Chapter 3. Cross-Cultural Practitioners – Cross-Cultural Design

Chapter 3. Cross-Cultural Practitioners

Culturally responsive design is not only about modern global audiences; it’s also about the skill and insight of the people crafting experiences for them. Creating effective, adaptive experiences online, ones that feel natural to a wide variety of people, means our mindsets and practices must shift.

Cross-cultural practitioners must be able to listen, to ask questions, and to incorporate information that may feel wildly different from their own culture. We are asked to create digital experiences for people in far-flung parts of the world, as well as those right next door, all with overlapping (and sometimes competing) cultural constraints. That takes empathy and curiosity, skills that set us apart as stewards of our audience needs and the design process. Diogenes Brito, a product designer at Slack, described this as the fundamental role of the designer:

We assist people in seeing and assuming the perspective of others, to help create interfaces, products, and services that are responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties. Designers are also stewards in the other sense of the word, because we protect the creative process (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-01/).

Let’s look at the actions, roles, and responsibilities that can help digital practitioners succeed in cross-cultural projects.

Cross-Cultural Competence

Interacting successfully with your team, your clients, and your users, many of whom may be from different cultures, requires the ability to communicate and empathize with them (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-02/). We might call this cross-cultural competence.

Cross-cultural competence is also known as cultural intelligence (CQ), which psychologist Daniel Goleman calls “a propensity to suspend judgment—to think before acting.” CQ was spearheaded by researcher P. Christopher Earley in the early 2000s (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-03/). His research established six CQ archetypes (much like personas or user stories), which we can apply to a design context:

  • The Provincial: You are effective and knowledgeable when it comes to your cultural background and familiar design problems, but may struggle in new contexts.
  • The Analyst: You systematically assess new situations and adopt repeatable, go-to strategies that help you navigate cross-cultural design problems.
  • The Natural: You rely on your intuition to quickly reach cross-cultural design solutions. Ambiguous situations may make it hard for you to trust your gut.
  • The Ambassador: You are confident and sure of yourself, even if you lack cultural knowledge. You are often able to correctly assess and adapt to cultural differences.
  • The Mimic: You mirror the cultural behavior you see in others, even if it is new or difficult to decipher, making you effective in small, interpersonal situations that require conversation and negotiation.
  • The Chameleon: No, you’re not a reptile—that would be a very different problem! You are able to assimilate and blend into cross-cultural situations. Your strength is in gathering design insights and adding cultural context to them.

Maybe you’re reading these archetypes, trying to figure out where you fit—which ones sound most like you and your team, and in what situations? Simply understanding CQ archetypes may improve your cross-cultural team’s interactions in the short-term, but that’s just the first step. The true goal is to look forward, “to think before acting,” so your team can more effectively complete design and project goals. Developing cross-cultural competence will help your team in a few key ways.

Innovative ideas

The first way is by encouraging innovation. To be truly innovative, you need diverse, inclusive teams. Differences of opinion, background, and perspective generate a wealth of potentially effective ideas, and an inclusive environment ensures that you can work through those ideas openly.

  • You create common ground: This means space to build trust, both with team-members and with audiences. Knowing that someone is trying to understand where you are coming from can make it easier to work with them on a project, collaborate on a prototype, or even do a round of testing together in the field.
  • You create higher-performing teams: Your team will have the ability to quickly adjust course as new information comes in. The more culturally competent your team members, the easier it is for them to pool their knowledge, change up their thinking, and adapt their methods.

Collaborative teams

With the complexity of digital experiences today, the ability to collaborate means more brains working together for greater effect. CQ means that regardless of the backgrounds or archetypal skills of your team, you act effectively together.

  • You handle conflict in a positive way: Cultural intelligence doesn’t eliminate conflict or miscommunication—it ensures you have the skills and mechanisms to work through those misunderstandings as a team. Friction between team members cannot be avoided, nor should it be: perfectly seamless human interactions mean we’re missing out on the chance to grow and learn from others.
  • You work together to rapidly prototype and iterate: That ability to “think before acting” means your team is more likely to explore, research, and test ideas rather than jump to conclusions. The more collaboratively you protype and iterate, the more effective your solutions will be.

User-friendly results

Cross-cultural competence makes it easier to uncover cultural needs and influences—which means your team can better meet the needs of your users.

  • You synthesize audience research more effectively: When you design with empathy and cultural awareness, you’ll be better about listening to and understanding your audience’s needs. Your research will be more informative and accurate, and you’ll be able to apply it more thoughtfully to solving real problems.
  • You design more intuitive products: A truly seamless digital experience—one that feels familiar to your audience, anticipates their needs, and builds critical goodwill—includes imagery, messaging, functionality, and touchpoints that can only be created with cultural insight.

Habits of the Cross-Cultural Designer

As a cross-cultural designer, your role is to define strategies that address real issues, to lead a participatory design process, and to produce thoughtful, inclusive results.

In “Designing for Cultural Diversity: Participatory Design, Immigrant Women and Shared Creativity,” Naureen Mumtaz of the University of Alberta wrote that this design work is a chance “to contribute to the social process concerning cultural diversity in a constructive and sustainable manner” (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-04/, PDF). For me, the key word here is contribute. Mumtaz is asking us to perform our work in a way that benefits, and collaborates with, society.

Of course, no one is born with the ability to design appropriately and effectively across cultures; it must be learned. Simply being a designer doesn’t presuppose knowledge and familiarity with cultural systems or ways of thinking. Specific actions, thoughtfully practiced, can become habits that strengthen your cross-cultural design abilities:

  • You tell stories.
  • You ask big questions.
  • You share ownership of creative projects.
  • You work across disciplines.
  • You create cultural spaces.

You tell stories

I love the act of telling stories. You can probably tell, from all the little cultural anecdotes in this book. The stories I like best are about the ways researchers and creative professionals react to and interpret culture. Storytelling is a cultural experience, one built on our negotiations over meaning.

Tom Erickson, a former interaction designer at Apple and IBM, uses storytelling to better understand design problems:

As I listen to the stories people tell, I begin to recognize common themes and events, and gradually formulate my own ‘design stories.’ Design stories are a little like scenarios, in that they attempt to capture some of the recurring characteristics in stories I’ve been told, but they are still quite story-like, in that they retain their level of detail, and are grounded in my personal experience. (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-05/)

Critically, Erickson’s design stories are based on user research, not assumptions or stereotypes. They help identify patterns, highlight users’ language, and distill rationale; creating a narrative around our problem-solving is a way of making sense of the real issues.

Highlighting cultural issues with this method of storytelling can be even more effective when the stories are told though images, not just words. Bonny Colville-Hyde, a user experience designer at Immediate Media, used storytelling to create a comic for a nonprofit client in the UK (Fig 3.1). Her visual story—about the challenges young people faced as they moved out of foster care and became independent—included UK-centric imagery and language: “TO LET,” the pound sign, and the names of the site respondents (Kimmy, Sarah, and Mark). This narrative gave stakeholders at the nonprofit real insight into their users’ needs. Storytelling can make problems feel immediate, memorable, and focused.

Fig 3.1: Bonny Colville-Hyde’s comic showed a nonprofit how they can help young adults as they transition out of foster care. This story would be effective if told verbally during a client meeting, but is even more powerful as a focused, visual narrative.


Storytelling is a habit that can be learned and practiced. A few years ago, a UX designer on my team had begun leading client presentations, and she expressed concern that those meetings were not as engaging as they could be. I suggested that she speak less about the final design components (buttons, taxonomies, and templates), and focus more on short anecdotes about how she arrived at those components. Before her next meeting, we sat down, looked over her notes, and chose places to tell little stories about past clients who had encountered similar problems. Guess what—her next meeting was a success! The clients were more engaged with her rationales and solutions, and she came across as experienced with the subject matter.

Telling stories is the mark of a good cross-cultural designer. It’s also a skill that anyone can improve. Start small: plan out opportunities to share a few brief anecdotes in design sprints, presentations, or write-ups. When you feel more comfortable, try crafting longer narratives that illustrate your thought process or tie together themes. Keep at it!

You ask big questions

Asking questions helps you understand the intentions, opinions, and concerns of your core users, regardless of their cultural background. It shows your creative curiosity and can establish your credibility in front of clients or stakeholders.

Some of the questions you ask will be directed toward yourself and your team: Am I assuming something about how this language should be read on screen? Are my icons creating confusion by representing more than one idea?

Other questions will be directed toward your audience, investigating their challenges, decisions, and behaviors. By thinking like an anthropologist, you can begin to understand the varied needs of audiences in different locales across the world.

Sometimes the questions come to you, challenging your assumptions. Consider the example of Ignighter, a dating startup with a slightly different approach: it organized group outings rather than one-on-one dates, to reduce romantic pressure and help more people meet (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-06/). They grew a small user base in the US, but in April 2009, they saw a spike in web traffic from countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and—especially—India. By 2010, they had two million accounts in India, with hundreds of new users joining every day.

Considering Ignighter was founded by three Manhattanites with a focus on New York City, what was happening? They began to ask questions:

  • Why was their service so popular in India?
  • How had users heard about it?
  • What was different about the dating scene in India?
  • How were romantic interactions defined in Indian culture?

There were several cultural factors that began to answer their questions. In many areas of India, it was still considered taboo for unmarried men and women to go out in public together. Eighty-two percent of young adults still lived with their parents, who had a lot of influence over their children’s relationships. And online dating was relatively new to the Indian market. All of these forces made a service like Ignighter welcome—the group events made it easy for young people to socialize without overt romantic intention.

The Ignighter team moved their operations to India and became a successful Indian dating startup—eventually being sold to Twoo, which was in turn sold to online dating giant Match. Imagine if they had decided to ignore that spike in traffic from New Delhi!

I tell you this story to show that asking questions can further the goals of your clients, your audience, and your project as a whole. You can’t chase ideas down every rabbit hole, but when clear data presents itself, your role as a cross-cultural designer is to follow the information, just as the Ignighter team did.

You share ownership of creative projects

I often hear clients refer to design work as the designer’s work or the agency’s work. I take great pains to let them know that any website or interactive experience belongs to them—as a designer, I am simply bringing form to the strategies we have agreed on and developed together.

It’s an important point. You cannot give ownership of a design to your audience, whether clients or users. They will be the ones using the finished product on a daily basis; it’s theirs to begin with. However, you do need their insight and feedback. In leading this collaborative exploration, you can create work that is part of their culture and informed by their own views. When you share control of the design process with others, you also give them the ability to alter and adapt that work to fit their lived experience.

The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-07/) is a nonprofit organization in New York that collaborates with professionals, community-based advocates, and freelance designers. They work with underrepresented communities to increase local civic engagement with complex issues (like prison reform, urban planning, and sexual violence), using art—things made by the community, for the community. In 2017, CUP collaborated with Black Women’s Blueprint (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-08/), a national feminist organization focused on empowering women and girls of African descent, to design a foldout poster explaining Title IX and the Jeanne Clery Act, laws that require schools to protect and provide resources to survivors of sexual violence (Fig 3.2). Designers Flora Chan and Abby Chen led collaborative design sessions, working with students in Brooklyn to ensure the tone and aesthetic of the piece represented their lived experience.

By collaborating and cocreating, you explicitly make your work part of the culture you are designing for. Culture is a constant negotiation, and so is the act of making things with people. By centering them in your work, you contribute to the cultural landscape.

You work across disciplines

One of the foundations of cross-cultural design—besides the work with actual users from different cultures—is the ability to assimilate divergent concepts into a complete, unified result.

Let’s use the example of Grab, a transportation and logistics company used by millions of people across seven countries in southeast Asia (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-10/). Grab’s services include food delivery, ride-hailing, parcel delivery, and even mobile wallet services; prototyping and designing a mobile app to cover them all, across so many different cultural markets, presented a huge challenge.

Fig 3.2: The collaboratively produced poster from CUP and Black Women’s Blueprint breaks down the federal rules requiring schools to protect and support survivors of sexual violence (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-09/).

Rice Tseng, a product design lead at Grab, wrote about the team’s cross-disciplinary approach to develop the app (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-11/):

  • Culture: They visited the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore to research the diversity of cultures in the region, over and above their existing knowledge.
  • Technology: Such a wide geographic area meant the team needed to account for a variety of devices, particularly older smartphones with smaller screen sizes, and optimize for limited screen space.
  • Psychology: They prototyped and tested simple animations to reduce the anxiety that some users experience when waiting for deliveries to arrive.
  • Business: To reduce drop-off and cancellation rates, they reorganized the interface to display discrete logical steps, rather than showing every piece of information at once.

This work resulted in a number of positive outcomes. First and foremost, the team consolidated, streamlined, and standardized the UI, making it easier for users to book rides and use other services. That also meant defining standards that the whole team could follow—for animation, code, and copy—even if they were spread across different countries. Finally, the work was presented to top management for feedback, meaning the people in charge of the various disciplines got a chance to see their teams’ work in action.

You (and your team) need to be anthropologists, technologists, writers, and strategists, all in one. An ability to aggregate knowledge from different fields of expertise and apply it to the design work at hand means an expanded palette for designers—and an added responsibility to get it right.

You create cultural spaces

Designers are change-makers. Our actions can impact thousands of people, whether or not we realize it. And that impact plays out not only on a screen, but in the “real” world, too.

The cross-cultural designer considers how online content can create and support offline interactions in our schools, homes, and communities. Culture isn’t static; it’s always in the process of being created, modified, and negotiated by society, and that gives designers a real opportunity to make artifacts and experiences that contribute to this process.

Digital Green, a development organization based in Asia, embraces that opportunity. Their goal is to use videos and other digital content to help farmers better manage their livelihoods, become more climate-resistant, and strengthen their communities. But how can Digital Green do this in communities that are less digitally connected, where the answers to questions about proper soil techniques are not at the other end of a search-engine query?

First, they maintain a free digital library of over six thousand videos in over fifty languages that teach things like healthcare, mulching, and livestock management (Fig 3.3). Then, they organize live, facilitated video screenings in local communities (Fig 3.4).

Fig 3.3: The Digital Green video library offers thousands of videos with culturally relevant content (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-12/).

Fig 3.4: Digital Green organizes community viewings of the videos, expanding the digital experience into an offline context (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-13/).

This connection between digital content and offline interaction is crucial to the content’s effectiveness. Digital Green’s strategy has to consider the cultural affinities, contexts, and behaviors of the viewers:

[W]hen farmers assess the relevance and trustworthiness of a Digital Green video, they consider not just its language but also factors like the clothes the featured farmer is wearing and the type of dwelling she lives in to determine whether that person is someone they identify with. Indeed, viewers often ask the name of the individual featured in the video and the village she lives in. Seeing is often believing for members of rural communities, especially women who have a low level of literacy, for whom visual cues about a practice pertaining to a person or a crop can be crucial in their determining its applicability. (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/03-14/)

After watching, farmers feel comfortable talking through challenges and solutions—both on camera, and face to face—with other members of their own communities.

It would not have been enough to simply put the videos online—Digital Green also needed to create space, literally, for that content to be used offline. Cross-cultural designers make it possible for culture and knowledge to be reproduced, and enriched, with new tools and experiences.

Shifting Practices

Your role as a cross-cultural designer is a nuanced one. Interactive design won’t spontaneously happen in your browser, on an artboard, or in a document. It happens in bustling kitchens, at remote bus stops, in dusty conference rooms, places far away from where your computer sits. In order to address real issues, ones that span borders, we must first become the kind of designers, developers, and strategists who can do that work.

As our design practices change, we need to find new ways of listening to our users. In the next chapter, we will define some ways to conduct research with global, cross-cultural audiences.