When designing digital products, the part that tends to get the most focus is the user’s needs. How will they use it? What will they use it for? While these answers and user journeys should inform every design decision — from the color palette to the wireframes — there’s another perspective that should always be considered: the user’s background and culture.
It’s no secret that the Western world’s influence has permeated almost every aspect of contemporary and modern design, from apps and websites to living spaces and public buildings. Many Western designers will cite geometric shapes, clean lines, and mathematical grids as universally “good design,” but many of these design principles originate from the Bauhaus movement in Germany from 1919 to 1933. It was created to unify design, architecture, and art, and it continues to draw inspiration to this day, from iPhones to Nike sneakers. But what about other culturally significant design movements outside of Europe?
When people log onto the digital landscape, they bring with them the attitudes and behaviors inherent to their cultures. We often think generalizing the user experience allows us to serve as many people as possible, but that also means we exclude specific groups of people without even intending to.
That’s where cross-cultural design — a method that helps you accommodate every perspective — comes in. Here, we break down what cross-cultural design means, why it’s essential, and how you can start incorporating the practice into your own projects.
In its simplest form, cross-cultural design is the process of understanding cultural differences and dimensions and allowing both to influence design. It considers, embraces, and then translates every aspect of the user’s cultural identity into a design they can interact with intuitively and seamlessly.
Cross-cultural design goes beyond translating copy into other languages. It’s about acknowledging and adapting to cultural undertones that exist in text, color, images, symbols, and more. The first touchpoint in the cross-cultural design method is socially conscious research. To create a richer experience for everyone in the digital landscape, we have to take the time to fully understand their cultural backgrounds, values, and customs.
According to Senongo Akpem’s book “Cross-Cultural Design,” we tend to operate on the assumption that all users come from WEIRD (Westernized, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Developed) cultures. But if our designs are to reflect the globalized world we live in, then we should be creating products that are culturally responsive and offer multicultural experiences. Not doing so means we fail to meet users’ needs and expectations. It also means we inadvertently prevent groups of people all over the world from using our products and services. In the end, designing through a cultural lens helps the user, which is what drives a project’s success from the very beginning.
Translating copy on an app or website is one of the first steps in cross-cultural design. Some web browsers come with built-in translation services, but to ensure your content is accurately interpreted and captures the different dimensions of a language, go the extra mile by localizing your app or website to accommodate your global audiences. Localization modifies the site content and copy to appeal to cultural preferences and norms.
We assume typefaces are universal, but they don’t always capture the delicate details that are apparent in certain languages — especially in non-Latin writing systems like Korean and Arabic. To ensure the typography aligns with both the brand and culture, do some research to make informed decisions on multi-script type systems. You should also think about the direction people read in other cultures. Some read left-to-right, and others read right-to-left. You can accommodate these nuances by changing the alignment of the corresponding UI and images. For example, in a localized site where the text reads from right-to-left, a carousel should also move from right-to-left. Another caveat: A short phrase or sentence in one language may have a longer translation in another, so create designs that are fluid and account for text expansion.
The symbolism of certain colors changes across cultures. For instance, red is a lucky color in many East Asian countries. It signifies joy, prosperity, and celebration. But in certain areas of Africa, red is associated with death and mourning. It’s such a taboo that the Red Cross changed its colors to green and white in parts of the continent. When choosing colors for brands, apps, and websites, take the time to recognize what cultural significance and subtleties they hold.
Western perspectives favor app and web designs that are streamlined and light on content. Sentences are short, images are evenly spaced out, and page sections are clearly defined. In contrast, Japanese culture prefers site designs that are visually and informationally concentrated, fitting as much content as they can on a single page. While there isn’t an ideal ratio for content density, it’s best practice to find ways to marry the characteristics of one culture to another.
The photos and images you use should appropriately represent your audience. It wouldn’t make sense to use a picture of a person from Vietnam on an Egyptian website and vice versa. Don’t forget to consider how each culture takes photos, too. In America, people tend to smile big and focus on their faces. In East Asia, facial expressions are minimal, and they’re rarely the focal point. There are also varying attitudes regarding gender, clothing, and religion. A photo of people in swimsuits at the beach is normal in the Western part of the world, but it may be considered inappropriate for some countries in the Middle East.
Think of digital devices as “cultural products” that reflect the way each social or ethnic group communicates. Websites and apps should always have responsive designs that accommodate multiple screen sizes. Older demographics tend to prefer larger devices like tablets. They’re easier to hold and their displays are larger, making text and photos easier to see and read.
You can’t produce a diverse user experience without a diverse design team. Diversity within a team is really about diversity of thought. When you bring in unique perspectives, you bring in unique approaches and solutions. Different skill sets, backgrounds, and lived experiences are all needed to create inclusive, multifaceted experiences.
When designing with other cultures in mind, there’s always the question of whether or not it’s being done in good taste and good faith. With so many nuances at play, there is rarely a definitive answer. But the more we know, the more equipped we’ll be to make that determination.
Cross-cultural design goes hand-in-hand with cultural appreciation, the practice of actively learning about another culture to better understand, serve, and connect with others. Meanwhile, cultural appropriation is the inappropriate and often unacknowledged adoption of customs or aesthetics of a marginalized social group by a dominant one.
There are three factors to consider when it comes to cultural appropriation: harm, benefit, and power. Pushing negative stereotypes or questioning the historical significance of an item, custom, or tradition actively causes harm to entire cultural and social groups. We also need to think about who profits from or receives praise for the project. But the root difference in cultural appreciation versus appropriation is power — who maintains power and how that power can affect each group.
To make sure you’re respectful and cognizant of varying behaviors, attitudes, and customs, here are a few questions you can ask yourself along the way:
Does this hurt a specific person, group, country, or tradition?
Who benefits financially or personally from the use or sale of this product or service?
Do I understand the impact I will have by inserting myself into a culture or tradition?
Was this item or idea obtained ethically, legally, and willingly by the group it comes from?
Am I honoring the culture or exploiting it?