CX Insights

How To Design For A Cross-Cultural User Experience (part 1/2)

6 min read

Our culture defines our values and our behaviour – not only in our everyday lives, but also on the Web. What catches our attention, what makes us trust a website, how we search for information, what we consider relevant, what triggers our actions, and how we perceive a website – at the end of the day, it all depends on our cultural background. For web designers, this presents a true challenge: How can we ensure a cross-cultural user experience if we are not truly familiar with cultures other than our own?

Gert Hofstede, a Dutch organizational sociologist and pioneer in cross-cultural research has conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of how values are influenced by culture. He has developed a systematic framework for assessing and differentiating cultures. Obviously, it is not possible to apply assumptions one-on-one to an entire culture — at least not without prejudices. Like always when looking at different cultures, we should avoid stereotypical thinking.

But, if we can manage to stay open-minded, Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory can shed some light on what it is that makes cultures so different from each other — and how we can become more sensitive when designing for a cross-cultural user experience.

PDI = Power Distance, IDV = Individualism vs. collectivism, MAS = Masculinity vs. femininity, UAI = Uncertainty Avoidance, LTO = Long-term vs. short-term orientation.

Let’s take a look at Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory and how you can translate his five national dimensions of culture to your website visitors.

McDonald’s – an example par excellence

The cultural dimension theory is quite abstract. In order to make it more practical, for every dimension we will look at one of many national McDonald’s websites. McDonald’s is an example par excellence when it comes to translating one brand into very unique websites for a diverse range of cultures. You will see that the different websites were carefully designed with different cultural values in mind.

On this word map, you can select any national McDonald site and check out the design differences yourself.

1. Power Distance (PDI)

Power Distance describes the degree to which less powerful members or a society accept an unequal distribution of power. The central question in this dimension is how a society handles inequalities among individuals. A high power distance means that people within a society have accepted a certain hierarchical order and the inequalities that come with it. In a society with a low power distance, people are constantly trying to equalize the distribution of power, especially those who have less power.

Distribution of power distance around the world. A high score indicates a bigger power distance. (Image Source)

Power distance in web design

People from societies with a small power distance don’t like to be controlled. They only accept leadership if it’s based on true expertise. Offer enough objective and detailed information on your website to allow people to make up their own mind. Meet your website visitors on eye-level, treat them with respect, and show interest in their needs. Communicate with this group in an informal, direct, and participative way to gain their trust and get them engaged.

The Dutch site of McDonald’s is very minimalistic and professional in its design and offers rich information on all different kind of topics, such as products, quality of ingredients, restaurant locations, and sustainability. The visitor is confronted with a clean design and a clear and trustworthy content structure. Any action taken gives the impression it is taken on our own initiative.

Visitors from societies with a big power distance are used to authorities and solid structures. Be prepared that they take you as an expert and trust you as authority figure. Make sure you offer them facts and clear statements and don’t give them too much responsibility. Visitors from this group are less critical and less driven to search for detailed information in order to make up their own mind.

The Chinese website on the other hand is be very packed and commercial. The design is very colorful and makes use of high contrast. The homepage features lots of visuals with focus on the different products. The main navigation features only commercial topics, such as “Products”, “Available 24/7”, “Birthday party”, and “Coupon deals”. The website is clearly not information-focussed.

2. Individualism versus collectivism (IDV)

The second dimension describes how much people in a group focus on themselves and on the group as a whole. The position of a society on this dimension is reflected in whether people refer to themselves as “I” or “we”. Individualist societies prefer a loose social network in which everyone is expected to take care of themselves and their immediate families. In a collectivist culture, people care as much or even more for others than for themselves. In exchange, others take care of them.

Distribution of individualism vs. collectivism around the world. Red marked countries are more individualist. Yellow marked countries are rather collectivist. (Image Source)

Individualism versus collectivism in web design

People from societies with a high score on individualism take initiative, act upon their own needs and desires, and make their own decisions. They are concerned with their own well-being and take responsibility for themselves and their decisions. On your website, this is an important aspect to consider. People from this group visit your site in their own interest, with their own goal, making their own decisions. You need to focus on these very individual requirements in order to convert them into loyal customers.

The US site of McDonald’s is very focussed on the benefits of the individual visitor. The design is clear and the site offers a lot of information on all different kind of topics. The site offers a lot of personal calls to action, such as “Meet McDonald’s fish supplier Kenny Logan”, “Find your favorite deal”, or “Try our newest catch”, which require the visitors to interact with the site. Also, on one of the pages it says “exactly what you want”, which appeals to the individual visitor and the idea of self-fulfillment.

On the other hand, visitors from a collectivist culture act in the interest of the group, rather than their own interest. They make decisions based on the opinion of others and on what’s common or popular, not so much on their individual desire. Consider this on your website and offer enough reference points, such as “most popular” categories, testimonials, or social media sharing options to gather instant and personal feedback from friends.

On the Turkish website of McDonald’s, the social aspect is very important. For example, social media buttons can be found on three different spots on the homepage, highlighting the McDonald’s “community” and it’s popularity. The visual of the cook, who presents different menus, demonstrates expertise and works as a reference point for customers. Also, visitors can download a mobile app with different features, such as customer reviews and restaurant ratings.

So far so good. In part 2 of this article, we’ll cover the dimensions Masculinity versus femininity, Uncertainty avoidance, and Long-term versus short-term orientation. Stay tuned and connect with us on Twitter or Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletter on the right to make sure you don’t miss out on any of the latest UX insights.

Sabina Idler
Sabina was technical writer & UXer @Usabilla for 5 years before she started her own UX research and consultancy firm; UXkids. With UXkids, Sabina leverages her academic research expertise, know how in child development, and strategic vision to help companies build successful digital products for children. You can connect with Sabina on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.