The cross-cultural design's challenge

2 June 2020 - by
Image cross cultural map

A few days ago, I’ve read a great and complete article on cross-cultural design. I knew the term, but its exact definition was still a bit technical and confused to me. I wanted to share this, trying to simplify the approach.


Cross-cultural design, what is it?

I started checking on Wikipedia to get its definition but for the moment, the article doesn’t exist! Indeed, doing cross-cultural design is designing technology for different cultures and economic standings, specifically taking into account the broader issues of language, culture, gender, customs, values, and taboos.


The global context

The debate around standardization versus localization of product development continues to be a bone of contention. Concerning website design, while some argue that due to the nature of the internet, cultural distance will minimize and we will see a homogeneous online culture. Many other research studies show that consumers prefer to visit and interact with sites that are made specifically for them and which contribute to online customer trust, satisfaction and e-loyalty.

* The standardization ensures that products are designed and developed free of any culture-specific attributes, so they can be easily localized. On the contrary, localization makes the necessary design changes to adapt the products culturally and technically for a target culture.


Why is cross-cultural design important?

According to Elisa M. del Galdo, and Jakob Nielsen, leaders in the UX industry, in their book International User Interfaces: ‘‘It is no longer enough to simply offer a product translated in ten to twenty different languages. Users also want a product that acknowledges their unique cultural characteristics and business practices.’’

To be successful when exploring global business opportunities, the international companies are challenged to adapt to the local characteristics of various new markets, the sociopolitical environment, and cultural system.

The modern web is inherently global—and if we want to design successfully for it, we must be ready to meet the needs, perspectives, and expectations of multifaceted, multicultural audiences. While there are many similarities in the way people think and behave across cultures, there are also considerable differences. It’s essential to always keep in mind that technology is always contextualized in a culture and users interpret products based on their cultural backgrounds and values.

When designing cross-cultural products, designers not only have to deal with different languages or dialects, but also cultural differences in color psychology and mental models. Furthermore, reading direction from culture to culture adds another layer of complexity as text can be written left-to-right, right-to-left, and top-to-bottom!


Which are the critical characteristics of design that need attention in a cultural context?

•    Language
•    Multimedia (video, animation, images and sound)
•    Color
•    Symbols, icons
•    Layout (banners, menu items, orientation, etc.)
•    Content / structure
•    Navigation


The importance of imagery

Using culturally appropriate imagery in products reaching across cultures is definitely something designers need to be aware of. An image that may be perfectly acceptable in Western cultures may be considered inappropriate in some Middle Eastern countries. Varying attitudes towards gender, clothing, and religion in different parts of the world calls for designers to be extra careful when working with images.


The map of emotions

This map has been created by Erin Meyer, INSEAD professor and author of The Culture Map. He analyzed cultural differences in communication norms.
I like it because it’s easy to visualize the difference of each culture and understand why it’s important to adapt your products and campaigns.


Image cross cultural map2

The example of the Chevrolet’s ‘Nova’

I remember when I was studying Business and Communication that I heard of this example to illustrate what happens if you miss some important cultural element when launching a campaign. I was very surprised, and a little disappointed I have to admit, when I learned that this story is untrue, as explained in this article. 

But I understand why it has been used so much, because it’s a great and easy story to demonstrate the perils of failing if you don’t do reliable, in-depth cross-cultural research before introducing a product into the international marketplace.

I started talking about it so I’ll end up telling the story! The myth claims that General Motors introduced their Chevrolet Nova model of automobile into a Spanish-speaking market, then scratched their heads in puzzlement when it sold poorly. GM executives were baffled until someone finally pointed out to them that “nova” translates as “doesn’t go” in Spanish. The embarrassed automobile giant changed the model name to the Caribe, and sales of the car took off...

I recommend this short video named ‘Cross Cultural Design: Getting It Right the First Time’

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