Cross-cultural design: challenges and considerations

Written by: Samantha Wolhuter

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When working on a project that is expected to reach a global audience and/or involves collaboration with international teams from different cultures, it is important to be aware of the various cultural considerations involved.

From a design perspective, what is common and expected vastly differs from one society to the next. Thus, it is important that teams looking to make an impact in foreign markets create designs that are functional and relevant to different cultures.

Here are a few of the major considerations our product and design teams incorporate into each new global project.

How culture impacts design

People around the world respond differently to things based on their culture. According to leading social psychologist Geert Hofstede, there are 6 six primary contributors to cultural differences:

The 6 primary contributors to cultural differences.
  • Power distance: how a society accepts hierarchical order (high power distance) versus a flat hierarchy (low power distance).
  • Individualism: the degree to which a society embraces individualism or collectivism 
  • Masculinity/femininity: masculine societies value achievements and assertiveness, while feminine societies value cooperation and quality of life
  • Uncertainty avoidance: how much a society feels comfortable or uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity
  • Long-term orientation: cultures that prepare for the future compared to cultures that prefer quick results and measure performance in the short-term
  • Indulgence: how much a society allows itself to enjoy life and have fun versus suppressing gratification of needs

These underlying elements that form the makeup of a particular culture and society will directly affect the way in which the society views, trusts, and ultimately accepts or denies information. In particular, these elements influence marketing, information, communication, e-commerce trust, technology adoption, and UX/UI of a product.

By understanding the motivating factors behind each of these elements, designers can begin to design with the user in mind based on their cultural needs and perceptions. But first, designers need to acknowledge their own design bias.

Cultural relativism

Designers instinctively base their designs on their own cultural norms and expectations rooted in their everyday realities and experiences. This is perfect for projects that are intended for a local audience where the majority subscribe to the same outlook. Design bias is inherent in all designers and needs to be acknowledged in order to be removed entirely when designing for a different culture: a blank cultural and perspective canvas is required.

Cultural bias can manifest in a variety of forms. For instance, when designing text layouts, designers must realise that the spacing requirements will differ depending on the language. German will require more space than English, for example. Even deeper, considerations must be understood for the differing reading directions from different regions of the globe: Western audiences read from left to right, while some Middle-Eastern audiences read from right to left, and Eastern cultures read from top to bottom.

This extends to colours, fonts, layout, messaging, translation, and even image selection: they all carry different meanings in different cultures. A design element that connotes significance in one culture may not translate to another. It is not enough to design a digital asset in English and then simply translate the language and update the currency. 

Cultural UX/UI

In particular, the UX/UI of a product is impacted by cultural relativism. Western UX/UI approaches tend to rely on minimalist design principles so that information is easily readable and processable, whereas the Eastern approach uses density to impart information quickly. Western audiences may feel this approach is too cluttered and chaotic, where Eastern audiences may view the minimalist approach as bland with a lack of relevant information. 

It is important to focus on a user-first design methodology that demands every design decision incorporated best suits the intended user. And the only way you will be able to successfully achieve this is through extensive user research.

User research

When done properly, user research is the key to landing your messaging in culturally appropriate and relevant ways. When trying to promote your product to a foreign audience, it is crucial you develop a deep understanding of who they are, and what influences their needs, goals, and pain points.

Depending on your findings, you may have to tweak or even rethink your business model to suit a particular foreign audience. This can come in the form of localisation of copy or using different icons where the meaning changes depending on geography. 

Don’t only dip your toes into this research, you’ll get better results if you dive in. So don’t get bots to redesign your layout or translate your text because the element of nuance is the cornerstone to understanding different cultures. Invest in both a qualitative and quantitative research approach to yield results, from interviews, ethnographic studies, and field testing through to surveys and audience testing.

Summary

The art of great UX/UI design is understanding the user deeply in order to create seamless digital experiences. Cross-cultural design requires meticulous research, planning, and execution in order to make an impact in foreign markets. It is important that design teams take into consideration all of the nuances of cultural identity and the societal elements that shape how people receive and perceive information. 

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Last modified: September 21, 2021
Author info
Samantha Wolhuter
Sam is in charge of writing a big portion of WeAreBrain’s creative content. She is a digital nomad always on the go, inspiring us with her words from some of the world's most beautiful locations.
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