Why designers need to understand culture.

How thinking local promotes growth and better connection with your audience.

Photo by Ethan Sykes on Unsplash

There are 195 countries and 6,500 languages in the world. This diversity directly relates to the people we’re designing for. Without understanding it we can’t truly understand those who will use our products and services.

Designing for an average user is no longer sustainable. With the rise of personalization and customization, one size fits all approach is becoming less and less effective. We expect personalized experiences and in response companies tailor their products and services to match our needs and expectations.

Traditionally learning and understanding culture and people in those cultures have been the territory of anthropologists and researchers. But as designers wear multiple hats and expand their skills beyond just design, understanding cultural differences becomes more relevant than ever.

How the world thinks differently

Each geographic location brings a different way of thinking. Take for example, measurement systems. Most of the world uses Celsius to measure temperature except for the US that uses Fahrenheit. Same goes for the unit system. Most of the world is using metric system, with only three countries (Burma, Liberia, and the US) still using an imperial system.

Time is equally unstandardized. US, UK, Canada, Australia mostly use 12-hour time format (AM / PM). While the majority of the countries use 24-hour military time. In the US, Canada, and Japan Sunday is the first day of the week. While most European calendars show Monday as the first day of the week.

After I moved to the US I got surprised every time I was served a glass of water with ice. While it is common in the US, in Europe people are not used to getting water with ice unless they specifically ask for it.

Over the course of our life we develop mental models around certain concepts. And changing these patterns is not easy. This explains why the majority of truck drivers who get stuck under bridges on the US highways are people who came from other countries. They can’t convert 12’ 6” in their mind before they hit the overpass.

How service models adapt to local markets

Going global requires local thinking. What made a company successful in one country, won’t work everywhere. In order to scale companies have to offer people something that they are used to.

One way of how companies are thinking local is payment methods. While credit cards and other digital payment methods are the norm in the Western world, in many parts of the world cash still remains the most common method of payment.

For example, Cash on Delivery is the most commonly used method of payment amongst e-commerce retailers in India. People in India are hesitant to use credit cards online due to fraud risks. Recognizing this cultural context Amazon introduced Cash on Delivery payments.

Another example is Uber. In the US the service is known for cashless payments. But in Africa, a majority of transactions are done in cash. Following their global expansion strategy of “Think local to expand global” the company rethought their payment system for that market and introduced cash payments.

How design adapts to local markets

Physical spaces

Architecture is one of the most distinct identifiers of a certain culture. It’s no surprise then that one way that companies adapt to other markets is by designing their retail spaces to reflect the local culture.

Apple is known for their iconic stores. Not only are they great architectural studies, they are also a great example of local design. Apple stores organically blend in with the local urban landscape. Whether you’re in Dubai, Paris or Williamsburg, each store will be a unique reflection of local architecture, culture, and traditions.

Apple Paris (left), Apple Williamsburg (right). Image source: Apple.com

Digital products

Whether your product is used by thousands or millions of people, thinking local is an advantage. By understanding different mental patterns, designers can make their products more accessible and universal. People should have an option to use your product or service in a way that is most natural and familiar to them.

Nike app (left), iOS Settings (right)

Why designers need to learn culture

We’re all biased by default. Since we’re all different, the way we think and design would be different based on our own culture, background and life experiences. We all wear the cultural lens through which we look at the world. This can result in a one-sided design. Sure, you may be checking the weather in Fahrenheit and measuring weight in pounds, but for the majority of people on earth, this is alien. Unless you design for a very narrow and specific group of people, thinking local will help increase your product’s acceptance and reach.

Learning about culture and applying those learnings in your work, helps to let go of your biases and empathize with the people you’re designing for. How can we design for someone who we don’t understand? If design is about people, then designers need to understand people. And if we don’t do that, then who will?

Slowly design is moving from the periphery of the product-development process to the forefront. More and more often designers get directly involved in the process early on. This is especially true in smaller organizations where designers have to wear multiple hats and also act as researchers, copywriters or strategists.

Finally, learning about different cultures will open up new horizons and will make you an over more well-rounded designer.