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The Effect of Culture in UX
Create better experiences by understanding cultural differences
User experience (UX) design is a crucial aspect of creating digital products that cater to the diverse needs of users around the globe. However, with an increasingly globalised world, the importance of understanding and addressing cultural differences in UX design has become paramount. As Head of UX Research at Oyster HR, a start-up creating products used by people all around the globe, this is a topic that is often on my mind. In this post, we will explore the role of culture in design, discuss real-world examples of cultural differences that can impact user experience, and provide insights on what we can do to account for these differences.
Understanding Culture in UX Design
Culture refers to the shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and ways of communication of a particular group of people. Cultural differences arise from differences in history, geography, language, religion, and socio-economic background. It influences how people perceive and interact with the world around them, including the digital products they use. As UX professionals, it's essential to recognise that users from different cultural backgrounds may have distinct expectations and preferences when it comes to digital interfaces.
For example, research by Geert Hofstede, a renowned Dutch social psychologist, has identified several dimensions of culture that can influence user behaviour and preferences, such as individualism-collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity-femininity (Hofstede, 1984). These dimensions can impact various aspects of UX design, including layout, colour choices, navigation, and interaction patterns.
Incorporating an understanding of cultural differences and their effects on human cognition and behaviour can be crucial in creating effective designs and experiences. Research in cross-cultural psychology and cognitive psychology has provided valuable insights into how culture influences our mental processes and actions. Below, we discuss some key research findings:
Individualism vs. collectivism: One of the most well-studied cultural dimensions is individualism versus collectivism (Hofstede, 1984). People from individualistic cultures, such as the United States, tend to prioritise personal goals and needs, whereas those from collectivist cultures, like Japan, focus more on group goals and social harmony. This distinction can have an impact on user expectations and preferences when interacting with a product. For example, websites targeting collectivist cultures may benefit from emphasising collaboration and community-building features.
High- vs. low-context communication: Hall (1976) introduced the concept of high- and low-context cultures to describe differences in communication styles. High-context cultures, such as China and Japan, rely heavily on non-verbal cues and shared background knowledge for communication. In contrast, low-context cultures like the United States emphasise explicit, verbal information. These communication styles need to be considered when designing interfaces and creating copy, ensuring that the elements align with the users' cultural expectations for communication.
Power distance: Another cultural dimension identified by Hofstede (1984) is power distance, which refers to the extent to which people accept and expect unequal distribution of power in society. High power distance cultures, such as China and Malaysia, may be more accepting of hierarchical structures and formal interactions, while low power distance cultures, like Denmark and Sweden, tend to value equality and informality. This distinction can inform us in designing user interfaces that respect and accommodate users' cultural expectations regarding authority and hierarchy.
Uncertainty avoidance: Uncertainty avoidance is a cultural dimension that reflects the extent to which people feel threatened by ambiguity and unknown situations (Hofstede, 1984). High uncertainty avoidance cultures, like Greece and Portugal, prefer clear rules and structures, while low uncertainty avoidance cultures, such as Singapore and Latvia, are more comfortable with ambiguity and change. We should consider users' tolerance for uncertainty when designing digital products, ensuring that navigation, instructions, and feedback are clear and accessible, particularly for high uncertainty avoidance cultures.
Perception and cognition: Research in cognitive psychology has shown that culture can impact perception and cognition, leading to differences in attention, memory, and problem-solving strategies (Nisbett et al., 2001). According to Nisbett and his team, there are unique differences in the way information is processed by individuals from Eastern Asian and Western cultures due to their respective cultural values and beliefs. Their research suggests that people from individualistic Western societies tend to categorise central objects based on rules, whereas those hailing from collectivist East Asian cultures take a more holistic approach by encoding object details along with contextual information while prioritising relational over categorical data. These differences in cognitive styles can have implications for UX design, as users from different cultural backgrounds may process information and interact with interfaces differently.
The effect of language: One of the most well-established effects of culture on perception is through language. Language provides a framework for organising and interpreting sensory information, and different languages categorise and label the world in different ways. For example, some languages have a large number of colour terms, while others have few. Research has shown that speakers of languages with more colour terms are able to distinguish between colours more easily than speakers of languages with fewer colour terms (Winawer et al., 2007).
Colour meaning: Colour is an important aspect of design and can greatly impact how a product is perceived. Different cultures associate different meanings with colours, and the same colour can have different connotations in different parts of the world. For example, red is often associated with passion, love, and excitement in Western cultures, but in some Asian cultures it symbolises prosperity and good fortune.
Using cultural diversity to enhance UX
As UX professionals, it is important to take cultural differences into consideration when designing products. Here are some steps you can take to ensure that your products are inclusive and appealing to a diverse global audience:
Conduct user research: You knew this was coming, right? Conducting user research with participants from diverse cultural backgrounds can help us identify potential cultural differences and tailor our work accordingly.
Use inclusive iconography and colours: When using icons, symbols, and colours, ensure they are universally understood or have neutral connotations across cultures. If necessary, consider using text labels alongside icons to provide clarity.
Adapt to language directionality: When designing for languages with different directionality, consider how the layout and navigation patterns should be adapted to cater to the expectations of users who read from right to left or vice versa.
Collaborate with local experts: Engaging with local experts or native speakers can provide invaluable insights into the nuances of a specific culture and help ensure your designs are culturally appropriate and effective.
Educate yourself on cultural dimensions: Familiarise yourself with the cultural dimensions proposed by Geert Hofstede (Hofstede, 1984) and other relevant cultural frameworks. This knowledge can help you better understand how culture can impact user preferences and expectations in UX design.
Avoid cultural stereotypes: Steer clear of using cultural stereotypes in your designs, as this can lead to offence or misunderstanding. Instead, focus on understanding the underlying cultural values and preferences that can impact user experience.
Emphasise cultural sensitivity: Finally, promote a culture of sensitivity and understanding within your team and organisation. Encourage open discussions about cultural differences and their implications for UX to foster a more inclusive design process.
This is a quick overview on the role culture can have on UX. I’m planning to write another article on culture and UX Research in the future as this one mostly covers Design. Hopefully, it should help you better understand the role of culture in UX and consider it when creating digital products or experiences. If you have any examples from your own work, please share them below!