What changes across cultures — The Budaya Series

The Budaya series is a template of what to consider when taking your brand across cultures. With real world examples, explore cultural differences from all around the globe, and their importance for your product. While not all these things may differ for you personally, these should always be looked into in when designing for a different culture to your own.

So what changes?

This post is a brief outline of what can change, how it impacts UX and why each aspect matters. So much of the UX changes per person, per culture and per ability. Here is an outline of what to consider:

  • Language
  • Aesthetics
  • Data
  • Behaviours
  • Psychology
  • Environment
  • Hardware
  • People
  • Internal differences
  • Gert Hofstede’s 6 Cultural Dimensions
  • Individualism versus Collectivism
  • Power Distance
  • Indulgence versus Restraint
  • Femininity versus Masculinity
  • Long-term versus Short-term Orientation

Language

The first aspect to look into is changing the language. Does your new target audience have different official languages? Are there terms and conditions as part of your service, which users need to understand? Language is how we understand everything. All that we read, we hear and how we communicate and express ourselves is through language. While translating can be expensive, the value from doing so is incomparable. Not only are the words translated, but so is context and metaphors.

When you change language, it also may mean that the direction of the text may differ. This means that the design and layout also moves. Menus, navigation, primary buttons; these all flip over to the other side.

Israeli airline website in English showing the design when the language reads left to right
Israeli airline website in Hebrew showing the design when the language reads right to left

Did you know: while Arabic reads from right to left, their numbers are read left to right.

Your UI will also need to be flexible, as some words may now be longer or shorter. Languages like Norwegian and German are particularly known to have longer words (in comparison to English).

The German Boden website, with the “Add to basket” text being a lot longer than the English translation
The English Boden website, with the “Add to basket” text being a lot shorter than the German translation

Aesthetics

When it comes to culture, language is not that only thing which needs translating. Icons, colours, fonts and even animals have their own meanings which change.

Icons

Metaphors are forever changing, even within a culture. Take the floppy disk icon as an example, when it represents saving. This icon not only is archaic in Western culture, it’s also not a guarantee that the other culture even had floppy disks when they were popular.

Colours

Not only does the meaning of a colour change, but the same colour may mean the complete opposite in different countries. Take white as an example. In the Western world, it’s the predominant colour on a lot of websites. It’s clean, it’s pure, it’s neutral. Yet where it means life in Western culture, it also means death in places like Mexico. Colours have a huge impact on how we perceive things and how we feel.

Vodafone UK website using red for empowerment, energy and strength
Bank of China using red in small parts of their website, branding and imagery

Red in China is used for good luck, and commonly associated with finances. For example, at Chinese New Year families give red envelopes filled with money to bring good luck for the year. Where as in the UK red represents energy, and strength. Vodafone uses red throughout their branding, from a red logo, red banners, to their models wearing red in every photo. Their latest slogan is “Power to you”.

Fonts

Typography again is a huge part of aesthetics, and again is another aspect which changes. Fonts have meaning. Some have their own cultures, positive or negative, like Comic Sans. Others are famous through their uses in particular cultural industries.

Did you know: The ITC Souvenir font was used in British 1970s porn films.

The Trajan font is a renowned font used in film posters and has a YouTube video dedicated to this.

Three Western films all using the Trajan font in their posters; Perfect Stranger, I am Legend and Black Swan

Animals

Attitudes towards animals in certain cultures can impact more of the UX than at first thought. For example, it’s well known that Indians treat cows with the utmost respect. Religious cultures like Judaism and Islam also consider pigs to be dirty. But how does this affect UX? Well, if you have an animal in your logo, it affects how people perceive your business and your app.

Take Deliveroo as an example, a food delivery service who have a kangaroo in their logo. As part of their cultural research, they discovered people’s opinions and interpretations. In Paris, France participants thought the logo was a rat. In other countries, they considered the kangaroo to be dirty. This meant it was one of the last animals they wanted to associate with a food service.

The Kangaroo mascot/logo for Deliveroo, mistaken for a rat in Paris

Did you know: even the ‘noise’ an animal makes is different depending on the language.

Data

Data is one of the biggest and most important aspects in a culture which affects our user experiences. Without catering for different circumstances and validation, how will users fill out the forms that we’ve spent so much time on?

Names

Names are so important, not only to someone, but to us as designers, markets and UX-ers, to build a relationship with our users and customers. But there can be more than a few complications when building to cater for different names. In Southern India, it’s common to not have a last name or surname. In China, their family name is their first name, and comes before their forename. Romanians for official circumstances like school exams, present their surname first, before their given name.

“Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language” — Dale Carnegie
Romanian airline, Blueair isn’t localised for English, and still asks for surname first on forms

Addresses

In places like the UK, we have an amazing infrastructure when it comes to addresses. So mail and online shopping is a doozy because delivery is reliable (courier depending). Yet, not every country has the same foundations or need for such a service.

The UAE for example, does not have postcodes, zip codes or an equivalent. Additionally, they have a building called Burj Khalifa, a boulevard called Burj Khalifa, a lake with the name Burj Khalifa, and a metro station named Burj Khalifa. With no postcodes, a culture using landmarks to navigate, and buildings with 163 floors; delivery apps need to be accommodating.

Saudi Arabian food delivery website Talabat, asking for an address without a postcode field [Original]
Saudi Arabian food delivery website Talabat, asking for an address without a postcode field [Translated]

Navigation

If you gave directions to someone asking for the nearest McDonald’s, how would you describe the route? Would you describe which streets to take and turn at, or would the focus be on which landmarks are on the way? How addresses change in a culture, also has an impact on how people navigate around.

In countries where there are no street names (like Japan), they rely on landmarks in order to provide directions. In addition, while places may have street names, that doesn’t mean locals know the names or use them, like Beirut. This poses a huge challenge for any global navigation based app, like Google Maps, or CityMapper.

Times and calendars

Timezones are the bane of a developer’s life because of their complexity. Well the complexity doesn’t just stop at timezones. Some countries work on completely different calendars. This means dates, months, and even weekends aren’t the same as those using the Gregorian calendar. It was only until recently that Saudi Arabia, officially used the lunar calendar. October 2016, the country switched to the ‘Western’ Gregorian calendar, in an attempt to save money on wages.

Did you know: It’s been reported that calendars vary so much in a country, that people don’t know what the date is.

“Life in Libya was so unpredictable that people weren’t even sure what year it was.” — Neil MacFarquar, an American reporter

From this, it’s not uncommon for your users to not know important dates like their birthday.

To summarise

These are just three aspects which change when localising your app. Watch out for more posts, exploring in detail more of what changes, and how to accommodate for these differences!


This project has been done by Elizabeth Chesters, a Westerner who grew up in the UK. All of this research is biased from a Westerner’s point of view. Everything here has been noted as different, because it is different to the upbringing and culture the author has experienced. This project is forever growing, with additional research and points of view.


Originally published at echesters.co.uk on November 20, 2016.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.