How to do Cross-Cultural Design
Cross-cultural design has two domains: local cultural groups (people not like you) and national culture (people you meet when traveling across national borders). Both levels of local are opportunities to meet user needs better. Cross-cultural UX design involves recognizing and incorporating local cultural patterns and rituals into design strategies. It’s vital to Inclusive Design and Localization UX efforts.
Examples: One of our client field study projects found that schoolchildren were tested with our client’s software in English. Yet some school districts in California have a 98% Spanish-speaking population. The software was updated to accommodate the bi-lingual reality in schools across the United States. Interestingly, this “English as default” bias is not present in Canada, which has a national policy of bi-lingual packaging, education, etc.
In another multi-country study in Europe, we discovered that fitness tracking (while ‘normal’ in the US), is reserved for time at the gym. In Norway, users wore their fitness trackers at the gym, not necessarily socially. Why? Norway is a “no-brag” culture, so showing off with a fitness tracker is only a new phenomenon among younger users but generally not encouraged. In Italy, fitness trackers were relatively new and considered a tool for serious gym-goers. Trying to attend a gym between interviews, our researchers visiting Milan required a doctor’s note to enter a gym. Going to the gym was considered “training,” not for the casual fitness fan.
Ultimately, it’s all about culturally sensitive UX design. This means making technology accessible and relevant across different user groups worldwide. It’s not even an innovation task, but noticing cultural habits in front of you.
The importance of a “Red Envelope” UX strategy.
Every Lunar New Year, I am reminded of the need to tune UX strategy to local cultural practices. The “Red Envelope” (known as ‘hongbao’ in China), is a digital and physical symbol of good luck and prosperity exchanged during the Lunar New Year. China’s most popular app, WeChat, claims its user adoption was entirely due to leveraging this cultural pattern. They now allow users to customize their front envelope cover.
“By integrating this playful element into their payment system, WeChat created a social experience around financial transactions, something that was largely missing in other digital payment platforms. This successful gamification strategy, deeply rooted in users’ cultural context, significantly boosted WeChat’s popularity and adoption, leading to more active and engaged users. Such culturally embedded innovations serve as an example of how understanding and leveraging local traditions and behaviors can be a powerful tool for super apps aiming to penetrate new markets.” Source: Daniel Wang, QMIND Technology Review
Similarly, China’s ecommece giant Alibaba in 2009 found profits skyrocketed when they created an online version of “Single’s Day“, which made US Valentine’s Day profits blush. In 2021, an estimated $132 billion was spent on Single’s Day.
Beyond Translation: The Real Challenge of Localization
While translation remains a critical component of localization (‘Loc’), it barely scratches the surface of the cultural adaptation required for truly effective cross-cultural design. Localization vendors and the corporate teams that hire them often introduce unintentional bias by overemphasizing translation. This neglects the nuanced aspects of cultural sensitivity and relevance crucial for a successful UX Loc strategy.
Examples: First, on a recent visit to Greece, while planning a visit to the National Portrait Gallery (opened two years ago), Apple Maps didn’t see it and re-directed me to the National Portrait Gallery in London followed by Washington, D.C. Not helpful (bias toward US/UK noted). But Google maps saw it. Next, while typing common Greek phrases on Facebook Messenger, their Machine Learning (ML) alters the word, even if you accept the ‘misspelling’. Typing ahead, glancing back, the word has been changed. Messenger enforces a linguistic ‘correction’ out of step with how Greeks speak and what words and phrases are commonly used in dialog. Yeah, it’s super frustrating. And it’s not just Greek; any non-English language suffers from this “corrected” and distorted intervention.
So, there’s a need for a more comprehensive approach that encompasses not just transcreation – the process of adapting a message from one language to another while maintaining its intent, style, tone, and context – but also a deep dive into the cultural underpinnings that influence user behavior and preferences.
Why this matters: Being bias-informed is more important than ever. Why? AI and generative AI have inherited a lot of bias, making it weak on cultural sensitivity. De-biasing AI is an ongoing goal. Being bias-informed means you start a product or service strategy, accepting you bring a cultural lens to your work that might skew your intent for “local fit.” Instead, you want products and services to resonate with their audiences. It’s not just about ease of use.
How to define a Cross-Cultural UX Strategy
Developing a UX strategy that resonates across different cultures demands a multifaceted approach. Here’s how you can approach it based on how we do it at Experience Dynamics:
1. Conduct global User Research
Embarking on global user research is the first step towards understanding the diverse cultural landscapes your product will navigate. Ethnographic interviews and studies shed light on local norms, behaviors, and preferences, offering invaluable insights into what design elements will resonate in different regions. Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) are also essential to begin your research: they adjust which direction you waste time on. Generative AI can also be leveraged (not replace) SME insights.
2. Engage in Participatory Design
Participatory Design plays a pivotal role in crafting a user-centric and culturally relevant UX. By involving users from your target locales in the design process, you can ensure that your product not only meets their needs but also aligns with their cultural expectations.
3. Perform global User Testing
Before finalizing your design, conducting user testing in the intended markets is crucial. This phase helps identify potential pitfalls and ensures that your product’s UX is intuitive and engaging for users from diverse cultural backgrounds.
4. Leverage transcreation
While not the sole focus, transcreation is essential for conveying your product’s message in a culturally meaningful and resonant way. Localization UX Writers are essential here. Transcreating goes beyond literal translation, capturing the essence of your message in a way that feels natural to users in each locale.
5. Augment with AI, don’t replace
While ML and newer generative AI approaches offer powerful tools for addressing localization challenges, they cannot replace the nuanced understanding of cultural nuances. ML translation and string management come later after your culturally-sensitive UX Loc strategy has been defined. All too often, ML and translation are considered the “Loc” strategy itself. This is wrong and insulting to good cross-cultural UX design work.
A cross-cultural UX strategy considering diverse user groups’ unique cultural, historical, and inclusion needs can bridge the gap between technology and its users, making products and services more accessible and relevant. Finding your “Red Envelope” strategy is about more than just localizing content; it’s about embedding cultural intelligence into every aspect of UX design. By understanding and integrating local practices and preferences into your products and services, you can create a user experience that resonates deeply with users. This will drive engagement, adoption, and success in markets where others closer to your users have an advantage. Remember, you will be more welcome in specific locales if you feel local.
Learn more: Cross-cultural Design Localization training