Our thought patterns are rooted in our culture, resulting in various ways of interacting with digital products. That is why international design is a complex challenge. It goes beyond translation and it requires acknowledging cultural characteristics to create better digital experiences.
We can see how flexible the human mind is if we look at the different forms of reasoning that coexist in the world.
People are shaped by many cultural systems: language, religion, education, gender, life experience, and many more. As Geert Hofstede & Gert Jan Minkov said in their book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind: “culture is the collective programming of the mind”. So, we need to decode how those minds work to provide them with positive experiences, where they can achieve synergy with digital products.
Cultural differences in perception: Cognitive styles
There are many ways of analyzing different thinking patterns. We are going to focus on the concept of context. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall said that the context describes how people exchange information. Two of the main cognitive styles arose from that idea: we can differentiate between high-context cultures (Holistic style) and low-context cultures (Analytic style).
The holistic style is typical of high-context cultures, such as Asian cultures. These users are big-picture visionaries. They have a tendency to perceive a scene globally. They use verbal and non-verbal forms that build context. They are more sensitive to voice tones and tend to have a more emotional response.
Their reading is often non-linear, and they expect information to be presented in a relational way. They expect to see details and connections between the different pieces of information that are presented.
Thanks to this, they have a high HCI style score, which means that they tend to expect higher information density and tend to interact more frequently. They may also need more time to perform a task.
People in low-context cultures (e.g. Germans) communicate in a direct and less personal way. They expect information to be presented explicitly. These users are brick-by-brick thinkers: thanks to their narrow focus and ability to screen, they have a tendency to perceive an object separately from the scene and to assign objects to categories.
Information architecture should be considered carefully, as analytically-minded people tend to pay more attention to navigation and categories, getting a general picture of the website from them. The design should be as clear and simple as possible.
How can we assess multiple cognitive styles?
These two cognitive styles show us how much of a difference we can find in information processing and in interaction with a digital product. And we can understand how behavior is derived from the basic physical dimensions of space and time, and affects the needs of frequency, speed, duration, density, and order.
So, in order to reach multiple cultures, we need to assess different cognitive needs to allow the successful exchange of information.
We need to show variations. Does this mean that we have to create different product interfaces for each cultural group we want to reach? In this fast-changing globalized world, this strategy could take too long to go into production or could consume too many resources.
We need to reconcile the conflicting requirements of the various user groups so that the product is best suited to all cultures. A good starting point is to take our product to an internationalization process. Later on, we can perform the localization.
Internationalization consists in preparing a product for use in the desired countries. This process delivers a basic structure on which later cultural customization (localization) can be carried out.
3 Tips to prepare your products for global use
Designing for a global audience is not simple, and is not an exact science. But we can take some considerations to create user experiences that are globally scalable.
1- Mental models, navigation, and interactions
Mental models are personal representations of the external reality that people use to interact with the world around them. Those representations derive in expectations and beliefs related to a system. They are not based on facts but built mainly from the person’s past experiences.
When the system does not work the way users expect it to, they get confused. It can be difficult to recover from that mismatch.
That is why we need to consider mental models: the layout, the actions, and the way we organize data, tasks, roles, and entities.
Navigation refers to the movement through mental models afforded by windows, menus, dialogue areas, control panels, etc. It is closely related to interaction, which refers to the way users input changes into the system and the feedback supplied by the system.
For all these aspects, we need to detect overlapping interaction situations and determine optimum minimum variations to meet the requirements of each target market. Maybe, we can ask questions like: Do all users have the same level of knowledge? Do they have the same role structure? How does each group of users organize the tasks?
The Usage-Centered Design approach can be very useful to analyze these aspects in depth and scale a product to different cultures.
2- Appearance and UI characteristics
Iconography and metaphors: Since the real world changes from culture to culture, the metaphors that refer to the real world must also be considered for the localization of user interfaces.
A classic example is a mailbox. We often use icons to represent real-life objects that are familiar to the human eye. In Russia or China, mailboxes have different shapes from what we normally see in America, so an icon that uses it as a reference will not be equally understood in those countries.
The gestures or symbols that we are used to and have totally normalized can have a very different meaning in other cultures. An example of this can be the owl: in many cultures it symbolizes wisdom while in others it symbolizes violence, death, or luck.
A good practice in relation to icons is that they never contain embedded text since, when going through an internationalization process, changing icons can be a headache.
Images: We must be careful about picking pictures for each region. In general, it is a good practice to avoid religious symbolism, hand gestures, and political imagery.
Colors: We cannot assume that a color has a consistent meaning across different cultures. For example, while in America we are used to using red to highlight mistakes or negative situations, in China red is a symbol of joy and prosperity. So, a good practice in this sense is to complement the use of colors as indicators of a state with another visual clue or text.
Typography: First of all, we need to make sure that the selected typography is available for all the languages we aim to reach.
Second, we need to take into account that the characters of certain languages (such as Chinese and Japanese) are more complex than Latin characters. This may require larger font sizes and higher line heights to facilitate reading.
Third, not all languages can highlight words or phrases using bold or italic, as they lack oblique faces. Due to the structure of the language, it can also be complex to locate text that has an embedded input field. Finally, different cultures have varying expectations around the volume of content. Holistic thinkers generally prefer larger amounts of content and greater detail compared to analytical thinkers. Working with a modular design that allows for additional content to be included is a great way of making the user interface scalable in this regard.
Text expansion: When translating an interface, there are many aspects that need consideration. Since each language has different systems, rules and conventions, the length of texts can vary considerably (sometimes by as much as 300%). That is what we call text expansion. So, it is vital to create layouts that can flow with the textual content of different lengths and natures.
Layout and Orientation: When translating a digital product, on many occasions the new language incorporated has a reading pattern that is the reverse of the original. This implies that the user’s perception and reading order change as well. Therefore, it must be taken into account that the layout, the menus, the tables, the dialogues, and the graphs (especially those that represent progress over time) may need variations in order and direction. Left-to-right sequencing may be inappropriate or confusing for use with right-to-left reading scripts and languages.
3. Testing and the benefits of iterative work
Testing the product is always a good idea. Especially in this scenario where we have our cultural bias (disguised as common sense) fighting against any objectiveness. Testing with local users can give us first-hand data that can reveal usability problems specific to those cultures. Thinking Aloud Testing (which requires users to verbalize their thoughts as they move through the user interface) is an even better option for this case, since it helps designers understand the thinking pattern behind user behavior.
Applying analytics can be a great investment for the future, since it would give us more data about how our product is being used. That way, we create the opportunity to iterate on the design based on feedback, so we fulfill the different requirements and objectives of all cultural target groups.
With all the data gathered from the tests, we can iterate and improve.
This incremental and iterative approach, typical of Agile methodologies, helps teams deliver value faster. But it also makes it possible to systematically track and trace the culture-specific requirements and design decisions for internationalized products, in order to produce adequate intercultural interaction experiences for users.
This way, the team can be more effective in responding to change, slowly adapting to the new culture and mindset.