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Benesse House Museum by Tadao Ando

Critical Regionalism: On Architecture and UX Design

These are just some random thoughts that popped on my mind when I reflected on my experience exploring new places, re-visiting familiar ones, and reading books on architects. Architecture has been a passing interest that I indulged in my spare time.

It’s fascinating to learn how the physical spaces around us affect how we perceive the environment or the experience that we have in that location. One thing that I’d like to discuss here is one of the architectural style that really resonates with me, and I think very applicable in UX Design. Critical Regionalism.

Countering the Past and Future

Quoting from Wikipedia’s definition on Critical Regionalism:

An approach to architecture that strives to counter the lack of identity of the International Style, but also rejects the whimsical individualism and ornamentation of Postmodern architecture.

Looking from the architectural styles I’ve ever encountered, this is the one most appealing to me as a designer. Sure, I like the playfulness of Art Nouveau, I can see the values of Modernist style, and I appreciate the experimentalism and avant garde techniques used in Post Modernist buildings.

But honestly, in my personal opinion, buildings and space should be something that can integrate well with its surrounding environment and fit the way of life of its inhabitants. To fulfil their purpose, they cannot only provide the bare minimum function, but they also need to deliver values to its surrounding and users, to make people actually wants to use it and stay there. It needs to be sustainable and livable.

Clash of Principles and Values

Why Regional Criticalism? The short answer is because I found it to be the appropriate answer for the way we create our building and space, a fine balance that takes the logical, practicality values of Modernist, but also embraces the nuances of local heritage, variety, and peculiarities that make a place thoroughly unique and thus give them an identity.

Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier
Glass House by Philip Johnson

The Modernist, especially International Style, foregoes any unnecessary elements because they seek a pragmatic, utilitarian way of living.

Buildings should be true to their original purpose. Transparent, clean, cost effective. This concept emerged after World War I, which strives to create a better world and promotes the value of functionalism: that buildings should be designed for functionality.

While I appreciate its principle, the frigidity and uniformity of its buildings create a cold, harsh look that makes them unappealing and depriving them from a sense of identity.

Meanwhile, Postmodernism was born as a reaction against the frigidity and the idea of universal standardization that makes everything exactly the same (uniform). In his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, architect Robert Venturi proposed that architects should take into consideration and to celebrate the existing architecture in a place, rather than to try to impose a visionary utopia from their own fantasies, like how Modernist architects tried to create the ideal building and space and make its inhabitants to conform themselves to its surrounding.

Inntel Hotel by WAM Architecten
Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health by Frank Gehry

Venturi’s proposal was in line with architect and urban planner Scott Brown’s view that buildings should be built for people, and that architecture should listen to them.

In terms of principles, I value Postmodernism for being compromising and accommodating for diversities and their valuing beauty as something that can induce good experience (or at least visual pleasure) for people.

But looking at the varying degrees of whimsicalities and appropriateness of their decoration, I sometimes wonder just how much of it is objectively designed for the good of the people, and how much of it is actually an indulgence or a showcase of the architect’s taste.

My response is in line with what the British architect Norman Foster says about Postmodernism:

"I respect that it was a reaction against certain tendencies, but along the way it became more about a veneer, more about styling and less about the important issues behind architecture, which if you like is the social agenda.”

Norman Foster’s comment on Postmodernism

In some ways, Critical Regionalism is like a child who follows the best traits of his siblings, but also tries to negate or avoid their weakness or mistakes.

Like Modernism, it seeks to instil universal progressive qualities in their buildings. But at the same time, it also rejects Modernism’s lack of identity and rigid uniformity.

And like Postmodernism, Critical Regionalism also takes the cultural sensibilities and local customs into considerations. But unlike Postmodernism, it rejects the whimsical decorations unless they present a value.

In Regards to UX: Local insights and know-how

Okay, you may wonder: what exactly am I blabbering about, and what does it have anything to do with UX.

Well firstly, the role and thought process of an architect and a UX designer are quite similar. There are many similarities and parallels:

  • an architect’s understanding of how people interact with an environment is similar to that of a user navigating through an experience.
  • both place an importance in usability and accessibility, like how a user is guided through an experience, whether it is through navigational prompts or an innate sense of flow.

And secondly, reading about architecture history, philosophy, as well as architects’ way of thinking inform me about how important it is to understand the social impact and context that influence architecture, and how they both affect each other.

Paper Log House Kobe by Shigeru Ban
Rebuilding of Wencun village by Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu

Understanding about the reasoning, principles, and ideologies that drive the design decision-making helps us to understand the goal and experience that the creator tries to achieve.

It’s no longer about what we want the product or building to be, it’s more about what the product will be to others. So we don’t design just for the sake of the design, and we don’t create products just for the sake of creating a product or throwing another product to the market. There needs to be a conscious, critical thinking to take the social context into consideration.

To get back on the idea of Critical Regionalism, I think it’s important to have cultural insights when designing, as it can help us understand how users think and behave. How their mind works. And it can even helps us gain an advantage that makes our product more suited to their needs and sensibilities. This is well illustrated in Grab’s triumph over Uber in Asian market.

In a Harvard Business Review’s article, Anthony Tan, cofounder and chief executive of Grab, saw that it was imperative to understand and integrate regional distinctions into the product itself. In the Philippines, where eight major dialects are spoken, Grab’s customer representatives speak the local dialects when someone calls them. Passengers can also text drivers through a chat feature with automated translation. These features are design elements that Uber never showed interest in seriously pursuing.

And unlike Uber, which forces drivers to accept credit card payments for the purpose of smooth transactions, Grab embraces cash. This turns out to be the right decision because in the majority of Asian countries, cash is the rule, the king in day-to-day transactions. Credit card transactions may be frictionless in California; but they are impractical for drivers in the Philippines.

Instant Messaging feature in Grab’s app

Grab’s success is gained from other features, too: In Singapore, it lets users input numeric codes for nearby taxi stands instead of addresses. And in other parts of Asia, where lack of trust and inadequate safety records is a common problem within the taxi industry, Grab lets riders retrieve drivers’ police records and share routes and license plate numbers with friends and family.

The app also masks passengers’ phone numbers on the driver’s end as an additional safety precaution. Again, Uber never took the lead to develop such features. And though none of these features are technological breakthrough, they have collectively helped Grab win over local consumers.

Cultural Sensibilities

Even if we don’t have the resource to do user research, we can still infuse the knowledge on small things like local customs, slangs and language to make our product more intuitive. This can be seen from the TravelBird website shared by UX Designer Jenny Shen on her article UX Design Across Different Cultures — Part 1:

TravelBird Netherlands v.s. TravelBird Germany by Jenny Shen

Above, it shows a comparison between the Dutch site (left) and German site (right). The most obvious differences are the list of inclusive/exclusives and trust badges.

At one point it can be assumed that showing the excluded items demotivates users from booking. After an A/B test with and without the list of included and excluded items, Shen found the conversion rate on the German site with more information came out better than the conversion rate without. Moreover, German e-commerce sites use trust badges frequently. In her experiments, many German users are accustomed to judging a website’s trustworthiness by trust badges.

This is why I don’t think a universal standardization is not going to work. It’s impossible to make all users from different countries, locations, or even age act, think and behave the same way. While using best practice and applying the common convention can be useful for some aspects (such as navigability), it may surprise us when users of a different culture react to them in a way we didn’t expect.

Additionally, we are also alienating people by making things accessible only for certain groups. The same way Modernism (or specifically International Style) tries to impose their utopian ideals to their users, without taking in the consideration of what people actually wants and needs. Heck, even beauty ideals in different cultures can also be different.

Take a look in the way information architecture is presented and designed: In the West, the ideal way of presenting and communicating information is by presenting it in a minimalist, distraction-free manner. Less is more. Make it simple, take out all of the clutter. But this convention is not applicable in some of Asian countries: For instance, when Mozilla Firefox created localized landing pages for countries around the world, they referenced cultural sensibilities. The American site is minimal and clean with one clear CTA (call-to-action), whereas, the Chinese version has much more content — banners, news, and ads that fill all available space.

Cross-cultural user interface design differences between Firefox US and Firefox China (Jenny Shen)

This is not due to stylistic trends but to the different degrees of individualism of each country. America is a highly individualistic society, and US users typically know what exactly they are searching for. In contrast, China is more of a communal society, where people are more interested to read what others are reading.

Language also plays a role in how users interact with information. Mozilla’s design strategist, Bram Pitoyo, hypothesizes why the Chinese Firefox website is so different: “Typing Chinese takes a long time and finding the precise word isn’t easy. Search sucks, so optimize for browsing.”

Not only that, one research also shows how different cultures vastly differ in how they consume information. In this example, Oban international partnered with Dell to test IA via eye tracking to see how different cultures navigate web pages. And the results were surprising.

How people read and navigate: Japan (left), UK (middle), Canada (right)

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.

Knowing this, if we’re working on products and designs that serve a broader international market, we need to be aware that one design can not be fitted for all. Furthermore, our notion of a simplistic information flow as the ideal way of communicating may be a product of our own biases. These biases not only influence our visual design preferences, but all aspects of our design. Knowing this, we need to learn to be aware and adaptive of the different cultural sensibilities when it comes to designing for other market.

Final words

Exploring the different cases and cultural contexts behind them, it’s easy to feel lost and get overwhelmed due to the endless possibilities and ambiguities surrounding them. It feels like there is no singular, surefire way to design a seamless experience or a winning product because of the myriad of factors and variables that we need to consider.

And you know what? That’s actually great.

It’s good because that means we can not stay the same. It’s good because we can’t get complacent. And it’s good because that forces us to stay nimble, to stay sharp, curious and keep learning. Trying different things and learning from every success and failures. It drives us to get out and stretch ourselves, and in the process making ourselves to aiming higher, and achieve higher as well.

Japanese architect Arata Isozaki once said in an interview:

In order to find the most appropriate way to solve these problems, I could not dwell upon a single style.

Change became constant. Paradoxically, this came to be my own style.

And I agree with him. A product may be designed and developed in a particular treatment (design and tech wise) according to the region, market it is targeted, and depending on the characteristic of its time period. And with the constant changes that happen in the world, the only thing we can do to stay current is to be critical, open and flexible about everything.

This doesn’t mean blindly following the latest style trend, but to understand the root of the problem, being aware of the changes brought by globalization and technological advance, and also in tune with the local culture. So, as a UX Designer, our responsibility doesn’t stop at fitting the business goals within the user needs and goals, but we must also find a way to mediate between the global and local, the tech and the human aspect.

References

Allen, Katherine 2019, Arata Isozaki Named 2019 Pritzker Prize Laureate, Arch Daily, <https://www.archdaily.com/912450/arata-isozaki-named-2019-pritzker-prize-laureate>.

Howarth, Dan 2017, Some cartoonish postmodern buildings are worth saving, says Norman Foster, Dezeen, <https://www.dezeen.com/2017/11/13/some-cartoonish-postmodern-buildings-att-tower-worth-saving-norman-foster/>.

Lyonnais, Sheena 2017, Drawing Parallels: Architecture and UX Design, Adobe Blog, <https://theblog.adobe.com/drawing-parallels-architecture-and-ux-design/>.

Mota, Nelson 2014, Critical Regionalism Symposium — The Ambiguities of Critical Regionalism, Delft University of Technology, <https://repository.tudelft.nl/islandora/object/uuid:15954616-d5ae-40e3-820a-65157d705144/datastream/OBJ/download>.

Newby, Erin 2017, Cultural Blind Spots in UX, Medium, Nasdaq Design, <https://medium.com/nasdaq-design/cultural-blind-spots-in-ux-840353aa3cdd>.

Quek, Raymond 2008, Situating the postmodern: the delay of the architectural avantgarde beyond the Western world, University of Nottingham, South African Journal of Art History, <https://www.academia.edu/258744/Situating_the_Postmodern_the_Delay_of_the_Architectural_Avant-Garde_Beyond_the_Western_World>.

Shen, Jenny 2016, UX Design Across Different Cultures — Part 1, Medium, prototypr.io, <https://blog.prototypr.io/ux-design-across-different-cultures-part-1-1caa12a504c0>.

Yu, Howard 2018, For Some Platforms, Network Effects Are No Match for Local Know-How, Harvard Business Review, <https://hbr.org/2018/07/for-some-platforms-network-effects-are-no-match-for-local-know-how>.

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