The modern web has made it easier than ever before to expand to new markets. Just translating a website or app into different languages in the hope it’ll attract new users in their masses, however, isn’t enough. Neglecting cultural differences can lead to confusion, frustration, and even offence. As a result, it’s crucial to acknowledge the unique cultural characteristics and business practices of all your users.
There are lots of examples. Colors have different connotations across cultures. If you’re in Japan and look at a map of the world, Japan is featured in the center, not over on the right like in American maps. Websites, meanwhile, are a lot busier and information-dense in some cultures, while in others, the design tends to be more minimalist with fewer calls-to-action. Some societies are individualistic, where users prefer messages and images of independence and choice. Others might be collectivist societies, where users prefer the knowledge of the group and the wisdom of the crowd.
Localization is therefore a key factor in connecting with international audiences. In fact, the way you design across cultures can make or break a product. It’s a topic designer and illustrator Senongo Akpem knows a thing or two about. He grew up in Nigeria, then spent a decade in Japan, and now calls New York home, bringing a global perspective to his client and personal work. For years, he has been passionate about implementing diverse, inclusive design strategies into his practice, and about the role culture plays in creating a richer experience for everyone on the web — regardless of location, language, or identity. Senongo has recently distilled his thoughts, research, and the lessons he learned into a book called Cross-Cultural Design, published by A Book Apart, an essential read for anyone who wants to build better websites for people all over the world and from different cultures.
We sat down with him to discuss the need to design with cultural sensitivity in mind and how to do so effectively.
Shaping Design: What is cross-cultural design?
Senongo Akpem: Cross-cultural design is a large topic, but one that is becoming increasingly important in the world today. The internet is connecting more people in more places than ever before — and yet many of us still design with only wealthy, Western audiences in mind. As designers and business owners, we know that our audiences extend well beyond single national borders.
People online bring a huge variety of languages, perspectives, and expectations about the web with them. I do believe that our industry wants to design effective experiences for these modern, multicultural audiences. But in order to do that, we must be eager to understand and meet the needs of global audiences.
That’s going to take a clear and accessible methodology, one that forces us to design across those cultures. My book examines the actions and ways of thinking that we need to [adopt in order to] do socially-conscious research, build culturally responsive experiences, develop meaningful internationalization and localization approaches, and create effective design systems.
"The internet is connecting more people in more places than ever before — and yet many of us still design with only wealthy, Western audiences in mind. As designers and business owners, we know that our audiences extend well beyond single national borders."
SD: What are culturally responsive experiences, and how do you build them over time?
SA: Today [we see it as] a given that design responds to our devices, locations, and preferences. Back when responsive design started as a web standard, there was definitely a lot of experimentation, and some pushback, over layouts. Functionality also seemed to be endlessly arbitrary, and that tried to account for too many variables. But guess what? Now we take it for granted, and any site that is not responsive we can say is old or hasn’t been updated yet.
Now, as we have sophisticated code and workflows for responsive design on the front-end, I think we should expect sites to also be responsive to the facets and differences in culture. There are so many factors that affect how design is perceived in places with different cultural norms, as well as how visual and cultural diversity can be built into every stage of our projects.
SD: What inspired you to write this book?
SA: As they say, time is a flat circle. I gave my first “official” conference talk at Future of Web Design New York (RIP) in 2012. It was titled “Beyond Responsive Design: Culture as a Factor in Web Design”, and explored how we can use Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model as a way to understand the role of culture in design. Now, all these years later, those same ideas made their way into the very first chapter of my book. So it's a topic I have been speaking and writing about for a while.
More fundamentally, however, as the role of the internet expands, and greater numbers of people come online, I think designers need to take a step back and really understand how to design experiences for people in different cultures, and who speak different languages. The choices we make have effects far beyond our cities and borders. I guess that's the power of the internet, so we need to try using it for good.
SD: What can happen when you design with (often unconscious) Western bias and don't take other cultures into account?
SA: A few years back, I had just started working at Constructive, a social impact design agency in New York, and I was looking through an icon set to try and find something to use for a project. It was one of those large Sketch files, with all the icons laid out thematically. I kept glancing at one in particular. It was an icon of a hijab, with another hijab upside down next to it. And it bugged me, you know? What does this icon mean? Why is it in the sports section of the Sketch file?
It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized it was not a hijab at all — it was a pair of scuba flippers! You have to understand. I grew up in Jos, a city in Northern Nigeria. It’s a predominantly Muslim city, and so I automatically associate that particular shape with the style of head covering that’s common there.
It's a simple, if funny example, but extend that out. When we create design systems that unconsciously replicate our Western cultural norms, like scuba diving and Bitcoin, we make it much harder for those systems to move across cultures and be usable for other people.
There is also a rich vein of content on marketing blogs about products that were introduced in a market but failed because the company hadn’t done their cultural research. For example, Pringles trying to sell bacon-flavored potato chips with the message ‘Ramadan Mubarak’.