User Experience design across cultures

By Danielle Stone

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Web design / UX
Signposts pointing in different directions in different languages


Cultural understanding is essential. Let’s take nakedness in public baths for example.

In Japanese baths, nakedness is essential and polite; in Iceland, nakedness is obligatory in the showers to ensure you’re clean (there are signs, with diagrams); and in the UK, clothing at all times please (unless you’re that exhibitionist guy in the gym who likes to towel dry himself naked). So cultural understanding is vital in order for us to fit in and be accepted and respected by others.

In the tech industry we have developed a much better appreciation of understanding other people’s perspectives and we now put user research at the heart of what we do. We have also developed a good understanding of what conventions ‘work’ for our users. These assumptions, however, are often rooted in our own cultures. Looking outside this cultural bubble to users from around the world can help us to have a better awareness of what challenges our audiences might face, not just for communicating to users around the globe, but also for accommodating users on our doorstep who have different cultural backgrounds.


Globalisation and localisation

Globalisation is the understanding of multiple cultures so that we make design choices that suit a broad range of users and don’t fall into habits based on our own cultural understanding. Organisations with audiences that cross cultural boundaries may choose (or circumstances may dictate) to have only one version of their product, and therefore will need to ensure that they do not alienate potential users with culturally specific design patterns.

Localisation focusses on understanding a specific group of people and tailoring our design decision specifically to them. The more we understand, the better the relationship we can build with that specific audience.


Disney/Pixar – a global design masterclass

The multi-million dollar US film industry is a good example of where being aware of cultural references can impact box office revenues. Disney and Pixar, for example, expect their animated films to become popular all over the world. Their teams will study the scripts, audio and visual designs to determine where references may be culturally specific and then make decisions accordingly.

Toddler from Inside Out film looks unimpressed at broccoli in the lefthand image and the same girl looks unimpressed at green peppers on the right.

Stills from US and Japanese versions of Pixar film Inside Out

In the 2015 film Inside Out, toddler Riley is disgusted at being offered broccoli. In the Japanese version of the film the broccoli was replaced with green bell peppers; a small but subtle distinction as peppers are generally more disliked in Japan and the directors wanted to ensure that the meaning and reactions resonated with their audiences. In other parts of the film, scenes of hockey were replaced with football and a character is reanimated to point to lettering from right to left instead of left to right to accommodate different language reading directions. These unique variations are examples of localisation designed to resonate with audiences in different parts of the world.


Film still on the left shows a tray of cupcakes with letters spelling 'be my pal', in the other still the cakes have smiley faces

Stills from Pixar Film Monsters University

In the Pixar Film Monsters’ University, monster Randall makes cupcakes to help him befriend fellow students. In the US version the cupcakes read “Be my pal,” where for other countries the cupcakes simply featured smiley faces. This is a good example of globalisation, making changes to convey the same idea to a wider audience without the need to translate text into many languages.


Global or local design approach

User Experience considerations for web design could include practical aspects such as technology used, interactions, appearance and layout, language and typographic conventions and graphics such as icons. On top of these elements we also need to consider user demographics, imagery, metaphors, mental models and of course an understanding of the wider cultural context of the user.


Starting with the basics

On the practical side, there is a large amount of data and functions that have unique approaches across cultures, a few common examples are as follows:

  • Language/characters
  • Name formats
  • Text length
  • Date/time formats
  • Content categories
  • Calendars
  • Currency
  • Business standards
  • Icons and symbols
  • Keyboard formats
  • Reading direction
Form field with Alice in the 'name' field and an error message in the 'surname' field

Example one: Name formats

Take name formats for example. The standard European approach to the design pattern is two form fields: first name and last name. Some cultures however do not fit this format. In Indonesia for example, most Javanese people only have one given name (Read about the challenges this causes for poor Alice).

In Malaysia by contrast there are often three names that make up a person’s identity. An error message for these users is very frustrating.

The Gov.uk design system is an excellent demonstration of best practice. It recommends the one name field pattern for the most accessible name field in a form.


Screenshot of the Gov.uk page describing recommended design patterns for name form fields


Example two: Icons

Icons by their very nature are made to replace language and therefore should provide an excellent solution for global understanding. Sadly, however, that is a simplistic view and should never replace valuable user research. A common example of this is based on age rather than cultural background: the classic floppy disc which has become synonymous with the ‘save’ function, but which retains none of its original meaning for younger users. The same can be said for the icon and indeed the word ‘Mailbox’ which is based on the American method of receiving post.

As these icons have been born out of big American tech companies and have been around for a long time, they tend to be absorbed into our understanding, regardless of their origin. Care should be taken however to never assume understanding.


A search bar from a website next to an image of a ping-pong bat and ball next to a table-tennis net


The search icon - represented as a magnifying glass -  seems fairly clear, but Amazon researchers in rural India found users asking what the ‘tiny ping-pong bat’ represented. Their solution was not to change it, but to find ways of ‘teaching’ the newly internet-ready communities what the icon meant.

Another thing the Amazon India team came across was the shopping trolley icon. It stands to reason that if you live in a rural location and have never been to a large supermarket, that the mental model of a trolley on wheels that you add your items to has no meaning. They found that a shopping bag was a much more universal icon here.

We can see from these small examples how much we take for granted, and these small but simple things may not necessarily be a focus for our user testing. We may therefore miss some crucial aspects of our users’ interaction with our site.


The value in a global approach to UX and web design

Avoiding making our products fall into cultural-specific patterns helps us to create a seamless, non-jarring experience online for all our users. It also helps to create a good relationship, encouraging respect for the brand or organisation that we are representing. Failing to do this risks alienating users, making them feel distanced from the brand and feel that it is not aimed at them.


Main image credit: Road sign of Kamakura city, displayed in pictogram and multilingual and plain language. Shutterstock.com

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