Cultural Impact on Digital Design


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User-centred design recognizes the need to tailor user experience to a target audience. Failing to design for the user translates into lost opportunities to speak to customers, impacting top line performance. Most large companies understand the need for content localization, but this is only half the story. In this Critical Mass POV, our Insight and Planning team discusses how to evolve simple localization into a more robust, culture-centric approach by considering several aspects of culture in regard to design.

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Cultural Impact on Digital Design

  1. Bry Willis, Senior Business Analyst Daniel B. Honigman, Senior Planner (Contributor) September 2013 CULTURAL IMPACTON DIGITAL DESIGN
  2. With global eCommerce sales projected to top$1.25trillionby2013andChina’seCom- merce market growing at 130% a year I the promise of expansion into international markets is alluring.II Unfortunately, many companies do not consider the impli- cations of engaging a new foreign market through digital channels, which go beyond simply translating copy. Indeed, websites designed for international users are often criticised because they appear to be little more than slightly modified designs that ignore the cultural sensibilities of the new target audience. Such negligence can have considerable impact on the bot- tom line. Simply put, visitors are willing to spend more at an ecommerce site with which they can identify. On average, international Fortune 500 companies that in- vest in localisation make $25 for every $1 spent, and the biggest companies in the software industry make at least half of their sales in non-English speaking markets.III Inversely, as far back as 2007, Forrester Research not- ed that global businesses are losing market share worth as much as $1.6 billion per year, or $4.7 billion over three years, by failing to localise product information.IV Suffice to say, knowing what such expansion entails is essential. © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved | Cultural Impact on Digital Design 02 INTRODUCTION LOSTINTRANSLATION
  3. It will be useful for our purposes to define the cultural frame- work for the development of digital solutions. It goes beyond issues of idiomatic language and customs to encompass unique cognitive styles, as well as the needs and preferences of the population of a country or a certain region.V There are also issues of technological penetration and infrastructure, all of which inform the principle of “culturability.” © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved | Cultural Impact on Digital Design 03 CULTURE IS EVERYTHING
  4. Culturability is a term used to emphasize the relationship between culture and usability in design.VI This relationship directly impacts the user’s perception of credibility and trustworthiness of a WebsiteVII and can be detailed through a range of criteria. Such details, effectively considered, can have far-reaching impact, as noted by T. Clemmensen in his 2011 study: Interaction design and usability have become important contributors to economic and cultural development in emer- gent economies in today’s global distribution of the use and production of information and communication technology. VIII © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved | Cultural Impact on Digital Design 04 CULTURABILITY
  5. A practical framework to assess culturability is the Critical Mass Cultural Maturity Model (below). This model breaks out the key elements that impact a website’s potential to deliver the greatest comfort level to users. A developed cul- tural maturity model ascribes website maturity across three tiers, ranging from agnostic (low investment) to contextual (high investment), with an underlying foundation of techno- logical capability considerations. AGNOSTIC Smaller companies may not have the desire or resources to justify creating site content and functionality outside of its own language and culture. This approach would force users in other regions to rely on mechanical translation services, such as Google Translate, to allow access to content, prod- ucts and services. This low cultural maturity tier naturally promises limited returns. COMPREHENSIBLE A comprehensible site offers content basically translated for another region. Such a mid-level maturity investment provides the basic ability for a person to digest content in their native language, while also including some localisa- tion, such as an appropriate character set and culturally relevant notations (e.g., currency symbols, and incidental revision to imagery). CONTEXTUAL The highest level of investment deeply incorporates ele- ments of a culture to create an experience that will feel more comfortable to a regional user. A contextually mature design includes taxonomical considerations, idiomatic language, and cultural markers, as well as differences in the way dif- ferent cultures process information. CRITICAL MASS CULTURAL MATURITY MODEL © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved | Cultural Impact on Digital Design 05 MEASURING CULTURABILITY CAPABILITY LESS MATURE MORE MATURE Source language Mechanical translation Professional translation Symbolic notation Minor image revisions Idiomatic language Cultural imagery Iconography Cultural markers Colours Taxonomy
  6. CAPABILITY Defining the fundamental aspects of expansion, capability pertains to regional attributes that impact access to con- tent, such as Internet penetration, average and peak band- width, device prominence, and even browser version. Even if a business fully embraces a robust, fully contextual cultural experience, it may be encumbered by capability factors spe- cific to a given geographic location. ACCESS AND BANDWIDTH For regions with low Internet penetration, it may not make financial sense to create a specially tailored Web presence. Even where penetration is adequate, low bandwidth will re- quire a unique design strategy to mitigate “heavy” graphics and rich media. DEVICE In many developing countries, particularly in more remote regions, the primary, if not sole, connected device might be a small-glass mobile device, so image and content strate- gies must be adapted to accommodate these users. IE6 is still the dominant browser technology used in China and other regions, so accommodation for this legacy needs to be considered as well. PAYMENT When it comes to e-commerce sites, in addition to tech- nology capabilities, payment options also need to be con- sidered. For regions with low credit card penetration, Cash on Delivery is a more popular means of settling payments, and debit cards cannot be used to shop online in much of Europe and Latin America, which limits facilitation of online transactions.IX In some other regions, many small-sized retailers do not of- fer credit card as a payment option because of high trans- action fees and safety concerns. Once the foundational capabilities of a given region are carefully assessed, the unique goals and limitations of a business should be considered, bringing the tiers of the model into play. © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved | Cultural Impact on Digital Design 06
  7. © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved | Cultural Impact on Digital Design 07 BANDWITH CONSIDERATIONS (MPBS)
  8. While the Cultural Maturity Model defines the level of invest- ment, there are many details to that investment to consider, particularly when pursuing a contextual site. CULTURAL MARKERS Display Density, Clicking Clues, Colour, and Imagery are some examples of cultural markers. For example, link de- tection for Chinese users is primarily conveyed through font, colour and cursor shape, whereas Western users identi- fy links by underlining of words. Colour can have different connotations for different cultures or even religion. Red, for example means happiness in China, but connotes danger in the U.S., and green is associated with Islam, so it may not be a good choice in countries dealing with conflicts over Islam.X TAXONOMY Variance in word associations is often overlooked as a fac- tor in globalisation. In a 2004 study, people from different cultures were asked to indicate which two of three words— panda, monkey and banana—go together. Westerners re- lated monkey and panda (categorical relationship), while Asians related monkey with banana (thematic relationship). This cultural difference can have a huge impact on nomen- clature and user experience.XI CHARACTER VARIANCE Languages that do not use the Latin alphabet are also an important consideration. Asian ideographic writing can be particularly problematic, as sizes and embellishments are limited. Many sites attempt to solve these complications by displaying images instead of fonts, but this creates other issues, including increased site maintenance costs and de- pressed SEO rankings. Moreover, form input with these characters can be daunt- ing, so pinyin, a form of phonetic writing, can be used to mitigate the problem. © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved | Cultural Impact on Digital Design 08 THE ELEMENTS OF CONTEXTUAL DESIGN
  9. Beyond the visual cues, how different cultures take in the information on a page can vary radically. In eye tracking ex- periments, Americans tend to scan a page from left to right, top to bottom to create a distinctive F-pattern. Chinese em- ploy a broader scan patterns, extending their glance further rightward and downward, which has implications in page layout. Furthermore, users in the United States are “active” viewers, which means that they will search for information, while a “passive” viewer will scan the page. If the informa- tion cannot be found easily, the user is likely to give up. Organisational anthropologist Geert Hofstede identified the cultural dimension of uncertainty avoidance (UA), which measures the user’s general aversion to unexpected results. Websites designed for cultures with high UA should employ a simple design with limited choices. In addition, well-ren- dered mental models and help systems help reduce “user errors,” so results or implications of actions are revealed before a user acts. © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved | Cultural Impact on Digital Design 09 PERCEPTUAL CONSIDERATIONS
  10. Unambiguous metaphors reinforce this, as do redundant cues in the form of colour, typography, sound, and so on. Special care should be taken in navigation schemes to pre- vent users from becoming lost, and essential information should not be “hidden” below the fold.XIII Culture also shapes perspective. Richard Nisbett observed how Americans and Japanese people perceived a virtual aquarium. The participants were shown images of a fish tank with changing background and foreground objects. American viewers concentrated on the foreground, on the so-called focal fish, but Japanese viewers also referenced the background objects. For a Web page, this means that there may be opportunities to present a Japanese viewer with related products and offers in addition to a focal product. While this approach may induce task abandonment with people in countries with high Uncertainty Avoidance, it may create incremental sales elsewhere. This applies to site lay- out as well as image composition. Aside from layout and visual cues, a site’s processes, fea- tures and content are also essential elements of its cultural maturity. For example, in the United States, consumers pre- fer a streamlined checkout process, but some Asian cultures prefer more choices. In one study, a more succinct checkout page tested worse against another more complex page.XIV Likewise, cultures have differing degrees of comfort for so- cial networks, including how engaged they are with ratings and reviews on eCommerce sites. Collectivist cultures are more apt than individualist cultures to share ratings, re- views, and other content, including product images and unboxing videos. Immediate access to live support is more important for these cultures. © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved | Cultural Impact on Digital Design 10 LOCAL CUSTOMS IN THE DIGITAL AGE
  11. It almost goes without saying that companies need to adapt to local trends to better ensure success when considering entry into new markets. Even as the world gets smaller, and global consumers become more alike, there is still a wide range of local difference in consumer behaviours.XV But before making the leap to target an international mar- ket, or even considering the employment for a culturally ma- ture design, key goals and a solid strategy will be useful in mapping out the scope of the initiative. The considerations outlined here are just a sampling of what is possible, but de- termining the appropriate solution will be the key to success. Even then, as with all Website implementations, multivariate testing is strongly recommended. © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved | Cultural Impact on Digital Design 11 A ROADMAP TO SUCCESS
  12. Critical Mass, with offices worldwide, creates extraordinary experience that bring together creative thinking, smart ideas, and emerging technologies to drive our clients’ businesses. For more information about Critical Mass, visit us at In North America, contact Diane Heun, VP Business Development at or +1 312 705 4190. In Europe, contact Susanne Jones, SVP Managing Director at or +44 20 3077 1350. In Latin America, contact Jaime Escobar, General Manager at or +1 855 242 6427. In Asia, contact Ellen Chng, Operations Director at or +44 20 3077 1358 © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved | Cultural Impact on Digital Design 12 ABOUT CRITICAL MASS
  13. I A. Montaqim. Global e-commerce sales will top $1.25 trillion by 2013, Internet Retailer, June 14, 2012 (citing Interactive Media In Retail Group) commerce-sales-will-top-125-trillion-2013 (retrieved 9 July 2013) II A. Fiola et al. (2011) The Aesthetic Dimensions of U.S. and South Korean Responses to Web Home Pages: A Cross-Cultural Comparison, Intl. Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 27(2), pp. 131–150 III Fortune 500 Companies and Localization tune-500-companies-and-localization/ June 12, 2013 (retrieved 10 July 2013) A similar study by the Localization Industry Standards Association conducted a similar study and obtained the same results. LISA fo- cused on technology companies and found that, for every euro spent in localization, the revenue was on average 25 euros. IV Devine (2007) Forrester Research V A. Kralisch et al. (2005) Impact of Culture on Website Navigation Behaviour VI W. Barber and A. Badre (1998) Culturability: The merging of cul- ture and usability, Conference on Human Factors and the Web, http:// (retrieved 8 July 2013) VII I. Kondratova and I. Goldfarb (2011) Culturally Appropriate Web User Interface Design Study, IGI Global VIII T. Clemmensen (2011) Handbook of Research on Culturally-Aware Information Technology, A Framework for Thinking about the Maturity of Cultural Usability IX B. Ensor. Succeeding in Global eCommerce, Forrester, unpublished client presentation, March 13, 2013 X International Journal of Design XI R. Nisbett (2004) The Geography of Thought: How Asians and West- erners Think Differently ... and Why, Free Press, pp. 89-92 XII Hofstede, “Cultures and Organizations,” 2010. XIII A. Marcus and W. Gould (2000) Cultural Dimensions and Global Web Design: What? So What? Now What? 6th conference on human factors and the Web (AM+A 2001) XIV UX Magazine, Article No. 796, March 1, 2012 articles/ux-testing-and-cultural-preferences (retrieved 8 July 2013) XV PwC’s Multichannel Retail Survey 2012. (2013) Demystifying the online shopper 10 myths of multichannel retailing. © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved | Cultural Impact on Digital Design 13
  14. CULTURAL IMPACT ON DIGITAL DESIGN August 2013 © 2013 Critical Mass, Inc. All Rights Reserved