia:

How Does Culture Impact UX Design? by Usabilla

This is the Philips website in the United States:

How Does Culture Impact UX Design? by Usabilla

What do you notice as being different in the UX of these three localized websites? What does it seem like each culture values in design? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

What does culture mean for your UXD?

Overall the way you design and present the content on your site affects how users from any culture process the information on it. When creating localized UX it’s essential that you look into how culture has shaped your users’ cognitive processing of information. The elements discussed in this article are not by any means conclusive, but they are a few of the most important to consider when designing cross-cultural web experiences.

By gaining insight into your target culture’s values, you’re more able to understand how they perceive certain design elements (e.g. colors, symbols). 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 towards your UX is not always constant though. And this makes it even more challenging to design localized UX and also, builds a stronger case for cross-cultural awareness in design.

Have you designed cross-cultural UX recently? If so, how did you go about doing this, did you notice any distinct differences compared to your general design work? Let us know in the comments section below or tweet us @usabilla :)

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