Chapter 2. Principles of Cross-Cultural Design – Cross-Cultural Design

Chapter 2. Principles of Cross-Cultural Design

The American razor company Gillette is a major player in the Indian market: in 2007, they owned almost thirty-eight percent of the market for men’s razors. To increase their share, they invested in designing a new razor for the 500 million Indian men who used double-edged razors, an older style of razor with no protective plastic between the blade and the skin. While this configuration makes cuts more likely, it was cheaper to manufacture and popular with many Indian men.

Gillette’s research found that most Indian men had thicker, denser hair than most American men, and would often shave longer beards, so their new design included a push-bar to clear the razor of cut hair. They decided to test it with Indian students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The students loved it.

But when Gillette launched the product in India, it was a flop. They couldn’t understand why—until they finally travelled to India. Their research hadn’t taken into account that many of their customers used communal bathrooms, and so would shave in their living rooms, using cups of water to clean their razors. It was a far different experience from MIT’s running water and private bathrooms (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/02-01/).

For Gillette, it was certainly a close shave with failure. This story shows what happens when you don’t do any research into the various cultural ways people interact with your product.

While your team may not have the time to do deep cultural dives, you can center the needs of your audience by considering cross-cultural design principles at the beginning of every engagement. These principles are not commands, exactly—more like specific actions that can help you think and act differently, leading to better choices in your content strategy, design strategy, and technical strategy.

Cross-cultural design asks you to:

  • embrace cultural immersion,
  • research creative communities,
  • work with experts,
  • question assumptions, and
  • prioritize flexibility.

These principles should form the basis of any cross-cultural design you do. By considering them first—almost even before you start your project—you can ground your future work.

Embrace Cultural Immersion

Find ways to surround yourself with the culture you are designing for. This does not need to be a long, expensive process—odds are, you are creating digital content, not on-location tours.

The key here is to be humble and introspective in your approach. Avoid hubris by remembering your role as an observer and a consumer, not an expert. Here are a few simple things you can do to get started:

  • Read the poetry and literature of your target culture, both old and new. For instance, looking through any list of national poets for West African countries will point you toward some of the most influential writers and leaders of postcolonial independence movements. To read them and know their history, even briefly, will give you insight into the modern cultures of that part of the world.
  • Check local colleges for events. Attend relevant lectures, performances, and events put on by international student associations. People there will be eager to talk!
  • Consume media from the culture you are researching. Look for newspapers, radio stations, podcasts, movies, and television programs. My neighborhood in Astoria, Queens, has a large Greek population, so if I wanted to understand more about Greek typography and typesetting, buying one the many newspapers at the corner store would be a great first step.
  • Visit cultural centers, if your city has them. If I were designing an interface focused on Japan, the Japan Society in New York has regular events and talks I could attend to get a better understanding of their history, language, aesthetics, and so on.
  • Visit ethnic enclaves and neighborhoods where your target audience lives and works. For instance, if I were building an app for South Asians in America to send money back to their extended families, I might visit Little India in Jackson Heights, Queens, to start getting a vibe for how people interact (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/02-02/).

These are low-cost, immediate methods for learning about a culture when budgets and timelines don’t enable you to travel internationally or conduct ethnographic field work. They are never a substitute for actual research—don’t make the same mistake Gillette did and confuse “close-to-home” observation with actual user experience research.

Research Creative Communities

There are digital design communities in every part of the world. Each one operates according to unique social rules. These communities are addressing complex, unique design problems, and the result is inspired, culturally relevant work. By tapping into and working with these networks, we can gain much deeper insight into our own work.

  • Look for culture-specific design publications on sites like ResearchGate, a professional network for scientists and researchers (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/02-03/). A search for “Thailand design,” for example, reveals ten pages of search results, with papers on everything from gamification to marketing and aesthetics to design innovation. A more targeted search would reveal even more research relevant to the work you are doing.
  • Sign up for regionally focused newsletters about creative and technology-related news from outside the US, UK, and EU, such as TechCabal’s daily updates about the expanding tech scene in Africa (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/02-04/) and Anjali Ramachandran’s Other Valleys (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/02-05/). Newsletters like these can give you a feel for the successes and challenges of different communities, and as the updates continue to hit your inbox, you can see trends form over time.
  • See what creative practitioners from your target culture are working on. Do filtered searches on portfolio sites such as Behance to see what designers are doing. This has the added benefit of giving you a list of potential expert contacts.

Work with Experts

Working with experts who have on-the-ground experience gives you a knowledgeable view on how your UI and content will be received. They can channel the voices of your audience and act as a buffer, so you don’t unintentionally send out design work that could potentially offend. That alone is worth paying for!

In 2018, my team was asked to create a Chinese-language version of an interactive map and database that showed the effect of poor air quality on life expectancy. Our first step was to look for one of these intermediaries, a designer who could speak the dual languages of user experience and Chinese.

The experience taught me a few key things about hiring experts:

  • Add clear language in your services agreement stating the type of engagement you would like to have with internal and external experts.
  • If you’re working for a client, they should be your first port of call for finding the right experts—they will likely know who holds expertise in their industry and in their local culture.
  • During your research phase, ask internal stakeholders to name two or three experts with cultural insight or on-the-ground experience for you to talk to, along with their contact information and a promise of an introduction.
  • With that initial list of potential experts, reach out to see if they are available for a paid consulting gig. I keep these emails short, with a clear, action-oriented subject line. I explain the project and my role, reiterate the expert’s relationship to the client, and end with clear instructions on how they can follow up if they are interested. Sending these cold emails might feel awkward at first, but remember: they are in service of your project.

You can also use your social networks as a recruiting tool, which is what we did for the air-quality map project—a small ad on a few channels netted us several names in just a day or two. Work on building a small but reliable network of designers around the world who can offer advice and support when necessary.

Question Assumptions

Biases and assumptions creep—constantly and unconsciously—into our work. Ignoring this truth is how we get content riddled with incorrect ideas and products that gloss over the needs of real users. A more effective path is to closely examine our assumptions about our audiences, technology, and ourselves.

It is critical to have a clear methodology for stating and pushing back against your biases. Throughout your whole design process, be as clear and as honest as possible about your assumptions—to yourself, to your team, and to your clients or stakeholders:

  • Document your assumptions about the client, the audience, and the project—individually and then as a team (if you are part of one!)—in a strategy document. As the design researcher Dorothy Deasy stated, anytime someone says “We know who/what/when/where/why/how…” at the start of a design project, you can write that sentence down as an assumption (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/01-11/). We’ve all heard “We know who our users are…” way too many times.
  • Share your assumptions with all stakeholders. This part can be uncomfortable. While you may think to yourself, “I know why users do X,” it can be humbling to state those same biases out loud for others to hear. Explain that you want to check some assumptions with subject-matter experts as part of the strategy phase. Be clear about what you need: Do you want confirmation? Discussion? A focus for your research? If you are confident that whatever you design will address the assumption, that’s fine—as long as everyone knows that!
  • Turn any assumptions into a list of questions to guide your upcoming research. For instance, one assumption might be: “We know that users only create a single account on our paywalled site.” Refashioned into a question, that might sound like, “Why do our users create accounts?” Put all of the questions up on a wall where every team member can see them, or in a Google doc (if you have a distributed team). This gives everyone a set of concepts to begin exploring, instead of assumptions to refute.

Remember to speak to people who disagree with your hypotheses and questions. Skeptical voices can tell us more about how a product will be received than those who are enthusiastic about it. Dissent provides a crucial check on our impulse to go along with a popular viewpoint.

Prioritize Flexibility

As you begin to craft design artifacts and components, I would hope they are designed with your team members and stakeholders in an open, collaborative way. But what does that really look like? Well, a flexible, shareable artifact will be something that can be iterated on, tested, and discussed. Here are some suggestions for getting there:

  • Document the thinking behind your design choices. Whatever work you do, whether quietly at your desk or in the field, document it! Describing what you are creating and why serves as a way to communicate your intent with members of your team, especially if they are distributed. Plus, you can eventually use this documentation in case studies and marketing as you build a client base that appreciates and seeks out your cross-cultural expertise.
  • Keep your work in formats that are easily shareable. Unfortunately, many of the current platforms designed for sharing and collaboration are walled gardens. There is no great way, for instance, to extract a prototype from InVision after you create it. PDFs and other images can be more sharable, but their large file sizes and storage present an issue as well. The best format of all? The lowly HTML page. Since we are making things for cross-cultural audiences on the web, a URL to a page with some content on it is the most shareable asset we can have.
  • Systematize your workflows. Different cultures have different methods of collaboration, so it’s important to articulate how you work together on design problems. If your team’s design methods are not understandable and easily replicated, any outputs from sprints or working sessions risk withering away in some forgotten folder. Standardizing your processes for working on code snippets, Sketch files, or pattern libraries is a good idea for any team, but especially cross-cultural ones.
  • Start rough so you can work through cultural blind spots. Any components we design, from the simplest paper prototypes to the most complex filtering mechanisms, are based on aesthetic rules and biases we’ve learned or absorbed—meaning they are culturally constructed. For instance, when doing rough sketches as part of a wireframing process, I tend to indicate blocks of text by drawing lines from left to right, in the same direction I read my native language of English. Flexibility means identifying and challenging these (often subconscious) habits. Just as we create UI sketches left to right for an English-speaking audience, we should also draw them right to left for an Arabic-speaking audience. Starting rough gives the team time to acknowledge biases and work toward more flexible artifacts.
  • Explain design variants and options. If your design system allows for slightly different color patterns for different markets, make sure you explain the correct usages and contexts. If you begin to use a non-Latin font after entering a new market, include notes on correct line-spacing, font-size, and readability cues. And if you’re using a hamburger menu (the now-common three-line icon that indicates additional links), document its meaning and usage too: in many Western designs, these links are labeled “More,” while in many Chinese designs, they appear in a tab labeled 发现” (fāxiàn, “discover”) with a compass as the icon (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/02-06/). While both meanings give access to additional information, this variant should be documented in a design system to be flexible enough to work for both audiences.

Whatever the artifact, by keeping the cultural needs of our audiences in mind throughout the design process and putting flexibility at the center of what we create, we can help ensure a more culturally responsive final product.

Always Seek to Understand the Problem

These principles won’t give you all the answers or tell you exactly how to design for a cross-cultural audience. But I do hope they alleviate some of your concerns about subjective decision-making, causing offense, or managing client expectations that may not match audience reality.

Think of these principles as a framework for working on culturally adaptable products and experiences. They are meant as a way to contextualize the challenges you are facing, to help you think through how culture and design intersect.

Defining how you want to address the design problems in front of you is a great step in the right direction, but it’s not the end. In Chapter 3, we’ll look at the skills you need to perform this work.