Over the years, I’ve traveled through 30 countries and lived in eight. I speak three languages and have designed in five countries. My myriad of experiences include:
- Designed for a women and children's rights non-profit in El Salvador
- Studied information design in Austria
- Interned at a multidisciplinary design agency in Turkey
- Contributed to interactive data visualizations for a Swedish data journalism platform
- Freelanced for several businesses and organizations in the US
We’re living in an increasingly diverse world where cross-cultural interactions are common through migration and travel. If companies want to have impact, design has to be functional and relevant to differing cultures. In UX, this is referred to as localization. Here’s what designing for different cultures taught me about localization.
How to Design a Multicultural User Experience
1. Acknowledge Your Biases
Cultural exchanges are rewarding on an interpersonal level. But everyone comes with their own biases when designing, particularly at an international level. Your bias comes from environmental upbringings, cultural behaviors, thoughts, and previous experiences. Recognize it.
2. Become a Blank Slate
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing."
How do you combat your biases? After visiting country after country, I realized it's better to come in as a blank slate. Assume nothing and open yourself to learn about the culture you’re designing for. This helps you avoid your biased thoughts framed by your own particular experiences.
3. Identify Patterns
While every culture is different, there is a lot they have in common. Patterns exists everywhere. Observe how others communicate, value, interpret, and receive information. Identify the patterns and use them to design for a culture.
Below are a few examples of varying homepages from brands like Uniqlo, Ikea and Starbucks. By comparing them we understand how these brands localize by identifying patterns across the websites.
Minimalism vs Density
Minimalism and whitespace is valued in western cultures like Sweden and the US where information in its desirable form needs to be easily readable and processed. Eastern cultures like Japan value finding information promptly, resulting in websites that by western cultures are considered dense and unappealing. Interestingly, what’s appealing to the west is rather inefficient to the east. David, a Japan based software engineer, explains the linguistic, cultural and technical factors influencing Japanese website trends.
Uniqlo in the US, Germany and Japan
Both Uniqlo’s websites in the US and Germany have similar content, but Germany’s website is displayed in a wider layout compared to the US’s. That difference could reflect the longer words characterized by the German language. It’s important to choose a typeface carefully and leave whitespace to scale and localize between languages with a similar root like English and German. A typeface shouldn’t look convoluted in another language with longer words and there should also be enough whitespace in case the same word in another language has multiple words or one really long word.
In the case of Uniqlo’s Japan website, the design is vastly different from its English and German counterparts. It contains a lot of information compact in a slender, vertically oriented design. That appropriately fits a culture that values quick access to a lot of information.
Writing systems vary across cultures. Western cultures read from left-to-right, some Middle Eastern cultures read from right-to-left, and some Eastern cultures read from top-to-bottom. This means F and Z layouts, typical of Western user experience design, won’t always translate well internationally.
Starbucks in the US, Japan, Middle East and Austria
Starbucks does a great job of localizing their layouts. In the US, it has a typical Z layout that reflects the way users scan across websites in western cultures. In Japan, it has a vertically oriented layout. Information is often read and written from top-to-bottom and left-to-right there. Though it is not as common to view vertical typography on websites, it still influences a vertical rhythm. Finally, Starbucks’s website in the Middle East mirrors the layout of the US. That works well for cultures that read from right-to-left.
Now that there are some common and differing patterns that have been identified across cultures, it’s important to observe websites, break them down and ask questions. Even the location and the visibility of something so minute, yet important like a search button might differ across cultures, but follow trends within similar cultures.
Ikea Search Field in Sweden, Saudi Arabia, the US and Japan
Ikea’s website in Sweden has a long input search field. Could it require more space in their search input fields for their longer words? In Saudi Arabia, the search button is found on the left while the logo is on the right, opposing the search button and logo location in the US. That’s simply mirroring again right? Why is the search button faintly display in Japan’s Ikea website? Are search buttons used less in Japan where information should be immediately found and not searched for?
I could be over analyzing, but there’s a reason behind every design decision and every little detail in a product or a website plays a role in making the user experience great.
5. Remember Design Ethics
It’s not uncommon to see Blackletter typefaces used in the US in newspaper journals or beer bottles. But Blackletter typefaces were heavily used in Nazi Germany, became strongly associated with Nazism and today are associated with Neo-Nazism. I vividly recall my typography teacher in Austria saying, it’d be rare to see them there today; it’s believed these typefaces now carry an unshakeable meaning, much like the swastika, that does not belong in the future and should stay in the past.
6. Communicate Creatively
You don’t always have to use words to communicate and sometimes you simply won’t be able to. If you can not use words to communicate something, use gestures, visuals etc to bridge the gap between languages with your users or colleagues. You might even try communicating in two languages at a time if you understand a language, but can’t easily speak it. This was a common practice I resorted to working with German and Turkish speaking colleagues and Swedish speaking users, all who understood English.
Also, use gestures with caution as they can carry different meanings across cultures.
7. Write Consciously
“Rather than mere design templates, a user interface with the right semantic content can produce a measurable impact on the user in both task performance and emotional perception, depending on its background and context.”
– Alberto Ferreira
Direct translations don’t always carry over and some words simply don’t exist in another language. For example, “my friend” means “my romantic partner” in German. When speaking about a friend in German, the direct translation of that in English would be “a friend of mine.” I made the mistake of using “my friend” instead of “a friend of mine” many times as I learned German causing confusion and awkward conversations. It’s important to use localized semantics to avoid misinterpretations.
It’s also important to identify what is culturally appropriate language so users don’t become upset. Though it’s internationally common to refer to the US as “America,” I’ve come across many Latinx individuals who despise that reference. Latin America and Canada make up America too and referring to the US as “America” is an indication of ethnocentrism to many people.
Direct translations don’t always carry over and some words simply don’t exist in another language.
8. Test your designs
“Designing for mass localization on a digital platform on a scale is a fruitless endeavor unless it is correlated with quantitative data: analytics and tracking can help designers and Information Architects in finding the best structure for a site map or flow for transactional websites and customize it to suit the user needs.”
– Alberto Ferreira
You are bound to feel anxious and vulnerable working in different languages and cultures. You are also bound to make mistakes. Reach out to people from the culture you are designing for. That could be end-users, colleagues, or professional translators. The only way to know your writing and designs are headed in the right direction and are culturally sensitive is to TEST them.
My tips for localization are largely based on my international experience in design. There are plenty of resources from experts on the subject as well. Two experts that I would recommend researching are Alberto Ferreira, author of Universal UX Design, and Paige Williams, former director of global readiness at Microsoft, if localization for UX piques your interest.