Understanding cultural nuances for design localization
Having lived abroad for a large part of my life, mostly in the Middle East, I have come to learn and appreciate different cultures. This appreciation started when I attended an international high school in the Sultanate of Oman and peaked when I started working in the airline industry. Traveling the world and interacting with large and diverse groups of people from different cultures on a daily basis opened my eyes completely to the nuances of cultural values, behaviors, and beliefs.
Shortly after starting my UX career, I had the chance to work on a large-scale project with a global user base. This continued exposure to a diverse and multicultural environment taught me the importance of respecting and appreciating cultural differences, not only in our daily lives or in the workplace, but also in design more broadly.
Culture is a large part of our identity, it defines, underpins, and influences our values and beliefs. As globalization increases it is becoming increasingly important to understand and consider our own and others’ cultural values.
Understanding different cultures can help anyone working in an international workplace. This can help when communicating with peers, managing employees, and conflict resolution. As designers this is more important than ever, we have long understood the benefits of understanding core needs. Understanding cultural background, values, behaviors, and expectations can help us to also understand how users will engage with and react to a system or product – not just why they need to.
Through my experience as a UX designer, I have identified 5 areas for design localization that have helped me design products and experiences fit for a globally diverse audience. Following these points is an introduction to the 6 dimensions of national culture by the late Geert Hofstede. These dimensions help to identify and understand cultural nuances between countries around the world.
When designing for multiple languages consider the length, size, and height of different languages. This becomes crucial when designing a responsive website. For example; Greek or German translations are usually much longer compared to English, Arabic reads right to left, and languages such as Vietnamese require extra height.
It is also important to consider the meaning of icons. The commonly used ‘home’ icon is straightforward in English because it refers to the ‘homepage’ but in some languages, the first page of a website is called a ‘startpage’ in which case a ‘home’ icon makes little sense. Adding labels in this case could avoid confusion.
2. Measurements & currencies
Different parts of the world use different temperature and weight measurements, and different formats for time & date. For example, The United States commonly uses Fahrenheit, imperial weights, am/pm time and month-first dates. Whereas in Germany degrees celsius, metric weights, 24h clock, and day-first dates are commonly used.
3. Religious beliefs
Understanding what type of religious beliefs your users have and whether you should adapt your design to respect those beliefs. For example, in Saudi Arabia, alcoholic beverages are not tolerated and therefore shouldn’t be promoted on websites or apps.
4. Socio-economic status
Depending on a country’s socio-economic status you might need to design for devices different to what you would cater for normally. What you consider the ‘standard’ in one country might not necessarily be the same in other countries.
5. Communication styles
These styles can vary greatly from one country to the next. As part of this, it’s important to consider the tone and style of language you use. For example, many languages like German, French, and Dutch have polite versions for ‘you’ which you would use to address someone with respect (including strangers).
Cultural values are less tangible and very broad. This is where the 6 dimensions of the national culture of the late Geert Hofstede come into play. These dimensions of national culture represent independent preferences for one state of affairs over another that distinguish countries, not individuals, from each other. To establish these dimensions, countries were analyzed against each of these dimensions and given a score. These scores are relative since culture can only be used meaningfully by comparison. The lower the score the less prominent a dimension is present, the higher the score the more prevalent this dimension is in culture.
These dimensions can help us compare cultures to enable us to better understand cultural differences and influences, Hofstede Insights has created a great country comparison tool for this purpose. These dimensions can help inform design decisions when it comes to design localization. Set out below is a concise summary of each dimension together with some specific examples of how the relevant dimension could be considered in design.
(individualism vs. collectivism)
This dimension does not refer to egoism, it means that individual choices and decisions are expected. The opposite of individualism is collectivism; this does not refer to a culture being close, it means that you know where you stand in life and this is determined socially.
For example, Australia is very individualist (scores 90) and Peru is collectivist (scores 16). Australians like to make their own choices and like to be unique. In comparison, Peruvians like to make decisions collectively and are potentially influenced by the community, and share a common belief that it’s important to remain part of that community for most of your life.
So imagine you are designing an e-commerce site for both Peru and Australia, you might want to consider this difference. For the Peruvian site, you might want to highlight what others in their area or community are purchasing to comfort a user that they are making a good choice.
2. Power distance
(small vs. large)
This dimension measures the extent to which a country accepts a strong hierarchy. It indicates whether less powerful members of organizations and communities accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
For example, in Russia (scores 93) where there is a high power distance you’re more likely to come across organizations or communities where there is a strong hierarchy, whereas in Denmark (scores 18) you can expect a flat hierarchy meaning everyone is treated equally.
In light of this, if your project requires you to interview employees within an organization in Russia it is likely that you will need to take some additional time to build trust. If you are asking employees about the company or their relationship with their boss you should go about this carefully as they might not feel comfortable speaking openly and honestly. Whereas in Denmark you can expect employees to feel more comfortable speaking openly as they are likely to have a more open and straightforward culture. You might also want to consider how you address a user, you might want to use formal titles (such as prefixes and surnames) in Russia, whereas in Denmark first names might be more appropriate.
(feminine vs. masculine)
This dimension does not relate to gender equality, but rather it indicates how much society or culture has more masculine or feminine traits. In a masculine society, men are supposed to be tough, winning and quantity are important, and “the bigger the better” is the prevailing attitude. On the contrary, in a feminine society women and men are more similar emotionally. In a feminine society, it is not encouraged nor important to be very competitive and there is sympathy for the underdog.
For example, Austria (scores 79) is more masculine and Sweden is more feminine (scores 5). In Sweden, you want to consider using softer features, colors, and language whereas in Austria you want to consider these to be more strong and straightforward.
Consequently, if you were designing an app for both countries and you want to increase engagement through gamification, this is likely to be more successful in a country like Austria since they are a more masculine society which should mean they are more likely to be competitive.
4. Uncertainty avoidance
(uncertainty tolerant vs. uncertainty avoiding)
Uncertainty avoidance does not relate to risk avoidance, nor does it relate to abiding by the rules. Instead, it has to do with being afraid and anxious to face the unknown. Societies with high uncertainty avoidance typically adopt more fixed habits and rituals and have a stronger desire to seek the truth.
For example, Argentina (scores 86) is a more high uncertainty avoidance society whereas Sweden (scores 29) is more uncertainty tolerant. In those countries with high uncertainty avoidance highlighting (such as Argentina) certifications, awards and accreditations can play an important role. Whereas in countries that are uncertainty tolerant (such as Sweden) trust can still be earned while being playful and casual.
Taking this cultural dimension into account, if you were designing an app for spa services in Argentina, you want to be very clear about the services offered in a serious and scientific-like manner. You might want to highlight the spa’s certifications and ratings as well. Whereas in Sweden you might want to focus more on the experience and senses; it could be more fun and playful.
5. Long-term orientation
(flex-humble vs. monumentalist)
In long-term-oriented cultures, there is a sense that the world is evolving and that it’s required to prepare for the future. In a short-term-oriented culture, the world is accepted as it is. The past provides guidance for the future and sticking to old ways is good. An interesting fact is that poorer countries with a long-term orientation develop economically faster.
For example, China (scores 87) scores high and is therefore considered flex-humble. In Chinese society it is considered important to plan ahead for their future and show a strong willingness to save, invest, be thrifty, and persevere.
Knowing that China is one of the more flex-humble countries, you are more likely to be able to incentivize and engage users to use an app or website by creating a rewards or loyalty program that helps them save in the long term. Apps which help manage and be more in control of finances might also be more successful in more flex-humble countries.
(indulgent vs. restrained)
In an indulgent culture, it is good to be free and to go with the flow. It is a positive to act on your impulses, friends and social life are important, life makes sense and is lived as it comes. In a restrained culture life is often considered to be hard and duty, not freedom, is the normal state of being.
For example, Australia (scores 71) scores very high and is therefore considered indulgent whereas Venezuela (scores 16) is considered a restrained culture. In an indulgent culture, like that in Australia, life is likely lived to be enjoyed, to live in the moment and it’s important to have a good time with friends and family. In restrained cultures, like that in Venezuela, life is likely to be lived in a more planned and regimented way to make sure you serve a purpose and fulfill expectations.
So if you were designing an e-commerce website for Australia you are more likely to be able to upsell as users are more likely to make impulse decisions on the spot based on how appealing it seems in that moment.
Although this is only a summary and high-level overview of this topic, there is much more to learn and understand as you get more familiar with these dimensions. It’s also important to remember that there is no right/wrong or better/worse when it comes to cultural values, they are all equally valuable and beautiful, but just different.
Let’s embrace our differences and appreciate them because this is what makes the world such an interesting and colorful place.
- Hofstede Insights country comparison tool: https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/
- General information from Hofstede Insights: https://www.hofstede-insights.com/
- About Geert Hofstede: https://geerthofstede.com/