Cross-cultural UX design: Businesses with a global outlook

Have you ever wondered why the same movie can have such a different title in another country? Often, movies originally made in English have what seem like either completely irrelevant or just plain hilarious names in other countries. In Russia, Silver Linings Playbook was named the somewhat harsher My Boyfriend is a Psycho, and in Taiwan, Guardians of the Galaxy was given the just-as-catchy title Interplanetary Unusual Attacking Team.

Though, in reality, these movie titles only sound obscure to us due to our known cultural surroundings and how we perceive language - factors which differ widely from country to country. This is no more apparent in user experience (UX) design, where culture holds significantly more influence than we realize over how a product is received.

Culture affects more than we think

Culture determines the ways in which we view products, services, media, and much more in many more ways than people think. So much is tied to the way we perceive language and what is culturally relevant that any product launching in foreign lands needs to be adapted to be accessible and attractive to different populations.

Another interesting example that shows the importance of paying close attention to cross-cultural requirements is the Colombian version of the hit U.S. series Breaking Bad: Metástasis. In the Spanish-language version, the RV used for meth-making is swapped out for an old school bus, which would be much more commonly seen in Colombia. Furthermore, in Metástasis, Walter’s teaching career took place at a private school, as public school teachers in Colombia would not be able to support the middle class lifestyle portrayed in the show.

Just as with TV shows and films, when it comes to UX design, companies need to give significant thought to the nuances of cultures and how these will affect the accessibility and attraction of their product.

It’s important to not view this in terms of just countries, either. Even within one country, there can be so much variation between regions that this needs to be factored in too. For example, Scouting is a digital farming app that allows farmers and agricultural experts to identify in-field stress simply by taking a photo with their smartphone. The builders of the app, which is available in more than 40 countries worldwide, even had to take into account the variation across different regions in India and incorporate this into their UX design.

The Scouting app team realized that when designing a product with a market as big as 40 countries, being aware that cultural biases can stand in the way of creating a product that effective serves every potential user was crucial. Achieving a great user experience that transcends cultural nuances was a huge challenge for these UX designers - but it was one that was necessary to undertake.

Different cultures engage with products and services in different ways, so UX designers have to start by understanding the underlying values. For example, if the Scouting app didn't offer offline functionality, a big portion of its users wouldn't be able to actually use it, as internet connection and reach is not a commodity that farmers can count on when working in isolated rural areas in countries like Brazil or India.

Ultimately, by ignoring the fundamental differences across cultures in UX design, a product will struggle to capture the attention and usership of local populations. Let’s take a look into the aspects that businesses should be thinking about when adapting their UX design for cross-cultural use.

How can cultural differences be incorporated into UX design?

A one-to-one text translation of a product is simply not enough when it comes to adapting UX design to different cultures. Other important elements of design that will vary across cultures need to be taken into account, such as color, high and low context, and flexible formatting. The perception of colors can be influenced by deep-rooted cultural preferences. For example, the color red has different possible connotations in Western cultures: it can be associated with danger, but also action, depending on the context. In Chinese culture, red is the color of good luck and celebration, while in South Africa it represents mourning.

In addition, UX designers need to carefully evaluate their use of space and how this reflects the preferences of different cultures.

This is demonstrated perfectly by Edward T. Hall’s concept of “high and low context,” outlined in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. In the book, Hall differentiates between high context societies, which include polychronic cultures such as China or Japan, and low context societies that cover monochronic cultures such as Germany. The former favor multi-layered communication that not only includes the sound and meaning of words, but also factors like awareness of shared knowledge and intonation. The latter, however, prefer direct and explicit communication which allows them to respond to one thing at a time.

As such, a Chinese product website is much more likely to include multiple sources of visual simulation such as animations and feature boxes. However, the German version of the same product’s website will likely have a cleaner aesthetic and a layout that clearly shows the features of the product.

Find out what other elements of UX design require close attention in order to create a culturally-relevant product in part two, coming up soon.

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