Cross-Cultural Design

What comes to your mind when people mention cross-cultural design? A cross-cultural design meets the needs of diverse cultures, languages and social status. It views culture as the key to every user’s heart. As a philosophy, it recognizes that culture helps us understand each other and navigate the world.  Cross-cultural thinking views diversity as an opportunity. Such that, when international brands consider diversity, they create flexible designs which can be interpreted and customized. Space for interpretation and customization also lets users individualize and connect with their products. Teams that understand cultural parameters, design products that attract diverse audiences. Hence, it is important for us designers to learn about cross-cultural design.

Cultural Diversity Artwork by Julie Mehretu

Stadia II, 2004, Carnegie Museum of Art, © Julie Mehretu.

Innovative ideas come to life when people from different backgrounds work together, to create new solutions. Everything we make is perceived contextually, through the lens of internalized standards and biases. Similarly, in everday life people act and think from the perspective of the culture they belong to. In his ‘Theory of Cultural Dimensions’ Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede briefly defines six parameters that make up every culture.

Cultural Dimensions

  • Power Distance: Inclination of a society towards high socio-economic hierarchy or low socio-economic hierarchy.
  • Individualism: Preference of having individual goals and growth opposed to group goals and growth.
  • Masculinity/Femininity: Inclination towards male-authority setup characterized by success and innovation, or equal-authority setup defined by group work and life quality.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance: Natural balance of comfort and discomfort in a society due to future or general uncertainty.
  • Long Term Orientation: Preference of making either long term, slow paying future arrangements or short term high paying investments.
  • Indulgence: Balance a society finds in fulfilling all members’ needs versus satisfying certain members needs.

Cross-cultural approach integrates various languages, cultures, genders, values, taboos, and social status into a product. In the design world, cultural adaptation means customization of products for the locals. Brands always adapt their products and services according cultural parameters in order to succeed in the global market. Due to current trend of global-scale-trade designers need to learn about cultural adaptation.

Going global is the biggest goal for businesses. It opens up many new opportunities. For this reason, it is very important for companies to apply cross-cultural policies in their products and the first step in doing so is systemically approaching the topic of culture.

Cross Cultural Design
Cross Cultural Design

People and Culture

How do individuals relate to culture? In professional circles, culture is likened to a pyramid or an iceberg. The Iceberg model explains elements of cultural behavior.Simply, the hypothetical Iceberg consists of three parts. Floating above the sea is the ‘surface value’ of culture and located under the sea are ‘unspoken rules and unconscious rules’ that make up a culture. In contrast to the iceberg model, the pyramid model focuses on the scale of cultural behavior. It defines behavior by forming a pyramid with human nature as the base, narrowing it down to culture and singling out personality at the top. Overall, these models provide different frames for designers to analyze culture and understand its non-linear nature.

Principles of Cross-Cultural Design

Human centered designs can overcome cultural restraints. Therefore, they are cross-cultural products. Such products can easily adapt to cultures. They do not need any cultural context to be understood. It should be noted that, for a cross-cultural end product, detailed user research is necessary. Some cultural elements that we need to research about are language, social dynamics, beliefs and practices. In addition to these, we should remember that different cultures interact with cultural elements in different manners. Which is why, it is crucial for differences to be also factored in.  In the end, it is the successful use of cultural elements that determines global sales. For example, Russians may sign different terms of use even though they are using the same applications as Egyptians.

If there are observable cultural differences between two neighboring European countries think of the cultural diversity between two countries separated by an ocean! Undoubtedly, such differences will impact global sale rates.

Cross Cultural Design

Cross-Cultural Design Practitioners

Cross-cultural design derequires great care and attention. International brands are the biggest cross-cultural practitioners. Undoubtedly, marketing and product strategies that are effective in certain geographies do not work in others. An example of this is McDonald’s regional menus. In India people consume less meat therefore vegetarian options are preferred. Alternatively, in Japan sea-food options are popular. Furthermore, in Turkey McDonald’s offers traditionally inspired dishes to compete with local options. As mentioned above, regional customization requires in depth cultural analysis. Corporations hire designers because of they want to translate their brand values into other cultures. As a rule, designers are responsible for creating well thought-off stories and products which accommodate cultural differences around the world.

Without a doubt, culture is the biggest design opportunity as it directly impacts usability.

Cultural connotations often change from country to country. A great example of this is that unlike the in rest of the world, white symbolizes death in Japan. For this reason, the Japanese wear white when mourning their deceased. Acknowledging varying cultural connotations helps designers. By doing so we use colors, patterns, symbols and textures correctly. Reshaping a brand’s global strategy locally broadens their user base. A great example of this is the story of Monthly, an international application. The multicultural workforce at Monthly decided that a unique definition for their services was best way to go. They came up with the term ‘monthly accommodation’. Alongside their unique description, they used the terms ‘holiday housing’ and ‘decorated apartments’ in North America. In contrast, they went with the description ‘apart-hotel’ and ‘housing with services’ to describe their story in Europe.

Cross-Cultural Design Research

Cross-cultural research can be conducted in multiple ways. Additionally, successful cross-cultural research is not just quantitative but also qualitative. Unfortunately, simple yes or no questions cannot provide as much insight to designers as open-ended surveys. A great example of this, is an open-ended survey on user and product interaction in which participants were asked to write daily notes. It was with the help of these notes that experts mapped the user’s motives and created data-based user profiles.

Additionally, successful cross-cultural research needs diverse participant pools. Due to factors such as internet access and language barriers, surveys can have skewed results. For example, in one research regarding differences between countries, the entire participant pool was picked from highly educated, English-speaking workers of a single global company. Experts criticized the research mentioned above, because the participant pool was not diverse enough. Inclusive research is particularly important for cross-cultural design because skewed results can lead designers away from the right solutions.

Internationalization and Localization

Lastly, internationalization and localization practices allow designers to create cross-cultural products. Internationalized products integrate of cross-cultural research into the design process. Internationalized products are developed free of cultural clues and connotations for easy localization. Whereas, localized products are reshaped in order to appeal to target cultures. A very simple example of localization is the language customization on our phones and computers.

Cross-cultural approach is the key to successful international designs. In the long run, integration of cross-cultural practices into our professional workflow will help us grow as designers.

Below is a talk by Senongo Akpem, an UX Designer. Below, he talks about factors that affect perception of design different places, as well as how visual and cultural diversity can be built into every stage of design process.

Design Is [Multicultural]

To summarize, discovering the users’ feelings, thoughts and interactions through in-depth user analysis is necessary for designing an insightful product.

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