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									Running head: CULTURE AND INTERFACE DESIGN              1




                         Culture and Interface Design

                               Aronya Waller

                           University of Baltimore
Running head: CULTURE AND INTERFACE DESIGN                                                             2


                                   Culture and Interface Design

       Does culture and its traditions shape the way a user perceives a website? Several

researchers believe that it does, even though the study is still fairly new. According to Callahan

(2005), culture is a complex construct that combines shared values, group behavioral patterns,

mental models, and communication styles. Each of these elements has a significant level of

importance in interface design and website usability. Known as culturability, this practice merges

cultural values with website usability. It represents a relationship between design elements and

culture (Cyr & Trevor-Smith, 2004). Currently, culturability is a necessity for international

companies and global websites. Cyr and Trevor-Smith (as cited in Badre, 2000) stated that,

       Cultural usability is a term we use to emphasize the importance of the relationship
       between culture and usability in WWW design…Color, spatial organization, fonts,
       shapes, icons, and metaphors, geography, language, flags, sounds, and motion contribute
       to the design and content of a Web page, which directly affects the way that a user
       interacts with the site. (p. 4)

While culturability can focus on language and translation, its foundation is supported within the

colors, icons, and graphical representations that are seen throughout a culture, country or region.

       Should websites be standardized or localized? Most website users prefer to have web

content in their own language and prefer local websites, and studies confirmed that some level of

website adaptation is effective. The knowledge of cultural values can help with the design

because they represent the core beliefs of a society. Those beliefs influence communication

patterns, and they vary significantly across countries and cultures. The illustration of them can

have a dramatic impact on the way a website is perceived (Singh & Baack, 2004). Cultural

values, customs, and traditions will define whether a user will cognitively accept or reject what is

portrayed on a website. It appears as if the highest level of comfort can best be achieved when

websites are localized to their cultural norms.
Running head: CULTURE AND INTERFACE DESIGN                                                        3


       Geert Hofstede developed four cultural categories for web content – collectivism, power

distance, uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity. These four cultural factors provide great

analysis points to compare the interface designs of websites in the United States with those in

Mexico. The cultural orientations between the United States and Mexico differ significantly.

Mexico is a high collectivist society, has a high power distance structure, and a low level of

uncertainty avoidance. Conversely, the United States is an individualist society, low on the

power distance structure, and has a much higher tolerance for uncertainty. Since Mexico is a

collectivist society, their websites and images will feature more family and teamwork themes.

There is also more value on tradition, and for that reason, there will be more images of the

founding chairmen on company websites. Mexico is also a more masculine society than the

United States, and Mexico’s depiction of gender roles is very clear in images. Men will play

more of a predominant role on websites conducting business operations, while women will be

shown in more traditional roles. Whereas, in the United States, there gender lines are more

blurred and the images in business operations will be more balanced (Singh & Baack, 2004).

One can surmise that culture, whether consciously or subconsciously, plays a central role on

websites.

       Mexico is a high-context culture, and users will see more imagery and less text in their

websites than the United States. Most of the animations on the websites will be centered upon

images of people. This theme continues throughout South America. In high-context Brazil and

Chile, McDonald’s websites use animations in connection with young people dancing and

jumping. Conversely, in the low-context United States, there was little-to-no animation, and

there were images of individuals relaxing. The cognitive value of these images is based upon

culture and mental models. In South America, the pictures portrayed the importance of health
Running head: CULTURE AND INTERFACE DESIGN                                                           4


and physical condition. In the United States, it showed the valued personal time of relaxation in

an individualistic society (Wurtz, 2005). McDonald’s has taken cultural values and time-honored

beliefs and succinctly associated them with the company and its products. A couple of graphics

could be clearer than text descriptions due to web users’ mental models. McDonald’s could keep

the same framework and change the images to create the best perceptions for each culture.

       While understanding the four cultural categories provides a great starting point for

designers, they also have to go further by considering the more comprehensive elements such as

culture-specific color connotations, layout formats, and animations. To achieve this successfully,

a usability study of the target culture should be conducted. However, participant studies are not

always possible due to constraints such as travel. Another option is to study the design elements

that are prevalent within the culture. The values and behaviors that are indoctrinated through

cultural influences may be reflected within those descriptions (Wurtz, 2005). The Mexican

culture is full of color. Houses are pink, yellow, orange and green. Women wear dresses

composed of multiple, bright colors. Men wear ponchos with bold prints and designs. In

celebrations such as Día de los Muertos, bright colors are balanced by with dark browns and

blacks. It could be deemed a symbolic representation of the landscape of Mexico.

       Symbols are effective comparative markers since they vary in meaning depending on the

culture. Due diligence needs to be taken when using symbols on a website for an international

audience. In Taiwan, the elephant is a symbol of strength, but it is also the national emblem of

Thailand. If the representation of an elephant was used in a comedic way, many residents from

Thailand could take offense (Callahan, 2005). Country-specific symbols are any graphical

representations that portray a way of life or culturally-specific knowledge. They can be shapes,

animal figures, or graphics of hand gestures. For instance, an image of person giving the peace
Running head: CULTURE AND INTERFACE DESIGN                                                            5


sign would garner different reactions on an American website and a British website. One would

emit feelings of peace and love, and the other would cause a royal chaos. Many religious

symbols are also linked to specific cultures. The automatic activation of a religious response will

depend on the activity occurring at cross that moment (Singh & Baack, 2004; Ware, 2008). For

example, one would mixed in with other religious images and quickly respond that the symbol is

a cross. The same individual can see the same symbol mixed in with lower-case letters, and

quickly respond that the symbol is now the letter “t.”

       Designers should ensure that not only are meanings of symbols and icons understood and

well received, but also that the same holds true for pictures. Some scenes have a universal

emotive response. Most people have a positive response to images of mothers and children.

However, in Arabian cultures, the use of pictures of men, women, and animals is discouraged.

Adding emotive images can change uninterested website visitors into attentive ones because they

can be used to support messages about family values, health, or education (Ware, 2008; Singh &

Baack, 2004). Interestingly enough, these same images can also offend the visitors. Therefore, it

is imperative that companies study all cultures of the intended audience. It could be the

difference between success and failure for a company.

       In terms of culturability, icons with their associated metaphors and colors with their

symbolism are most commonly discussed in terms of human-computer interaction. Icons are

generally used because they can replace lengthy text with a single graphic (Callahan, 2005).

While they were created to make the user experience easier, they can also create a level

confusion and misunderstanding. In order to have objects rapidly and easily identified, they

should be representative of the typical members of its class and shown in its normal manner

(Ware, 2008). Not all symbols will achieve global understanding because some only have a
Running head: CULTURE AND INTERFACE DESIGN                                                            6


cultural significance. The mailbox icon is a common example of a cultural icon that is

inappropriate for an international interface design. Its appearance and shape in the real world

varies in regions. Many websites produced in the United States use a pictorial representation of

the postal boxes that are seen on their streets. Yet, some countries deliver mail door-to-door and

in others it is picked up at the post office. While some have recommended websites use the

universal symbol of an envelope, others have said that it would cause more confusion because

users have come to recognize the Americanized mailbox icon. Therefore, it has been suggested

that there is a level of learnability for all icons. However, the learning process will be much

slower for those outside of the originating culture (Callahan, 2005; Perrault & Gregory, 2000).

This has been proven in the travel industry, where its icons have become globally recognized.

For example, airports replaced hot and cold with red and blue dots on water faucets. Perrault &

Gregory (2000) explained,

       As content becomes increasingly global and multilingual, there is a need for a common
       set of navigational icons that all users of the Web will recognize. The use of such
       standardized symbols could greatly aid users in concentrating on content. (p. 235)

It has yet to be determined when and how this daunting task will take place. The standardization

of symbols does not have to take away from the localization of a website. Instead, it is designed

to increase the culturability of website and to aid in the global understanding in the use of a

website.

       The symbolic meaning of colors is another highly-discussed topic within human-

computer interaction. Website designers should know the positive and negative meanings of

colors and color combinations. Red means happiness in China, aristocracy in France, and death

in Egypt. Yellow means cowardice in the United States and success in India. Green means safety

in the United States and criminality in France. In Japan, there is a preference for the combination
Running head: CULTURE AND INTERFACE DESIGN                                                               7


of red and white and an aversion for yellow and black. In Poland, purple with silver signifies

death (Callahan, 2005). A memorable experience for Dell occurred when they did not consider

the effects of a basic color on a global website. They surrounded most of its content with black

borders, which is perceived as negativity and death in many cultures. It has sinister connotations

in Latin America, Asia, and Europe, but it was a popular color choice for graphics and

backgrounds in the United States (Perrault & Gregory, 2000). If the website designers had done

some cultural research, they may have avoided some negative opinions about its site, and in turn

its products, based on what Americans call the basic black.

       While there are specific meanings to certain colors, there is still uncertainty about their

true cognitive roles. In some cultures, the significance may only lie within a certain hue of a

color, or the beliefs about the colors may only be held by older generations. The designer should

also take note of the context of the use of the color. For example, in the United States, black is a

sign of mourning but also of elegance (Callahan, 2005). The use of colors alone cannot depict the

sentiments of an entire website. This is when the use of music, text, and images will provide

contextual information. Website visitors should be able to identify easily the difference between

a memorial website with a black background and formal gala website with a black background.

       The use of color and the type of colors used in a website will also vary based on culture.

Color design is full of subtleties. One color can mean pleasure and beauty for one culture and

disgust for another. There are no standardized international color themes in website design.

Instead, selections are based on cultural and social constructs (Ware, 2008). For example, most

Asians prefer darker colors while Europeans and North Americans prefer lighter and brighter

colors with more images for a modern-looking website. Studies have shown that although color

preferences vary between cultures, there still appears to be some similarities. In fact, a little more
Running head: CULTURE AND INTERFACE DESIGN                                                               8


than seventy-four percent of the websites used white as the background color. The next most

prominent color was gray. More than a third of the websites used blue for links, followed by

bluish-purple and then black (Cyr & Trevor-Smith, 2004). It would appears that although

websites are not culturally-neutral, there are some standard color themes for website design. This

may occur because cultures are dynamic, and they interact with and influence each other. This is

especially true due to the presence of the Internet. While many countries have been exposed to

the Western culture and English language, many cultures have been given more visibility in the

international arena (Callahan, 2005). With the continual mixing of cultures in this global society,

we may be slowly moving towards a standardized, international website design in more of an

evolutionary aspect. In the meantime, website designers should not neglect localization and

culturability.

        In order to develop a global presence on the web, companies must design websites that

can operate in a multicultural environment. Effective international websites will be able to

inform and include many countries around the world, instead of confuse and exclude (Cyr &

Trevor-Smith, 2004). The Internet is not a culturally-neutral medium. Websites are designed

with the target audience in mind. When designing for an international audience, companies will

have to research not only the needs of the audience, but also the culture. While this may require

more time and modifications between each country’s website, the company’s global perception

will be significantly elevated. It will prove that they understand and care. It will appear as a local

company, even if the headquarters are across the ocean. When culturability is used an element of

interface design, the company is one step closer to global success.
Running head: CULTURE AND INTERFACE DESIGN                                                         9


                                           References

Callahan, E. (2005). Interface design and culture. Annual Review of Information Science and
       Technology, 39(1), 255.

Cyr, D. and Trevor-Smith, H. (2004). Localization of web design: An empirical comparison of
       German, Japanese, and United States web site characteristics. Journal of the American
       Society for Information Science and Technology, 55, 1199–1208. doi: 10.1002/asi.20075

Perrault, A. H. and Gregory, V. L. (2000). Think global, act local: the challenges of taking the
       website global. International Journal of Special Libraries (INSPEL), 34(3/4), 227-237.

Singh, N. and Baack, D. W. (2004). Web site adaptation: A cross-cultural comparison of U.S.
       and Mexican web sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 9, 00.
       doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2004.tb00298.x

Ware, C. (2008). Visual thinking for design. Boston: Morgan Kaufman.

Würtz, E. (2005). A cross-cultural analysis of websites from high-context cultures and low-
       context cultures. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(1), article 13.
       Retrieved from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue1/wuertz.html

								
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