Multiculturalism and globalisation in user experience

Originally published on ubuntu.com

The multicultural and global landscape: a broad target audience

The worldwide Internet audience is growing exponentially less English speaking and less Western centred. New cultures and sensibilities are enriching the global landscape every year, resulting in a multicultural and diverse group of people.

Fig.1 Worldwide Internet Users
Data from Internet World Stats 2020 Q3 (
www.internetworldstats.co)

Internet usage statistics (Fig.1) show that at the Q3 of 2020 the 51.8% of the total Internet users were based in Asia; 14.8% in Europe; 12.8% in Africa, 9.5% in Latin America and only the 6.8% in North America.

Another considerable data is the Internet World Penetration Rates, showing that 63.2% of the entire world population has access to the Internet.

North America leads the list with the 90.3% of Internet penetration; 87.2% for Europe, 59.5% for Asia, and 47.1% for Africa (IWS Q3 2020). This data clearly demonstrates that Asia and Africa have the possibility to double their Internet penetration rate in relation to their population, with even more important effects on the entire geography of Internet worldwide users compared to today’s (already impressive) statistic. The US and EU, on the contrary, have a very limited growth left in their Internet penetration rate.

Internet users in Asia have grown 2,268% from 2000 to 2020 (IWS 2020); from 9% of world Internet usage in 2005 to 42% in 2016 (ICT Facts and Figures 2005, 2010, 2016). Africa had an even more dramatic growth with 12,975% of Internet users from 2000 to 2020 (IWS 2020); from 2% of the world Internet usage in 2005 to 25% in 2016 (ICT Facts and Figures 2005, 2010, 2016). It is interesting to note that since about 2010 smartphones have hugely impacted the growth of the Internet world user base, especially for markets without the access to desktop/laptop computers.

It is very important to highlight the fact that Asia is a very large geographic continent that includes a multitude of different cultures and countries such as China, Japan, Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Uzbekistan, Korea, and many others. The same is equally true for the African continent, and the diversity that we find in these two large continents is also represented by an inner multiculturalism inside and within nations: the People’s Republic of China officially recognised 56 ethnic groups (Journal of Southwest University for Nationalities, 2009).

English is the first language for the content of worldwide websites with 51.9%, followed by Russian with 6.7%, and Japanese with 5.6% (W3Techs 2018).

Internet users by language shows English first with 26.3%, followed by Chinese with 20.8%, and Spanish with 7.7% (IWS 2018).

Challenges that global companies face

Considering all of this, what are the practical challenges? From these statistics appears clear that the concept of a global standard that can be applied anywhere is a shallow approach towards multiculturalism. This is the fast-changing and diverse worldwide audience that contemporary designers need to consider during the design process of global products and services. For the effectiveness of the design, but also to avoid ethnicity and gender stereotypes, designers need to integrate and develop cross-cultural methods. Researchers and designers should also consider and acknowledge that their own culture and background can affect, also unintentionally, the objectivity of their findings and the following overall design process.

When ignoring the spectrum of cultural sensitivities, the design output excludes users and customers, resulting in a failure of the product in those markets. Effective localised cross-cultural products and services go beyond the translation of the language and will appear to the target group as products created within the local culture; “It is expected that when web sites are appropriate and culturally sensitive, then users will have increase access to content and enhanced user experiences” (Cyr and Trevor-Smith 2004). It is therefore important for a successful localisation to include various elements of the user interface and interaction design for an engaging user experience: language, layout, structure, content, navigation, symbols, multimedia, colour scheme.

As shown in the research “Cultural Representation for Multi-culture Interaction Design” (Sheikh et al 2009), the challenges for an effective design solution for cultural inclusion do not arise only from language, currency, number, date, but also from those cultural differences that affect categorization of items, taxonomy, and concepts. The research focuses on the classification and content organisation, clearly demonstrating that “not only the content, but also the way this content is organised and classified reflects the values and interpretive practices of the culture in which it was produced” (Sheikh et al 2009). The organisation of the web content is often made by a person of a different culture, it is then important to employ cross-cultural research and user testing methods.

Multidisciplinary approach towards multiculturalism

It is complicated to discern what culture is. It is a matter that has been explored and analysed from different points of view and subjects. A culture can be part of a specific nation, and it is often confused as a country, but a nation is not a synonym of a specific culture. Nation and national identities are in fact artificial constructions that are perceived to be natural, inherent as a culture. As Gimeno Martínez (2016) states, design and visual communication are part of the national identities, and design is involved in creating the national framework made of memories, folk art, symbols, myth, flags, coins, emblems, and traditions (Fig.2).

Fig.2 Relation between cultures, nations, and globalisation. Diagram inspired by the read Gimeno Martínez, J. (2016). Design and national identity. Bloomsbury Academic.

The work of Geert Hofstede and Edward T. Hall

Geert Hofstede was a cultural anthropologist who between 1967 and 1973 conducted a large study with IBM employees from 53 different countries. He collected and compared the answers of 117,000 employees in order to analyse patterns of cultural similarities and differences.

In his Cultural Dimensions framework theory Hofstede identified six main dimensions; based on the findings, each country has a score with values from the lowest 1 to the highest 120 for each dimension representing the cultural differences and tendencies.

Edward T. Hall was an anthropologist and researcher in cross-cultural subjects. Hall observed that fundamental miscommunications are caused by the diverse perceptions of people from different cultures. By researching the styles of people’s communication, and the relations between them, Hall divided cultures in high-context and low-context groups. High-context cultures use more contextual clues (body language, gestures, silence) in order to communicate concepts and rules; this group includes countries such as Japan, Italy, France, Spain, China. Low context cultures communicate in a more direct and straightforward way, with more explanation, without taking for granted ideas and concept; this list includes Germany, USA, Scandinavia, Switzerland among other countries.

Some examples of how high-context and low-context cultures different approach is translated on the user interface of modern websites:

  • High-context culture websites are expected to focus more on human relations, reflecting a presence of imagery and non-textual communication (multimedia, animation, sound).
  • Low-context culture websites are expected to propose more text as main communication, websites as informative and practical source.
  • High-context cultures value collectivism, it is expected a communication that shows a group of people, in contrast with low-context culture websites with photos of individuals.
  • Low-context culture websites expected consistency in their layout and UI elements
  • high-context culture websites give more prominence to aesthetic elements.

It is interesting to note that even if the work of Hall and Hofstede have been criticised for their general approach of identifying nations and countries with cultures and for being outdated after decades of globalisation, their frameworks are still widely used today in many researches, marketing and academic studies.

Examples

McDonalds

In her article (Wurtz, 2005) “Intercultural Communication on Web sites: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Web sites from High-Context Cultures and Low-Context Cultures”, Elizabeth Wurtz bases her study on the cultural theories of Edward Hall and Geert Hofstede, featuring practical comparisons and detailed analysis of the differences found in the international websites of the multinational corporation McDonald’s.

PepsiCo

In “Pepsi across cultures: analysis and cross-cultural comparison of Pepsi websites” Chirkova (2011) analysed the cultural adaptations on the user experience of the Pepsi products’ websites using the cultural dimensions theories by Hofstede and Hall as a framework. As a conclusion, Chirkova (2011) confirms that “PepsiCo takes at least to some extent into consideration differences between cultures and tries to adopt its marketing strategies on the global market to local cultures”, reflecting cultural traits in different and localised websites. Across over 200 countries, at the time (2011) the analysis didn’t find two identical websites.

The conclusion of these studies demonstrate that the cultural patterns and mental models highlighted by Hofstede and Hall are valuable also when translated on the web, even if with some approximation, including elements such as:

  • Presence of images with people, their demographics, gender, age
  • Presence of marketing campaigns or competitions
  • Overall symmetry of the layout
  • How the information is represented
  • Use of multimedia, effects, animation, sound
  • Presence of historical information

It is important to implement these multidisciplinary tools with the study of the target group in order to achieve a more effective cross-cultural design: “the validity of the results could be further enhanced through the involvement of participants from the countries from which the Websites originate, and the incorporation of users’ perspectives in evaluating the appeal, usability, and cultural appropriateness of Website designs.” (Wurtz 2005).

“In order to succeed with different cultures, global corporates should focus on the localisation of a product or service that embraces cross-cultural approaches, researching the local culture without pursuing a global standard.” Nemani (2011).

Cross-cultural methods

As Aaron Marcus (2000) states “Different cultures look for a different data to make decisions”, and it is confirmed in the findings of the research Cultural Representation for Multi-culture Interaction Design (Sheikh et al 2009). The study is based on how users from dissimilar cultures (British and Pakistani in this case) categorise and classify items differently, highlighting that cultural aspects are deeply rooted in users’ mental model. For this research, Sheikh, Fields and Duncker used card sorting during the user testing sessions to identify and categorise food items (Fig.3).

Fig.3 The UK and Pakistani categorisation — Sheikh, J., Fields, B. and Duncker, E. (2009). Cultural Representation for Multi-culture Interaction Design. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, p.102.

“Not only the content, but also the way this content is organised and classified reflects the values and interpretive practices of the culture in which it was produced” Sheikh (2009).

Cultural bias in User-Centred Design

User-centred design (UCD) method relies generally on an initial research, where designers or researchers gather information on the target group, and create personas (realistic profiles representing the end users), use cases and scenarios from that data. UCD also relies on the user testing to iterate back to previous phases in order to change and tweak the design, integrating it with the new findings; “In the user-centred design process, we are focused on the thing being designed, looking for ways to ensure that is meets the needs of the user” (B.-N.Sanders 2002).

The actual end users are involved during the research phase and in the practice with user testing phases with prototypes or design mockups.

By describing this practice it might appear clear that one of the problems of adopting UCD as a method for cross-cultural projects is that the cultures of the designers involved in the process could easily play an important role in shifting the objectivity of the experience in relation to the culture they are designing for. Even with a multidisciplinary approach, the risk of a culturally biased design output remains high. As Meghan (2013) states “Design itself is a social act, defined by the social and cultural conditioning of the recipient. The choice of imagery, a concern of the designer, will impact on the recipient in different ways”.

Participatory design

From User-centred design, a step forward towards designing for the users, is to design directly with them. As B.-N.Sanders (2002) explains, this shift does not involve new methodology, rather a different attitude and mindset: “the user becomes a critical component of the process (…) People want to express themselves and to participate directly and proactively in the design development process”.

From this premise, participatory design appears to be a strong candidate for cross-culture projects, for its main characteristic of involving users actively, directly into the design process. When designers work on a product or a service they typically do it for a certain group of people; the idea is therefore to include those people, the end users, in the process to create their product (fig.4). As mentioned by B.-N.Sanders (2002) “Understanding and empathizing with the people who experience artifacts, interfaces, systems and spaces can best be accomplished by communicating with them in the places where they live, work and play while they live, work and play”.

Fig.4 Example of participatory design approach, from UCD methods.

As Rodil (2014) mentions “The design originating from the same contextual background as the users might not seem radical to users from that context, but for users from other nationalities/cultures a proposed system can pose too much friction to be of use”. The Internet and IT are historically connected to Western cultures, where they were generated, and their paradigm is more effective and established for Western users. Designers working on cross-cultural projects should be ready to question all the aspects, interactions, and UI design elements that are established in their own culture, instead of seeing them as a global solution. Since this level of detachment is difficult to achieve, participatory design would help by introducing local users in the design process; allowing designers to include context around the local users, their culture and knowledge, in a more direct way. Ultimately, participatory design is a tool for a mutual exchange of expertise and knowledge through a direct communication: designers bring their technical ability and design process; local users and communities carry the knowledge of the subject of the product or service that is going to be designed.

Conclusion

Multiculturalism and diversity cannot be ignored as they are part of the global and interconnected landscape that interacts with all of us every day.

Companies, designers and stakeholders should become more sensitive and aware of the diversity of their users worldwide, investing in cross-cultural methodologies beyond a simple localisation of the language. Embracing global diversity is one of the keys for successful and effective products, services and communications.

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Head of UX @Canonical @ubuntudesigners , London, previously @Intel . Film and digital photography.

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