Culture & Interface Design: Senior Thesis — Part 3

How does culture drive interface designers through their design decisions?

The Final Stretch

Welcome to Part 3, where I’ll talk about what I accomplished in the final two months before I turned in my thesis on May 1, 2017. For those who haven’t read Part 1 or Part 2, these are progress updates on my senior thesis, which was about cultural differences in mobile app interfaces. I specifically studied mobile apps in South Korea and the U.S.

Here’s what I accomplished in the time period between March 17 — May 1:

  • Interviewed 10 designers from both South Korea and the U.S.
  • Conducted a questionnaire with 40 design professionals
  • Wrote my 61-page thesis!

Since Part 1, my focus shifted to be more specifically about the design decisions that contributed to the resulting interface. I’ll talk a little about why I honed in on this topic in the next section. After that, I’ll share the results from my interviews and questionnaire and discuss general conclusions from my research.

Design Decisions

After realizing there was already a lot written about cultural differences in interface design, I decided I needed to focus on something. I noticed that the current literature out there focuses on analyzing finished and polished interfaces. For example, Marcus and Gould (2000) analyzed university websites from different countries to look for cultural differences in the interfaces.

After my interviews, I became more interested in the design decisions that led up to the final interface. Many of the designers I spoke with emphasized their design process rather than the design itself. This made me wonder if cultural differences do not only influence the finished design, but also the decisions made during the design process. For instance, do South Korean and American designers decide differently? If they do, are these differences due to culture? I tried to examine the backstage decision-making process by interviewing and surveying designers.

Interview Themes

I sought to interview designers of the mobile apps included in my pairwise app analysis from Part 1 and Part 2. That way, I was able to ask them about specific app features and uncover the decisions made behind them. Two main themes that emerged from my interviews were choice variety in Korean interfaces and importance of time in U.S. interfaces.

Choice Variety

The fact that Korean interfaces have more choice variety than U.S. interfaces was first apparent in my pairwise app comparison. Most notably, in the Snow vs. Snapchat comparison, since Snow offers hundreds of more filter options than Snapchat does.

Snow vs. Snapchat: Filter Variety

Many of the Korean designers I interviewed expressed that it is a conscious design decision to provide more choice variety to Korean users.

“Asian apps are all about the details… there are always so many little emojis and stickers.”
— UI Designer from South Korea

This fits two cultural dimensions* that are characteristic of South Korea: Femininity (agreement) and Long Term Orientation (patience). Contrary to how it sounds, Femininity is not necessarily tied to gender roles. Its counterpart is Masculinity, and Masculinity vs. Femininity is understood as “tough vs. tender” societies. Having more choice variety promotes agreement among choices, signifying Femininity (Marcus & Gould, 2000).

Long Term Oriented societies value patience in order to get desired results. Having more choices requires patience to sort through, but it enables users to find exactly what they want.

Importance of Time

The concept of time came up often in my interviews with American designers. Many of them strived to offer users the “quickest” and “fastest” ways to complete tasks within the interface.

During my interview with a designer at Medium, I asked “What do you think the minute read information does for the user?” (Every Medium story has a estimated time it takes to read).

Medium — Minute Read

They answered that it helps users determine whether or not they want to invest that amount of time into reading the story.

“As a team, we felt it was forthcoming to try to be respectful of people’s time.”
— Designer at Medium (U.S.)

This fits the cultural dimension of Monochronic Time, which promotes “getting things done” and “time management” (Hall, 1985). Western countries like the U.S. are known to be more Monochronic than Polychronic. Read more about Monochronic vs. Polychronic Time here.

Simulating Design Decision-Making

While I got to chat with some spectacular designers and hear about their design process, I didn’t think the interviews alone gave me enough information about design decision-making. So, I conducted a questionnaire with designers from South Korea and the U.S. with a total of 40 respondents (25 Koreans and 15 Americans).

Questionnaire

To simulate live design decision-making, I asked designers to choose between two potential designs of different kinds of mobile apps. Undisclosed to the respondents, one design represents one side of a cultural dimension and the other represents the opposite side.

For example, below is a sample question from the questionnaire. It presents two designs of a music app: the left design prioritizes songs that fit the user’s personal music taste (Songs for You), while the right design prioritizes songs that are most popular among all users (Top 5 Songs of the Week). These choices are intended to represent the cultural dimension Individualism vs. Collectivism.

Questionnaire — Music App Design

The left design represents Individualism because it focuses on the individual interests of the user, while the right design represents Collectivism because it focuses on the collective interests of all users. Six other questions like the one above were presented to respondents, and after each question was a follow-up question that asked why they chose a certain design.

Since my pairwise app analysis demonstrated that Korean and American mobile interfaces were culturally different, I expected Korean and American designers to make different design decisions. However, the results from my questionnaire showed that this isn’t necessarily true.

Results

Surprisingly, Korean and American designers did not make distinct design decisions. They either chose the same designs, or were equally split between two designs. For example, both Korean and American designers were split between the two music app designs from above.

Questionnaire Results — Music App Design

The only notable instance of dissimilar decision-making between Korean and American designers was the choice between icons with text labels vs. icons without text labels. These choices are intended to represent the cultural dimension High vs. Low Context.

Questionnaire — Icons with or without labels?

Icons without text labels are metaphorical and sometimes require implicit understanding. Standalone icons suit High Context cultures, like South Korea, who assume a lot of context is already given. On the other hand, Low Context cultures like the U.S. prefer explicit messages under the assumption there is little context given. This explains the need to provide text labels with icons in U.S. interfaces. Read more about High vs. Low Context here.

As expected, most Korean designers chose the High Context design (icons without text labels) and most American designers chose the Low Context design (icons with text labels).

Questionnaire Results — Icons with or without labels?
“Labels help provide context, as icons can indicate different context in different cultures.”
— Designer from the U.S.

Conclusions

My original hypothesis was that Koreans and Americans would decide differently due to differences in cultural dimensions. Interestingly, however, Korean and American designers did not decide as differently as I expected. After digging deeper into this finding, I came up with three speculative conclusions for my results:

1. Some cultural dimensions are more relevant to design decision-making than others.

Since High vs. Low Context was the only correlating cultural dimension from the questionnaire results, it’s possible that this dimension is more relevant to interface decision-making than other cultural dimensions.

While this conclusion should not render the other cultural dimensions as completely irrelevant, it gives designers a narrower focus when trying to be culturally sensitive during the design process. It allows them to hone in on the aspects of culture that are truly relevant to the design process.

2. There are factors other than culture that influence the design process.

Of course, there are countless factors that play into the way designers make decisions about interfaces. While culture is one of them, I wanted to find out what other factors I could find from my research. I identified two major factors from the questionnaire responses: (1) cognitive load and (2) design aesthetics.

(1) Cognitive load refers to “the amount of mental processing power needed to use your site [which] affects how easily users find content and complete tasks” (Whitenton, 2013). Both Korean and American designers were wary about displaying too much information at once to users, which may overload users’ cognitive capacity. As a result, both tended to choose the designs that displayed less content, despite cultural differences.

(2) Design aesthetics refers to the pure aesthetics of the interface based on design trends or personal taste. Respondents used terms like “coolness” or “simplicity” to describe why they liked a design. Many of both the Korean and American designers favored “minimalistic” aesthetics, which drew them to the simpler design choices.

3. Culture changes over time.

This one may be a stretch, but it’s possible that South Korea’s culture is changing in a way that aligns with U.S. culture. A Korean designer said “Korea had a bad ranking culture, [but] now it seems to be more focused on personalization”, suggesting a cultural shift towards Individualism in Korea. This possibility calls for a greater need to study not only differences in culture, but also similarities in culture (Callahan, 2005).

Future Research

This research continues to raise more questions about culture and interface design decision-making for future research projects. What can designers do to be more cognizant of cultural differences during the decision-making process? How can designers verify that their design decisions are culturally sensitive?

Additionally, studying countries other than South Korea and the U.S. can uncover more about the relationship between culture and design decisions.

Next Steps

Even though I already submitted this thesis for my degree in Interdisciplinary Studies at UC Berkeley, I plan to continue refining it for future publications and possibly include other countries beyond these two.

Overall, writing this thesis was such an enriching learning experience. It was the perfect outlet for me to continue learning about user experience, while discovering more about my own culture as a Korean-American.


*Reminder: Cultural dimensions are “measurements” of culture derived from the theories of cultural anthropologists. I chose seven dimensions most relevant to interface design. Design “markers” are UI elements that are associated with particular cultural dimensions (See the figure below).