Cultural Blind Spots in UX

Designing for international markets requires more than translating words.

Although Nicolas Cage won best global actor in China a few years ago, and almost every country in the world (except North Korea and Cuba) sells Coca Cola, it doesn’t mean all of western culture is the standard worldwide — specifically western design practices and digital experiences. Since more and more of our products and services are being used in global markets we need to think about how our designs are interpreted in these different countries beyond a one to one language translation. Designing for international markets means designing for cultural nuances.

Imagine you got an offer from your dream design job — it has an amazing salary and you’d be working alongside an award winning team. But, there’s one caveat. The office you’d be working in is located in China. And, upon receiving the offer, you get informed that you’d be designing for an Asian market. This excites you so you start digging around into market research and you stumble upon exhibit A:

Example of data density for an Asian market

It has extremely high information density. You think to yourself, “Where is the white space?!” But upon digging deeper and talking to a few of your design colleagues, you discover that most Asian cultures emphasize communicating large amounts of content at a single instance with multiple areas of focus.

With the example above we can start to see how we are naïve in our design decisions when when it comes to our own cultural biases. Our own biases not only influence our visual design preferences, but all aspects of our design. For example, as it applies to information architecture, Oban international partnered with Dell to test IA via eye tracking to see how different cultures navigate webpages. And the results were surprising.

Eye scan habits of different cultures

First: Japanese users start reading the whole page from right-to-left; they also scan the content a few times (that’s why you see the swirl on the image).

Middle: UK users scan the content from left to right.

Last: Users in Canada pay more attention to the text in the hero banner.

These results give us further insight about how different cultures vastly differ in how they consume information. Knowing this, if we’re working on products and designs that serve a broader international market, we need to be aware that our cultural biases stand in the way of creating products that effectively serve this larger market.

With that in mind, there’s a few things we can do to better handle our cultural biases and design for cultural nuances:

  1. Awareness — realizing that this problem does, in fact, exist
  2. If possible, test with an international market. Conducting usability tests will catch pain points in different demographics and cultural contexts. I know, this is a lot to ask if there aren’t resources allocated in the budget for this, but this is truly invaluable. And, you could provide a very strong business case as to why this matters.
  3. Localize copy and content beyond a 1–1 literal translation. Lots and lots of things get lost in 1–1 translations. Have you ever been in a foreign country and solely relied on google translate? Yeah, didn’t quite work out too well, did it? Localization captures cultural references, idioms, grammar, as well as words that don’t exist in other languages. For example, there’s no ‘yes’ or ‘no’ equivalent in Chinese languages
  4. Flexible layout: Some languages, once translated, have longer words than the language it was being translated from. Flexible layouts take into account word length and makes sure the layout doesn’t break. For example, the five letter word sorry translates to a 17 letter Utoqqatsissutigaa in Greenlandic — the local language spoken in Greenland and Denmark.

McDonald’s, the world's largest restaurant chain, understands the importance of designing for cultural nuances and adjusting to its international markets. Not only do they adjust their menu to the preferred local foods, they also make sure their digital presence is also in line with local cultural standards and expectations. For example, McDonald’s online presence in China is different than that of Arabia.

McDonald’s China vs. McDonald’s Saudi Arabia

One distinct difference between the two is the flipped layout. The language spoken in Saudi Arabia is read from right to left where in china non traditional Chinese is written and read from left to right. This layout change reflects an understanding of the local culture.

Designing for international markets can be tough — especially when you’re a foreigner with no familiarity of the cultural background. But, with research and usability testing, we can design better experiences, and bypass our cultural nuances. With that in mind, we can go back to wondering why, in fact, do Asian cultures love Nicholas Cage.