Design & Development

Juli 11

The challenge of cultural differences in UX/UI design

Our UX research team was working on a new Information Architecture for a restaurant mobile app. I was planning to conduct a card sorting workshop, a common UX research method where users are asked to organize topics into categories that make sense to them.

The thing is, I’m currently located in Istanbul and can conduct a physical workshop only with people who also live here. But the restaurant app concerned was for restaurants in Germany. Could you possibly conduct a card sorting workshop with Turkish people for a German app? Probably not, but I wanted to know more about it. So, together with my team, I decided to dig deeper into some cross-cultural research.

At first, I analyzed several popular brand websites from different countries. In fact, every company website I looked into had a different online presence in different countries. Not just in terms of text and translation, but also in terms of visual elements, typography, color palettes and layouts.

Secondly, I researched the literature and discovered that there have been published quite some studies on the importance of cultural differences in UX/UI design. In this blog article, I describe the key takeaways from my literature analysis.

In general, consumer behavior across different countries and cultures is believed to become even more heterogeneous. (De Mooij, & Hofstede, 2002) The same is true when it comes to the design of digital interfaces and there are some characteristics that require particular attention regarding cultural context. (Cyr & Trevor-Smith, 2004)

Design characteristics with cultural differences

  • Language: As one of the most distinctive aspects of different cultures, language is a challenge. The quality of translation makes a huge difference for websites and apps and also representation and style may vary.
  • Layout: Serving as a communication bridge between the user and the interface, layout differs in-between cultures. This involves the placement of banners, menu items and orientation, amongst others. For example, one study (Barber & Badre, 2001) mentions that in France, the orientation of a website is usually centered. So, features on a French site are most likely to be found not in a corner but in the center of the menu bar.
  • Symbols: They are “metaphors” that denote actions for the user and may vary a lot from culture to culture. When using them for currencies, locations or navigational elements, designers must pay attention to the fact that symbols aren’t understood the same way everywhere in the world.
  • Structure: The site’s content, the information or features that it provides, as well as its organization, represent another form of communication between the user and the interface. According to another study (Hall & Hall, 1990), in Germany, messages have to be complete, clear and precise while in Japan users prefer to get messages through stories. 
  • Navigation: Easy access to information on websites and apps doesn’t mean the same everywhere. For example, while German users appreciate links in a navigation bar in alphabetical order, this might not be true for other countries.
  • Multimedia: Videos, animations, images, photographs and sound in digital design cause different reactions in different cultures. Besides the style, it’s also critical to pay attention to the message multimedia content conveys.
  • Colors: In every culture, colors have profound meanings. Color symbolism differs dramatically between Western, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, Indian, and African cultures. For example, in some cultures white represents innocence while in others, it represents death.

Are you wondering which of these design characteristics are UX design and which are UI design? And what’s the difference anyway? Read our article about the difference between UX and UI design (in German).

Besides these concrete characteristics, there are also some fundamental differences in values that show how different the world’s societies are. According to a very recognized study (Hofstede, 1980), there are five dimensions of fundamental values.

Dimensions of fundamental values

  • Power distance: This means the extent to which less powerful members of a society accept the fact that power is distributed unequally. In cultures with large power distance, everybody has their rightful place in society. Elder people are respected and status is important to show power. In cultures with small power distance, people try to look younger than they are and powerful people try to look less powerful.
    For example, Malaysia has the highest power distance index (PDI) at 104. Compared to that, Germany and Switzerland are rather on the lower side of the scale with scores of 35 and 34, respectively.
  • Individualism vs. collectivism: In individualist cultures, people look after themselves and their immediate family only. In collectivist cultures, people belong to groups that look after them in exchange for loyalty. In individualist cultures, the identity is in the person; in collectivist cultures, identity is based on the social network to which one belongs. In individualist cultures, there is more explicit, verbal communication; in collectivist cultures, communication is more implicit.
    The United States has the most individualist culture in the world with an Individuality (IDV) score of 91. On the other side of the scale are South American countries with Guatemala scoring 6.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity: In masculine cultures, the dominant values are achievement and success. The dominant values in feminine cultures are caring for others and quality of life. In masculine cultures, performance and achievement are important. Status is important to show success. Feminine cultures are people-oriented, small is beautiful, and status is not very important. In masculine cultures, there is a substantial role differentiation between males and females; in feminine cultures, there is less role differentiation.
    The most masculine country is Japan with a Masculinity score (MAS) of 95. Austria (79) and Switzerland (70) are also on the male side. Scandinavian countries are on the feminine side of the scale with Sweden scoring 5.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance: The UA Index means the extent to which people feel threatened by uncertainty and ambiguity and try to avoid them. In cultures with strong uncertainty avoidance, there is a need for rules, formality and structure. Competence is an important value and results in belief in experts. In weak uncertainty avoidance cultures, there is a strong belief in the generalist and people tend to be more innovative and entrepreneurial. In cultures of strong uncertainty avoidance, people tend to be better groomed than in cultures of weak uncertainty avoidance because it is one way to face a threatening world.
    A high Uncertainty Avoidance Index is observed in
    Greece with 112 and Portugal with 104. The lowest score is observed in Singapore with 8.
  • Long-term vs. short-term orientation: This means the extent to which a society exhibits a pragmatic, future-oriented perspective rather than a conventional historic or short-term perspective. Long-term oriented cultures are particularly found in East Asia and value the acceptance of change, perseverance, thrift, and pursuit of peace of mind. Short-term orientation is predominant in the Western world.
    China has the highest long-term orientation, scoring 118. The United Kingdom on the other hand is a short-term-oriented country, scoring 25.

Conclusion: Culture matters

Each of these factors might have a significant impact on creating user-centric services and products. Who people are and what’s important to them makes a difference in how they perceive information architectures, access information and get motivated to interact with a user interface. It also makes a difference in how we as designers can create value and trust for users with different cultural backgrounds.

After doing this research, I’m now more sure than ever that you cannot do a card sorting workshop with Turkish people for a German mobile app. There is just too much that users could perceive differently. Especially in today’s world full of choices, visual appeal and how information is organized is way too important to ignore cultural differences.

And the card sorting workshop? In the end, I did it online – with German users, of course.

Would you like to know more about UX research and UX design? Drop us a message!

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