Designing Cross-Cultural User Experiences

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Upon hearing the term cross-cultural UX design most people might be unsure what it means and find it a mouthful to say. As the name suggests, cross-cultural UX design is when designers create a product that can be an enjoyable user experience for all people of all countries and cultures throughout the world. It makes sense that this is a relatively unknown and new term as it has only been used in recent years as our world experiences rapid globalization. Below I put together 6 major points to take into consideration when designing cross-cultural user experiences.

1 Understand Cultural Symbols
One of the first things to consider when designing user experiences across different cultures is to study and understand cultural symbols. Certain symbols might be accepted in some places around the world and seem innocent. However, they may have a far different meaning in other places.

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One example of this is Facebook’s thumbs up button. In the Western world using thumbs ups is a way to express that something is good or you like something. On the other hand, in modern day Afghanistan and Iraq the thumbs up gesture is actually considered very impolite. It’s meaning is often regarded to be equivalent of the middle finger in the United States.

Contrary to the thumbs up gesture, a symbol that has become almost universally regarded as negative that originally had a positive meaning is the swastika.The swastika originates from the Indian language of Sanskrit and signifies “well-being”. It has been used by Hindus and Buddhists for millennia. Early western travelers were inspired by its positive and ancient associations in Asia and began to use it back home. In the early 20th century many American brands began to use the swastika symbol. Even major companies like Coca Cola adopted it as can be seen below.

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During the 19th century the Nazis began to use the swastika symbol once German scholars noticed similarities between their own language and Sanskrit while translating old Indian texts. This realization made them believe Indians and Germans had a shared ancestry and the Nazis decided to use the swastika symbol as a way to boost the idea that Germanic people had an ancient lineage. You can read more about the history of the swastika in this blog post if interested. 

It is only natural that after the Nazi movement during World War II all American companies removed the swastika symbol from their product design. Although in the Western world today the swastika will forever remain a negative symbol, it still has a positive meaning in modern day India.

2 Understand Color Symbolism
Besides understanding cultural symbols, designers need to keep in mind that colors can represent different meanings in different cultures. The meaning behind the colors chosen for the visuals of an American app can be interpreted differently in other parts of the world. Below is an interesting chart that explains the meaning of colors amongst different cultures.

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Image Credit: Visual.ly

If you look at the color red in the chart above you can see quite a contrast between the color’s meaning. In Western culture red symbolizes love, danger, and action. In Eastern culture it means prosperity, good fortune, and vitality.

Many companies are starting to pay attention to the meaning of color when they target an international market. One example is Uber. Here is a screenshot of Uber in the United States on the left and a screenshot of Uber in China on the right.

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You can spot the major difference between the two right? Since the color red is widely associated with good fortune in China, Uber decided to incorporate the color into their app to make it feel more native to Chinese users. In order to expand globally Uber invested USD $1.15B in order to understand the different cultural markets they wanted to win over. From the success Uber has gained around the world we can see this investment in research was not wasted. You can find out more about Uber’s global expansion in this blog post.

3 Understand Country Specific Design Patterns
Next on the list is to understand country specific design patterns. McDonald’s is a good example of this and provides unique website designs for different countries. Below is an screenshot of McDonald’s Chinese website:

McDonaldsChina

It looks quite busy doesn’t it? It turns out that Asian countries prefer websites designed with high information density. Many Asian websites emphasize on communicating a large amount of content to users in a single instant with multiple points of focus. Part of this is due to the use of Chinese characters in their languages. Chinese characters are complex and can convey a considerable amount of information in a small space. The ability to read Chinese characters has made Chinese people accustomed to analyzing more information at a single glance.

In contrast, here is the American website design for McDonald’s:

McDonaldsUSA

You can see it looks quite different from the Chinese site and uses many modern design trends found in American websites today. The fixed navigation, hero image slider, and screen wide images feel familiar to Americans and have received positive feedback. It makes sense that McDonald’s American website would use these popular design trends.

What I found most surprising was when I visited McDonald’s websites designed for France, Spain, and Italy. Here is a screenshot of their sites respectively:

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The most noticeable thing is how each of these designs hardly represents the American McDonald’s we know. The standard red logo has been replaced with green. The design uses a lot of white which gives a pure feeling to the design. It certainly does not feel like any McDonald’s I know in the United States. With some research I realized that McDonald’s is trying to improve its image in Europe after being targeted by environmentalists portraying the company as a corporation full of evil and greed. McDonald’s took the time to listen to their consumers and improved their overall image in Europe across multiple platforms.

Besides McDonald’s, Facebook provides another example on how to follow designs patterns in the countries you are targeting. Below is a screenshot of Facebook’s log in page and homepage in the United States:

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And here is Facebook’s log in page and homepage when you change the language to Arabic:

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Hopefully you noticed that in the Arabic version of Facebook the content was flipped to read from right to left to accommodate the language structure. Small details like this are more likely to convert users in different countries to use your products as it enables more usability.

4 Language Compatibility
Other aspects to take into consideration when designing a website or app globally is how to design for text expansion or contraction based on the language. Words can have varied lengths in different languages and can drastically change the appearance of your website if not designed to adapt to these changes.

Facebook translated into Arabic is already one example but here is another. Below is an old Amazon search field design that adapted the best it could to being translated into different languages:

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Here is the current (2016) version of Amazon’s search field in different languages:amazonNew

Compared to the old version it is noticeable in the new version that there was some thought on how to solve the design in multiple languages. Every part of the header has a max amount of space dedicated to it. For example, the space for the label that says “Cart” allows for flexibility as can be seen in the German version where the word takes up two lines instead of one but does not go past it’s max set width. The only part that changes the most in each design is the drop down menu next to the search bar.

Airbnb is another example of company that put language compatibility into consideration and can be seen by changing the language of their website.

5 Professionally Translate Content
One of the most important steps to take into consideration when designing for international audiences is to make sure your content is translated correctly by a professional who not only understands the language but also understands the culture. Companies have learned through the mistakes of others why this is so important. In the 1960s Pepsi launched the “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation!” campaign to attract a younger audience in the USA. This slogan proved to be successful in the USA but Pepsi did not experience the same success in the Chinese market. When translated in Chinese, Pepsi’s slogan now said “Pepsi – Bring Your Ancestors Back from the Dead!” You can be sure Pepsi’s sales definitely were not on the rise in China at that time.

The American Dairy Association was also under fire for poor translation marketing tactics. Their super popular “Got Milk?” campaign was translated into Spanish for their Mexican market. Unfortunately for them, their slogan translated into “Are you lactating?” Not exactly the message they wanted to portray.

6 Be Mindful of Small Details
Lastly, when designing user experiences across cultures you will want to be mindful of small details. What I mean by this is date formats such as in the United States we format our dates Month/Date/Year but in other countries they use the format Date/Month/Year. Time formatting should be considered since some countries use military time. If your product involves money always make sure you are using the correct currency. Phone numbers can also be formatted differently from country to country. If there are any errors with these smalls details they could potentially confuse your users. It best to stick with what they are familiar with in their country.

Conclusion
There are many points to take into consideration when designing an enjoyable user experience for products across different countries and cultures. Hopefully after reading this post you have a better understanding of the term cross-cultural UX design. Here is a brief recap of the 6 points to keep in mind:

  1. Understand Cultural Symbols – Take into consideration what certain symbols mean to the markets you are targeting. Just because a symbol has a positive meaning in your culture doesn’t mean it has the same positive meaning in another.
  2. Research Color Symbolism – Colors have different meanings in different cultures. Research their meaning and use them to your advantage.
  3. Explore Country Specific Design Patterns – Study the design patterns used in countries and research why they might be using those patterns.
  4. Language Compatibility – Ensure that your designs can adhere to the different expansion and contractions of text when used in different languages.
  5. Professionally Translate Content – Make sure your content is translated professionally to ensure the meaning stays the same from country to country.
  6. Be Mindful of Small Details – Pay attention to the formatting of dates, time, and phone numbers used in different countries and use what is familiar to those countries. Use the correct currency if your product involves money.

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