Culture matters. And it certainly matters if a business has made the decision to expand globally and must now design websites that will provide an appealing and pleasant UX to the citizens of a non-native country and culture. Culture matters. It is the combination of a people’s history, beliefs, laws, customs and values; it includes a people’s view of the world, its moral principles, music, art, and gender and family member roles. So, as a business plans to use its website to insert itself into a culture, with content, media, color, etcetera that responds to that culture—much research is required. A UX design must celebrate a culture as it presents products and services, and here you’ll discover some of my best dos and don’ts in term of designing culturally sensitive UX-driven sites.

Initial Planning & General Considerations

Your goal is to be well-received, to communicate an understanding and respect for local culture and, of course, to achieve the kind of traffic and conversion goals you have set. As you conduct your research, you will find that—just as our American Melting Pot exudes—there are a lot of cultural sub-groups in many other countries, too. Many countries around the world also have demographics that differ widely and wildly so, especially in terms of what is pleasing and what is offensive. You will also need to research insights into how a culture is evolving in the 21st century as it is exposed to globalization—some things may be taking a softer stance, such as gay marriage being legalized in Ireland, for instance.

Consider for a moment the various sub-cultures here in America. Tattoos and body piercings are (usually) not things that our grandmas and grandpas find appealing. A website that features such accouterments then is not for that audience. Likewise, older generations are not fond of the music, language and content of many current television programs that Millennials love, which may cause a middle-aged mom to install parental controls on everything in order to prevent her children from exposure to things she finds offensive and inappropriate.

The point of all of this is that, in planning a UX design, you must identify and define your target audience very carefully. Below, you will find some of the key considerations as you craft a design for a general audience or for any sub-culture demographic that is your target—with caution.

Find an Authentic Culture Expert

The obvious and most successful design strategy should begin with a “partnership” with an individual from the country in which you plan to expand your market. This individual should be an expert in both the traditional and newer cultural mores and sub-groups of the said country. This means you contract with or temporarily employ that cultural expert to review every element of your design. S/he can provide insights into a specific demographic that you will not have from research alone.

Language is Critical

One of the biggest complaints of individuals from afar who land in America and study English is that our language is comprised of so many idiomatic expressions, and that words have very different connotations and meanings than those same words in their native languages. How, for example, are they to interpret the saying, “Don’t let the cat out of the bag,” or LOL or TTYL? These understandings come only with experiencing the language and culture over years—something you do not have time for. So, as you design, your native, cultural “expert” must review all that you intend to say, to ensure that your demographic is not confused or offended. And you want the idioms and expressions of that demographic to be honored as well.

Case in point: In Japan, there is a term, “mamasan,” and it refers to a mature woman, but it is a term used by lower socioeconomic classes only. Middle- and upper-class individuals find it offensive to refer to a woman using that term. There have been several other examples of companies getting it wrong:

The “Culture” of Your Design Elements

Consider general cultural values that remain permanent. For instance, some cultures value individualism, self-sufficiency and personal independence. Your images, then, should reflect that by showing individuals. Other cultures value a “collective” consciousness where there’s cooperation and dependence upon one another. Your images will be quite different – groups of people working and/or socializing. If the value of the family is still predominant in a culture, you get the idea. Most Asian cultures are collectivist, and most Anglo countries are individualistic.

An interesting example of this in regards to global commerce is a market research firm survey of tourism agencies from around the globe. The surveys were distributed… All the Anglo countries returned the surveys within a month. It took months for Asian countries to respond. The reason discovered was that Anglo surveys were given to one person in those agencies. In Asian countries, the surveys were turned over to an entire department for completion and because things are done by consensus there, it did take months for those surveys to be completed. Something to keep in mind.

6 Common Cultural Mistakes (We Can All Learn From)

Holidays:
Make every effort to honor the holidays of another country whenever possible, just as you would in the United States. Do you add greetings and images that reflect holiday seasons here, such as turkeys, rabbits and eggs, and such? So should you on any site for any other culture.

To honor holidays in other countries, it is important that communications, websites, and brick-and-mortar facilities recognize the important ones. For example, Chinese New Year is the largest celebration in that country – seven days long. Wishing people Happy New Year goes without saying. As for Christmas in Asian countries, it is celebrated in large cities, but in a secular manner. Any focus on this holiday should be secular, as well.

Colors:
In American, and most of the Western world, white connotes purity and red equates passion, possibly danger. In India, red connotes purity and white is associated with death. This is just one example of the need to be mindful of the use of color and the need to use your “expert” for all facets of design.

Imagery:
Visuals make UX much more appealing—in any culture. Colors can attract attention and even add interest. The use of images must honor a culture and never offend, and this, again, is where an expert comes into play. There is no way that you can know, for example, that the owl, which represents wisdom in the States, is a symbol of bad luck in India. And if you are designing for a Muslim audience, you obviously are not going to depict scantily-clad gals and guys at the beach. McDonald’s probably does the finest job of this with its food items and images of those site. Sandwiches in Arab countries are on flatbread; macaroons have been introduced in France, a national favorite, and appetizing images are on their French website.

And on that note, offensive images vary within a culture as well, usually based upon generation. All of these little things would take months and months of research if you attempt to design on your own.

Navigation:
Some cultures read left to right, as you know. Text that has left justification may not be a pleasant user experience, and can even make content more difficult to read. You certainly do not want to degrade the UX through something that can so easily be designed.

Here are some quick tips to help you get through the navigation mire:

Numbers:
Be aware of number connotations. In the United States, the number 13 is unlucky—even hotels do not have a 13th floor. Funny enough, in Italy, the number 13 is lucky and 17 is unlucky because, according to a blogger at LifeinItaly.com, “When 17 is written using Roman numerals XVII, it can be rearranged to spell the Roman word VIXI meaning, ‘I have lived,’ and was found on ancient tombstones. When written using Arabic numerals 17 are still considered unlucky since it resembles a man hanging from a gallows.” Clearly a culture that appreciates the nuances of design, to say the least.

But numbers go far beyond this. Clothing and shoe sizes are important, too. If you use American sizes, you will lose customers who do not want to take the time to convert those. The same goes for American versus metric measurements. Make sure to provide the applicable conversions for all sizing options in the intended market.

Product Naming & Visuals

Even Crayola makes mistakes. At one point in time, they opted to change the color Prussian Blue to Midnight Blue to avoid offending certain cultures.

In America, we like cute animals. UX design often features them. David A. Ricks, in his book “Blunders in International Business,” cites an example of this in his research whereupon a sunglasses manufacturer transferred images from its American website directly to a site designed for customers in Thailand. Seems harmless enough, right? Well, the images showed dogs sporting its latest sunglass designs. Unfortunately, in Thailand, dogs are considered low life forms, and the images were not considered cute… whatsoever. Even Crayola had to change the name of the crayon, “Prussian Blue” to “Midnight Blue” because it offended certain cultures.

And remember, if you are depicting before-and-after images, you may need to go from left to right for some international audiences. Once again, review all your naming conventions and visuals with your expert.

The Takeaway

UX design means that your target audience has a great experience on your site—the text, the images, the colors and the navigation, all honor its cultural values and affords a seamless use of the site. You cannot (and should not) go headfirst into foreign markets without research and local expertise. Many large multinational companies have made some big errors, and if they can, you can as well. Let’s learn from their mistakes and design smart.