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Intercultural web design Design without cultural borders

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Tags: web designGeert HofstedecultureinterculturalBollywood techniqueuser experience

As a global medium, the web promises being able to find users world-wide. However, cultural imprint is still a factor to consider, even in times of digitization. What should you keep in mind in intercultural web design to create a good user experience?

The first and most simple step in intercultural web design is localization: customers expect websites in their mother tongues. Obviously, translation is more complex than merely putting words in another language. For example, formats of numbers (English uses a comma as a separator of thousands, not a point, e.g., 1,000) or times of days (like "1 p.m." instead of 13 h) might change. There are also differences in writing direction, e.g., Arabian is written from right to left. You should also respect cultural rules of politeness and etiquette.

Besides language, localizing a website also includes visuals and screenshots. Ideally, you should adapt not only the interface, but also the images of persons, like the to do app Wunderlist shows. Users from China get to see Asian profile images, not Western ones, making it easier for them to identify with the product.

Wunderlist not only translates the language, but also adapts the profile pictures of the shown persons. Screenshot of Wunderlist used with permission.

The meaning of brands should also be transfered to other languages. Asian customers appreciate picturesque expressions more than neutral ones. For example, according to the consultant Hanne Seelmann (article in German only), BMW signifies "valuable horse" in China, Mercedes "driving fast and securely". You should also make sure that the brand names are easy to pronounce in the foreign language and evoke the right connotations.

Of course, creative puns can not always be translated literally. The "Plant a Tree" initiative, for example, translates the German "Jetzt aufbäumen" to the English "I have a tree!", reminding of Martin Luther King's famous speech. With creative puns like these, the initiative creates attention in every language, instead of sticking to a literal translation.

Translation strategies

There are several ways to create translated versions of websites:

  • The simplest version is a kind of mini version with limited content, e.g., as a one pager. This version is useful if you have a limited budget. However, you should thouroughly investigate the needs of visitors to make sure that they do not get a bad impression due to thin content.
  • More frequently, websites are translated as a whole, on the main site, where you can click on a flag icon to set the version you prefer.
  • Finally, it is possible to create dedicated websites for different target countries, all having their own domains. This approach is the most flexible and allows to adapt to specific needs of local users. However, it is also the most complex, needing substantial resources.

However, language is not the only important point to consider. In fact, as cited by Romina Rimondo in a paper on intercultural web design, immediately visible aspects like language only cover about 10 % of cultural influences on users. Adapting a website to the needs of a specific culture, thus, means more than merely translating its content.

Different associations

Cultures are different in terms of the associations that various design elements evoke. Colors, for example, have different meanings. White is associated with marriages in Western cultures, signifying innocence, exclusively reserved for the bride. In Asian countries like India, Japan, and China, on the other hand, white is associated with sadness and death. Colors can also carry national meanings. In this regard, orange stands for the royal house of the House of Orange-Nassau in the Netherlands and is positively associated. The postal service is yellow in Germany, red in the United Kingdom, and blue in the United States. Religions also give meanings to colors, like the green of Islam and the orange of Buddhism.

Additionally, culture influences what is considered aesthetically pleasing and beautiful. A good example is the Japanese music store Ishibashi with its huge number of colorful images and slogans on the website. For Western eyes, these are too many impressions at the same time, but they are typical of functional websites in Japan, well aligned with the taste of the people (see the post "Die Irritation bei asiatischem Webdesign" on the topic, available only in German). In a study presented at CHI 2005, Japanese and Korean participants preferred efficient use of the available space, showing a lot of information simultaneously.

Efficient use of space, many colors and a huge number of impressions: the music store Ishibashi from Japan. Screenshot of Ishibashi used with permission.

Cultures also affect what we focus on. In an intercultural eye tracking study, Western participants focused primarily on main characters and objects in an image, while Asian participants looked at images more holistically. In consequence, Western designs tend to use an eye catcher to capture the attention of users, while this tends to quickly become uninteresting for Asian users. Ishibashi is a good example of this design approach, too.

Understanding cultures

As you see, intercultural web design is not simple: Like others, designers always bring their own cultural embossing in the process of creating a product. For example, in a study on cultural cognitive style and web design, the researchers Anthony Faiola and Sorin Matei had Chinese and American designers create a website. Then, they showed these websites to students from both nations. None of the participants knew where the designer came from, and of course, the content of the website they saw was in their own native language. The result: Users found information quicker when the designer of the website had the same cultural background, despite the fact that none of the designers optimized the work specifically for his or her culture. How can designers grow their awareness of their own cultural biases? How can they understand culture and consider how it affects their design practice?

A commonly used answer to these questions is the research of Geert Hofstede. He interviewed IBM employees from 53 countries between 1978 and 1983. Afterwards, he analyzed the cultural differences in this data. Building on Hofstede's work, Aaron Marcus and his team developed guidelines for adapting designs to various cultures.

The cultural theory of Geert Hofstede builds on six cultural dimensions which describe differences between cultures:

  • Power distance: are people willing to accept power differences in a society?
  • Individualism and collectivism: do people in a culture emphasize the "I" (individualism) or the "we" (collectivism)?
  • Femininity and masculinity: do cultures emphasize female or male values (according to traditional role models)?
  • Uncertainty avoidance: do people from different cultures feel at ease in uncertain situations? How tolerant are they towards risks?
  • Long and short term orientation: do cultures tend to think in long term goals or do they tend to live for the moment?
  • Indulgence and self-restraint: how do people try to reach their personal happiness – via leisure or by working hard?

According to Hofstede, it is possible to provide index values to cultures based on these dimensions, allowing to compare cultures with each other. The following table shows an example of this approach (comparing Germany, the United States, Japan, and China). Information on other countries is available on the website of the Hofstede Centre.

Dimension Germany USA Japan China
Power Distance 35 (low) 40 (low) 54 (medium) 80 (high)
Individualism & collectivism 67 (high individualism) 91 (very high individualism) 46 (medium) 20 (high collectivism)
Femininity & masculinity 66 (masculine influence) 62 (masculine emboilement) 95 (strong masculine emboilment) 66 (masculine emboilment)
Uncertainty avoidance 65 (avoiding uncertainty) 46 (accepting uncertainty) 92 (strongly avoiding uncertainty) 30 (accepting uncertainty)
Short and long term orientation 31 (short term) 29 (short term) 80 (long term) 118 (very long term)
Indulgence and self-restraint 40 (medium) 68 (high indulgence) 42 (medium) 24 (high self-restraint)

Each of these six dimensions can help designers decide which design elements are appropriate for a culture. The Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM), for example, is from Malaysia, a culture with a high power distance value (100). The value indicates that people tend to seek orientation from institutions and hierarchical structures. Therefore, public institutions have a high status.

National and institutional symbols as well as emphasis on leaders on the website of the Universiti Utara Malaysia – typical for websites from cultures with high power distance. Screenshot of the UUM used with permission.

The focus on institutional status is present in the design of the website itself. For example, the university logo is shown prominently several times. In addition, the logos of partner universities and institutions in the footer catch a lot of attention, emphasizing that the university is connected to a range of friend institutions. In another section, the university lists the number of researchers in the team, its awards, and networks. It is also interesting that users can adapt their color scheme in the header. Available are red, blue, and yellow – it is surely no coincidence that these are the colors of the Malaysian flag. Via this high institutional status, the university draws a self-confident image of itself and presents itself as an attractive educational institutions.

Obviously, Western universities have similar goals, although they often take different steps. The logo of the Technical University of Munich, for example, is a lot smaller. The designers set the names of partnering universities in grey font in the footer instead of showing their logos. The central part of the website is a large slider acting as an eye catcher. It points to recent research results or important student projects. With this design, it is likely that the university is well received by people from the German culture with its much lower scores on power distance. It tends to stress shallow hierarchies where learners and teachers act as partners.

Convincing in a cultural appropriate way

When chosing which elements to consider for a website, cultural influences are important to convince users. Results from cultural research can help in these decisions. The individualism and collectivism dimension of Geert Hofstede, for example, describes whether people tend to identify themselves as part of a group or emphasize their uniqueness. Accordingly, mouth to mouth advice is even more important in collectivist cultures like China than in Western cultures, especially if the advice is from similar customers. A study comparing online shops found that Australian consumers particularly paid attention to the image of a brand while for customers from Hong Kong, social influence of humans from the same region was more important.

Another example of using Hofstede's cultural theory in web design: While cultures like China tend to be long-term oriented (very high index value of 118 on the long vs short-term dimension), others like Germany emphasize short-term success (index value 31). Long-term oriented cultures value saving money and working hard to create a better future. People from short-term oriented cultures, on the other hand, want to live for the moment, enjoy their lives in the here and now, and see quick returns on their investments.

Fun and small daily pleasures – the right choice for a more short-term oriented culture like Germany. Screenshot of Wrigley's used with permission.

Wrigley demonstrates how this applies to web design. The content is comparable in any language, but emphasizes different aspects. The German website concentrates on the fun aspect of the product with a young woman enjoying chewing gum. The Chinese website, on the other hand, mentions the entepreneurial commitment in a prominent spot inside the slide. The visual language is also different. Both websites create a positive brand image and pay attention to the cultural specificities of their target audiences.

The Chinese website emphasizes entepreneurial commitment and well-being, typical of a long-term oriented culture. Screenshot of Wrigley's used with permission.

Intercultural user experience

Cultural theories like the one of Geert Hofstede can help designers take conscious decisions for their designs. However, they are controversial and not a panacea. Geert Hofstede's data is from the 1970s and 1980s, concentrates on users from a business context in a large enterprise (IBM), and builds on the idea that the culture of a country is homogeneous. Obviously, this is overly simplistic.

Therefore, designers working interculturally should stay curious and strive to avoid stereotypes in ideation. The cultural probes method is one possibility to investigate intercultural user needs and strengthen the team's awareness of cultural specificities of the target audience. The researchers Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne, and Elena Pacenti developed the method. It builds on collecting subjective experiences in the daily life of the participants via media like diary entries or photos. It allows immediate access zu their experiences and can substantially inspire designers.

Obviously, it is important to investigate user experience of websites and digital products with the help of participants from the affected cultures. However, most UX methods were developed with users from Western cultures and do not inevitably cover other cultures equally well. A comparative study found that Korean participants tended not to criticize products in user tests and discuss in focus groups when compared to participants from the Netherlands. The study setting should, therefore, consider cultural specificities (e.g., with a trained moderator) or use methods adapted to cultural aspects. One example of such a method is the Bollywood technique by Apala Lahiri Chavan. In a study testing a website selling flight tickets, she observed difficulties with using the site, but only collected limited direct feedback. This changed when she used a dramatic scenario like from a Bollywood movie: "Imagine your niece is about to get married when you find out that her prospective husband has another wife and is working as a killer! You have the evidence you need, but you and your niece have to travel back to India very soon, using the following website." The participants adapted to this scenario which helped them give substantial feedback about the booking process.


Digitization moves the world closer, but does not make any cultural difference obsolete. Intercultural web design can help to optimize a website for different cultures. Besides research findings like the ones mentioned in this article, you should constantly question your own cultural position and optimize the user experience of people from the affected cultural target audiences.

Note: This article is a translation of a version published in the German magazine t3n, issue 44, in September 2016.