Cultural Context in Design

Would you buy a toilet with a sink on top of the tank? One that lets you wash your hands with the same water that would then be used to flush the bowl? Probably not if you’re like many Americans, who most likely would be grossed out by the idea, but in another part of the world that might be a normal thing to do.

That was just one of the product design examples offered at a recent discussion on considering cultural context in design projects led by Steve Portigal of Portigal Consulting for IxDA Chicago.

Steve’s talk included many examples of industrial design choices that would surprise many Americans but were quite acceptable in other cultures, such as the sink-toilet and an AIDS clinic in India that looked like a body shop on the south side of Chicago but in fact was a welcomed resource when viewed in its cultural context. The sink-toilet apparently is common in Japan, but also is gaining popularity among environmentally concerned consumers in the United States. But if you were an industrial designer creating this seemingly sensible and environmentally friendly product for an American mass market audience you’d have a real market flop because you failed to consider American cultural attitudes. You can see one here at the Pure Energy Systems Wiki.

When designing for diverse audiences, which includes the increasingly diverse American audience, you need to consider the cultural meaning of things beyond language, including colors, shapes, symbols, and tone, that can influence the adoption of new software products. Patrick Hofmann, a designer with Google Australia, provided a great example in a follow-up to one of Jared Spool’s seminars last year:

There’s this common misconception that localization is only about words, and it’s about translating something into another language… But for visuals, it’s actually fundamentally the same. The same image or the same visual doesn’t mean the same thing across the entire planet. One perfect example is the entire use of red and green to denote in your stock listings or market results in your local business paper. If the market goes up, it’s a big green arrow in North America. In actual fact, in Far East Asia, it’s the exact opposite. It’s an arrow going upwards, but it’s a red arrow. Red denotes success and positivity, whereas green generally means, particularly in the Far East, it means the market is down, there’s something negative happening.

Is your product in tune with the different cultures of people who may be using it? You may think so, because you “know” it’s a great product, but the best approach is to start with a design team that is informed about the cultures that may be part of your target market. And, of course, you’ll need to follow up the initial designs with rounds of iterative testing that include people from the various cultures you will be targeting. You’ll also want to consider topics like the working hours of the target audience so you can plan site or application maintenance outages at appropriate times, because not everyone leaves the office at 6 PM.

Nielsen Norman has a set of recommendations for ecommerce design for international users available for $45. This is a small sum well spent if your product has to succeed outside the U.S.

Molly Holzschlag wrote a short but excellent article on internationalization for A List Apart a few years back that is worth a read as well.

And Jared has another SpoolCast with Patrick Hofmann that is worth a listen.

If you have access to the EBSCOhost databases, those are another great source for research into internationalization and cultural considerations for design projects.

There are a lot of resources to help you in these efforts. The key is to recognize the designing for a multi-cultured audience is about more than translating written content and making superficial customizations.