There’s usually a certain level of universal formality, that is associated with designing a user experience, typically bounded within a certain mental model of a language and culture. Aside from audience specific applications where you would consider the age group, the background of this type of user in details, it becomes quite a challenge if your product has to serve a wide range of users.
In my previous experiences designing digital products as part of a government agency, and a conversion heavy consumer facing MENA region products, and not to mention a lifetime of being an Arab who relies heavily on such products, I found out that Arab users tend to fall into one of these two main categories. It’s important to know the difference as it will save you hours of time trying to figure out why they are very different across small geographical locations, even the same city, town, or even family.
1. The fully Arabic user, who has little to no experience in English.
Android O Previous running in Arabic, the entire UI is mirrored in Arabic interfaces.
The first indicator of this type of users is usually one striking difference from others, which is:
They use their phone or other devices in Arabic.
They generally fall in the early and beyond thirties of age group, but not limited to it, they can also be early or mid twenties. Many other elements are in play here, from social upbringing, background, parents background, language of studying, and speed of technology adoption, and other social profiling.
They have been used to using Arabic all their life, they may know English, but that is a recent skill and certainly don’t think in the language yet. They can find their way around an English interface but likely to make many errors, the interfaces they know to use are learnt by trial and error, when they could still bother to learn something new, or when it presented a high value for them.
They would likely abandon effort to learn something new that isn’t intuitive or doesn’t conform to their needs, many would shy away from learning it simply because of the learning curve they associate with learning a new digital product including trial and error, even though they might not list it as a complaint when asked. This is where value for them has to be strong enough to attract them, specially considering the lack of time their lifestyles might lead.
They also generally tend to be on the late-adopters to laggard technology adopters group. The same rules that apply to attracting late-adopters apply here where word of mouth from trusted social circles can greatly influence their decision.
This group of Arab users build up the majority of the target audience in the MENA region, but they are quickly shifting out to be replaced by another group of Arab users, which brings us to..
2. The Arabic user, who is well versed in English.
As with type 1 Arab users, this type can be easily identified by a couple of important facts:
They are well versed in both Arabic and English.
They use their device in English interface.
This can be one of the most confusing or the easiest group of Arab users to attend to.
It’s likely that this group started learning English through using digital products that they grew up on, websites they used, or games they played. It’s also normal that they studied in English curriculum type of schools and university through their upbringing as well. Type 2’s can also be the result of abroad studies where before it they might have been type 1’s, but a few years studying abroad can force them to broaden and learn the language, while using English UI’s products constantly. These users are tech-savvy and can usually pick up new products easily.
Exactly because of their heavy consumption of digital interfaces across their entire life from a young age, they tend to have a high preference, and a much shorter learning curve to understand English interfaced products than it is to actually use an Arabic interfaced product. It’s a common irritating problem for example to be classified as type 1 users on Google homepage and get their search results in an Arabic RTL Google which is extremely frustrating for them.
The type 2 users are usually not the goal nor aim of an Arabic RTL interfaced product although they can use it. Most popular world-class websites mistakenly classify them as type 1 users, only to have them racing for the language switcher button to switch to an English interface. Ah, the comfort zone. I believe it’s also where the ever so popular language switcher expectation took root into existence for these users, which is a common and popular practice.
It’s important to note that while the type 2 Arab user is Arabic and might fit your target audience on most accounts, running user tests with them, specially or Arabic related tests can be extremely misleading, as they might not be aware of this rift (although many of these types who work in technology departments do know they are different). If people running the test are unaware, they might mistakenly take the input of type 2 users and apply it to what type 1 users will actually use.
“You can figure out which type an Arab user is, by the language they use on their phone”
In conclusion, It’s safe to say, treating type 2 Arabic users as other English users is actually a more pleasant experience for them, while type 1 is your actual Arab users. Depending on what business you’re in and your target audience, know which type of users you’re dealing with. If you’re targeting KSA, your strategy must consider type 1 heavily, while other countries, although a minority, such as UAE tend to boast a healthy number of type 2’s. At the end of the day, the fundamental universal rules of usability still apply.