This post discusses how the perception of web-design varies between cultures, the importance for designers in today’s global market to ascertain the needs and preferences of their target audiences, and how different cultures have distinctive perception-models of design. To be able to create more efficient web-designs designers, therefore, need to build an understanding how these differences are materialised in web-design from different cultures, and furthermore work to also understand why. Introduced in this post is Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions, which can be used as a tool for designers to gain this understanding, and which is discussed in the light of a number of international government websites. The objective of this discussion is to help designers to better understand how culture influence the perception of design and the importance of considering culture in design processes.
According to Cook and Finlayson (2005, p. 15), an image pleasing to one group of people might offend others, and a design that is coherent and legible for one culture might be experienced as cluttered and arduous for another. Alao et al. (2013, p. 1) also discuss cultural differences in the perception of design and note that it is customary for web designers to create designs based on their subjective perception model, failing to acknowledge that audiences outside their own culture might not share the same reading model of visual communication. This is also discussed by Reinecke (2010) who points out that digital design often is developed following western cultural cues, which leads to a gap when the design is used and experienced by non-western audiences. To solve the problem with diverse website audiences of different cultural perception models, Marcus and Gould (2000), Alao et al. (2013), Huatong (2001), Kamentz and Mandl (2005), Cook and Finlayson (2005), Reinecke (2010) propose that web-design should be adapted to the culture of the major audiences which it targets.
This post acknowledges the research by Marcus and Gould (2000), Alao et al. (2013), Huatong (2001), Kamentz and Mandl (2005), Cook and Finlayson (2005), Reinecke (2010) and others, and discusses whether adapting web-design to the various cultural needs and preferences of website visitors can be used as a method for more efficient communication and design. The first part begins with explaining the concept of culture and continues by exploring how culture influences the perception of design by discussing Barber and Badre’s (1998) theory of “cultural markers” in web design.
As suggested by Cook and Finlayson (2005), it is, however, not enough just to acknowledge that cultures have different preferences of design prevalent by cultural-specific elements, as noted by Barber and Badre (1998). To perform any meaningful visual communication study, they propose that besides acknowledging objective cultural differences such as colours, metaphors and layout—one also must understand the underlying logic to why cultures differ in their model of perception. Consequently, they propose that Geert Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions (Hofstede, 1980) should be used as a theoretical framework to understand culture-specific differences in web-design, which will be discussed in the second part of this post. The final part then concludes whether audience adapted web-design can be used as a method to communicate more efficiently to culturally diverse website visitor segments.
THE DEFINITION OF CULTURE
In Williams (1983) cultural theorist Raymond Williams state culture as one of the most complex words in the English vocabulary.
Historically, the word ‘culture’ has been equated with the classic arts, literature, philosophy and music as epitomized by eighteenth-century philosopher Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been thought and said (Arnold, 1932).”
But culture also has an anthropological definition which refers to the shared practices and values of a society or group of people (Reinecke, Schenkel and Bernstein 2010, p. 2) which also is how the term ‘culture’ is referred to in this text. Within the anthropological discourse of culture, ‘culture’ is created through intricate structures of language, gestures, acting and looking—and is represented through the actions which individuals use to make sense of reality and their identities (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 3). In simpler terms; ‘culture’ within this discourse can be defined as any group of people able to express thoughts, feelings and ideas about the world in ways which can be understood by everyone else in that particular group (Hall, Evans and Nixon, 2013, p. XIX).
Within the anthropological definition of culture, according to Hall (1973), objects in themselves do not have a single, fixed meaning and even something obvious as a stone can be defined as anything from a hammer, a sculpture or a building block for a house depending on how the term ‘stone’ is used; the context where it is found; how you integrate with it, and what people say about it. “Meaning” in the anthropological discourse is constructed by the participants within a culture in the way objects, people and events are “represented” by the words used to describe them; images produced to present them; associated emotions; placed value, and how they are conceptualised and classified (Hall, 1973).
Olujimi Alao et al. (2011, p.22) note that the concept of culture can be broadly categorised into objective- and subjective culture. Objective culture refers to visible aspects of design—such as colour, metaphors, layout and typography (Olujimi Alao et al. 2011, pp. 25-28)—while subjective culture refers to psychological- and cultural characteristics, such as values, beliefs and pattern of thinking (Hoft 2017, p.43; Olujimi Alao et al. 2011, pp. 22 ).
To understand how objective- and subjective culture influence the perception of design, consider the colour white which in most western cultures is associated with purity. In Japan, however, white represents death (Chau et al., 2002). Or consider how you personally perceive American Apparel’s advert for fair-labor practices in Figure 1, below. Do you consider the design as just a fair trick to get attention in a crowded marketplace, or do you find it offensive and making you reluctant to buy any products from this company? As these examples show, images and designs pleasing to one group of people may seriously offend many others, and the reason for this disparity of perception is different cultural perspectives of the viewer (Cook and Finlayson, 2005).
HOW CULTURE INFLUENCE THE PERCEPTION OF DESIGN
Several visual communications studies conclude that significant differences in web- and user interface design between national cultures can be observed (Marcus and Gould, 2000; Corbitt, Thanasankit and Haynes, 2002; Gould, Zakaria and Yusof, 2017; Kamentz and Womser-Hacker, 2003; Kamentz and Mandl, 2005; Kralisch, Berendt and Eisend, 2005; Sheppard and Scholtz, 1999; Callahan, 2005; Eristi, 2009; Cook and Finlayson, 2005). This also has been established in a number of studies concerning cultural factors related to web design; notably by Sheppard and Scholtz (1999), Cyr and Trevor-Smith (2004), Romondi (2015), Alao et al., (2013), Olujimi Alao et al. (2011) and Callahan (2008) whose research also account for Barber and Badre’s cultural classification framework (Barber and Badre, 1998) which identify and generalize specific visual cues such as colours, layout and design; s k cultural markers, that are typical of certain national cultures.
It should also be noted that cultural values are grounded not only by external factors such as the national culture where an individual live or is born. According to Reinecke, Schenkel and Bernstein (2010, pp. 2-3) values and identity are acquired early in life through socialisation, ethnicity and group affiliation. Consequently; as noted by the Pew Research Center (Pewresearch.org, 2017), second generation US-immigrants “identify themselves most by their family’s country of origin (Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, 2013)”, which also is discussed in a research report published by the Parliament of Australia stating that immigrants often continue to have a strong sense of identity with their ancestral roots for many generations (Holton, 2017).
OBJECTIVE CULTURAL VALUES
To identify elements in web design typical of specific national cultures, Barber and Badre (1998) performed a systematic visual analysis of hundreds of websites by country, genre and language. This research identified a set of elements which proved to be predominant within websites from some national cultures, while absent or less prevalent in others. Barber and Badre (1998) propose that these s k ‘cultural markers’ can be used to classify and identify national cultures.
While Barber and Badre (1998, p.5) propose fifteen cultural markers to be considered when designing websites adapted to objective cultural values; more recent research by Olujimi Alao et al. (2011) which accounts for Barber and Badre (1998) propose that only four of the original fifteen are of vital importance: colour, metaphors, language and layout. The implications of each of these four cultural markers in web design will be discussed further in the following section.
Colour as a cultural marker
Much of modern colour theory is rooted in the modernist design movement of the 1920s and 30s and the Bauhaus—notably in the work and teachings of Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Josef Albers (Smith, 2017, Hunker, 2017; Smee, 2014).
Johannes Itten who taught at the Weimar Bauhaus between 1919 and 1922 developed the twelve-color wheel (Figure 2, below) based on three primaries, three secondary, and six tertiary colours which, according to Smith (2017), still is used to introduce graphic design students to colour theory.
Wassily Kandinsky is considered a pioneer of abstract art. He is maybe most known for his influence on the development of Neo-Expressionism in the U.S (Fiedler, Feierabend and Ackermann, 2013), and by his teaching and research at the Bauhaus during the Dessau period between 1925 to 1932, and the schools final year in Berlin 1933 before it was finally closed due to pressure from the Nazi regime (Fiedler, Feierabend and Ackermann, 2013).
Kandinsky argued that distinctive colours will evoke different feelings in the viewer and that, for example, warm colours such as red, yellow and orange sometimes can be experienced as harsh—while green, blue and purple elicit more peaceful emotions.
One of the main contributions of Josef Albers is his theories about the perception of colour as ‘relative and subjective’ and that the quality of a colour always will be determined by the viewer (Smee, 2014). This was also discussed in the teachings by Klee, who observed that alternations in colour-values or saturation will elicit different perceptions in the viewer (Hunker.com, 2017). Klee also explored how the human eye sees colours, and his famous experiment with staring at a yellow shape against a white background resulting in the shape being perceived as purple, helped him develop his own colour theory and colour wheel (Figure 3, below), which according to Sall (2013) was highly influenced by Goethe’s theory of colours presented in Figure 4, below:
Figure 5, right: Goethe’s color wheel, published in the reproduction of his book ‘Theory of Colours’(Von Goethe, 2016).
How culture influence the perception of colour.
Research by Barber and Badre (1998) shows that perception of color varies between national cultures.
As illustrated in their ‘culture color chart’ (Figure 6, below), individual colors can denote widely different meanings for viewers of different cultures; including the color red which in the Chinese culture denotes happiness, while in the Egyptian culture symbolizing death. Colours, according to this theory, also have strong religious associations. Yellow, as an example, is sacred for Buddhists (Rucean, 2007); and green, which traditionally is associated with Islam (Bureau, 2017), in France often is associated with criminality.
Metaphors as a cultural marker
A metaphor is an expression where words, images, or other types of representations are used to denote meaning in a context different from its literal sense (Dictionary.com, 2017). In user interfaces, metaphors are important tools for saving space and for efficient cross-cultural communication of functionality and structure, which can help users better understand an interface without language-specific words (Taylor, 1992).
One example of a universally recognized interface metaphor is the “play symbol” in the form of a triangle. Even if the general design and language of media players might differ, it instantly will be recognized by most users what will happen when pressing this symbol (Taylor, 1992). As illustrated in China’s official government website, figure 7, below; it has play icons on its video player and navigation, and even if you don’t know how to read Chinese, you most certainly will understand how to start a video.
Metaphors in interface design can present many benefits, but they also can lead to misinterpretations if the user do not share the same culture as the designer. One example is Apple’s introduction of the trashcan icon in the 1980s as a representation for deleting documents which confused Britons as the icon for them looked more like a postal box than a waste bin (Taylor, 1992).
Wooten (2011) also debate over possible implications regarding the use of metaphors in web interfaces and refer to the commonly used symbol of an ‘owl’ on online learning platforms which in the west symbolise wisdom, but in some parts of Asia signifies stupidity. He also remarks on the common use of showing a thumbs-up or the two-fingered V in the domain of political websites which—even though considered as positive gestures in the U.S.—in many cultures are equivalent vulgar of showing someone your middle finger (Wooten 2011; Oldt, 1992; Cotton, 2013).
Language and layout as cultural markers
As noted by Barber and Badre (1998), Cyr and Trevor-Smith (2004), Huatong 2001, Tagiev (2017), Reinecke, Schenkel and Bernstein (2010) and Sheppard and Scholtz (1999); websites from different national cultures diverge in the way they are organized. French websites, as an example, frequently are structured with a centred orientation (Cyr and Trevor-Smith 2004, p.6) while German websites often have a structure with strong content hierarchy (Huatong 2001, p.99).
Asian websites also have a different design- and content structure than those of western cultures (Tagiev, 2017; Gilbert 2013). Consider Figure 8, below; depicting the official website of the Chinese government in its native and English versions. What can be noted is that the information density on the Chinese version is much greater than the English. It is also interesting to note that the Chinese version has less illustrative images and instead has a system of visual icons. This, according to Gilbert (2013), can be partly explained by the fact that logographic characters convey much more meaning than the western Latin script, and also that Asian typography has no spacing between words. Another reason for the denser information structure often seen on Asian websites, and that icons often are preferred over illustrative imagery—according to Tagiev (2017)—can be attributed to the s k ‘Kanban culture’ which places the maximum amount of content within a minimum space. To note is also that western cultures, according to Tagiev (2017), have a tendency of presenting conclusions at the beginning of a text and details later, while many other cultures do the reverse which can lead to implications when translating text content word-by-word from, for example, English to Japanese.
Tagiev (2017) also discuss the implications of adapting western websites to Arabic cultures, and note that when translating western text-content to Arabic, the entire layout needs to be inverted; clearly manifested when translating the United Arab Emirates’ official government website (Figure 9, below). As can be seen in the Arabic version, the positioning of all interface elements; such as sliders, icons, timeline indicators, buttons, imagery and general page sections, are moved from right to left. Less notable is also that the structure of dropdown menus is affected. What this example shows is that adapting the language of a website many times demands considerable modifications also of the layout structure.
Recognizing that differences between cultures exist is important, but it is also important for designers to understand “why” these differences occur and how culture affects social structures, decisions, expectations, relationships; in addition to also building an understanding to how members of a culture construct meaning from their experiences and integrations with objects, events and people (Cook and Finlayson 2005, p. 16).
One influential theorist who gained particular popularity amongst cultural communication researchers is cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Hall’s acknowledged model of communication introduced in his influential essay ‘Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse (Hall, 1973)‘ offers a theoretical approach to how messages are produced, broadcasted and interpreted. Hall’s theory, though, only allows for a single observation between two cultures and whether one culture is more monochromic or not compared to the other (Phuong-Mai, 2017). His theory also is built on observations of television broadcasting and does not account for today’s media landscape dominated by digital media and user-generated content.
A theory that better accommodate for today’s diverse media landscape and which has come to form the foundation for a significant part of current research in the fields of intercultural studies and cultural factors in design and web usability; notably in the work by Alao et al.(2013), Chau et al. (2002), Phuong-Mai (2017), Marcus and Gould (2000), Chau et al. (2002), Cook and Finlayson (2005), Callahan (2005), Olujimi Alao et al. (2011) and Bedir Eristi (2017), is Geert Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions (Hofstede, 1997).
Working as a psychologist for IBM, Hofstede between 1967 and 1973 conducted a study of ‘how culture influence values,’ in which he collected data through deep interviews with more than 100.000 IBM-employees from over 70 countries (Geert-hofstede.com, 2017). Through statistical analysis of the dataset, he could then determine patterns of relationships and dissimilarities from which he formulated a theory that national cultures diverge along five consistent and structural dimensions (a sixth dimension, IVR, was added in 2010) and which are manifested in a culture’s fundamental values, rituals, choices of symbols and collective behaviour:
- Power Distance Index (PDI)
- Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV)
- Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS)
- Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)
- Long- vs. short Term Normative Orientation (LTO)
- Indulgence versus Restraint (IVR)
What makes Hofstede’s theory unique is that it projects cultural values on a 100-point scale, making it possible to compare cultural values within a comparative context.
In the following section, Hofstede’s dimensions of culture are described. A visual analysis of websites from each dimension also is presented, which also accounts for the research by Cook and Finlayson (2005) in which websites from each of Hofstede’s dimensions have been analyzed.
It should be noted that the sixth dimension; indulgence versus restraint (IND), was added as late as 2010 and is based on research by sociologist Michael Minkov (Minkov, 2007). This dimension address to which extent societies are suppressing gratification and people are allowed to enjoy life and to have fun (Prosick, 2017). As the body of literature concerning Minkov’s dimension related to web design is non-existent, this post will give no further references to this dimension.
Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions
Power Distance Index (PDI)
Hofstede’s dimension of power-distance acknowledges to which degree members of a society accept and expect an unequal distribution of power. According to Hofstede (1997); cultures with a high PDI tend to have centralised political power structures and authorities such as politicians, parents, teachers or supervisors are not questioned. Cultures with a low PDI have flatter hierarchies and structures that expect ‘subordinates’ such as students, workers or children to form their own opinions by asking questions and, to some extent, challenge leaders. Websites from high PDI-cultures also tend to frequently use national emblems, stamps, and other indicators of authority which is less emphasised in websites from low PDI-cultures (Cook and Finlayson, 2005). This also is visible in Figure 10, below, which illustrates national government websites from Sweden and India. India, which has a PDI-score of 77, display on their government website a large national emblem in the top left corner and also has a large emblem on the top section of the page for the Central Board of Secondary Education. Sweden with a PDI-score of only 32, on the other hand, include no emblems or national symbols, and the low PDI-score also is well illustrated by the selection of imagery which focuses on equality, with politicians holding hands and speaking directly to the people.
Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV)
Cultures differ in the level of importance they place on a member’s degree of independence from the group. In collectivistic cultures, members build strong social connections with their peers—while individualistic cultures foster a high level of independence with individuals expected to look after mainly themselves and their closest family. According to Hofstede (1997), cultures with a high IDV value freedom, personal time, and use material rewards as motivators at work. Governments in high IDV-cultures also place the political power in the hands of voters, and put the individual’s social-economic interests before the group. Cultures with a low IDV-value use intrinsic rewards of mastery, use shame to achieve behavioural goals, place collective social-economic concerns over the individual, and their governments often try to control the press and regulate opinions (Hofstede, 1997).
Cook and Finlayson (2005) note that websites from high-IDV cultures tend to emphasis on youth, action and change, and often have imagery that focuses on people. They also note that high-IDV websites tend to have extreme or bold statements stressing on personal goals rather than goals for the wider community. Low-IDI cultures, on the other hand, stress on benefits for the whole community and, according to Cook and Finlayson (2005), commonly have large images of buildings or landmarks—rather than pictures of people. These observations by Cook and Finlayson (2005) also can be noticed when comparing a government website from Indonesia which has PDI of fourteen, with the government website of New Zealand with a PDI of 79 as seen in Figure 12 and 13, next page. As can be noted, the New Zealand website also have a large introduction image with students and multiple large statement blocks that emphasis on calls-to-actions. The government of Indonesia, on the contrary, has a dominating picture of an official building and display government officials discussing.
Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS)
The MAS-dimension of culture indicates the degree of distinction between traditional gender roles. Cultures with a high-MAS tend to have sharply differentiated gender roles, and value competitiveness and toughness—traits commonly attributed as masculine—while low MAS-cultures foster collaboration, negotiation, and compromises. The MAS-value also is manifested in governmental policies were feminist cultures (low-MAS) have strong policies on social welfare, environment and education—which in masculine cultures (high-MAS) are prioritised low on the political agenda (Phuong-Mai, 2017, p.11).
According to Cook and Finlayson (2005), websites from high-MAS cultures denote sharply differentiated gender roles and often the exercise of power. The imagery of females on websites from high-MAS cultures also tends to have a focus on women performing tasks that traditionally are made by men. Figure 14 and 15, next page, compare government websites from Sweden with a MAS-score of only five—the lowest score of all countries in Hofstede’s dimension matrix—with Japan that scores 95. As can be seen, the Japanese site focus on the prime minister executing his power, and has a design denoting government authority. The Swedish website, on the contrary, shows the Swedish prime minister holding hands and integrating with citizens, and also depicts a woman in a worker’s helmet, which traditionally is a male trait. The site also shows an image of a male nurse caring for a patient, which commonly is seen as the role of women.
Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UA)
Avoiding harm is a basic human instinct, and the sense of fear helps to protect humans from danger (Albrecht, 2012). According to Albrecht (2012), humans are born only with a few basic fears; notably the fear of mutilation manifested through anxiety about certain animals such as spiders and snakes, and fear of extinction or death manifested through fear of falling. Almost all other fears, according to Albrechts theory, are manufactured and learned through our culture and way of life (Albrecht 2012). The UAI-dimension indicates to what extent members of a society accept ambiguity and tolerance uncertainty.
High-UAI cultures, according to Cook and Finlayson (2005, p.18) prefer predictable patterns, a limited number of alternatives, and long-term commitments in business. They also put great value on punctuality, job security and retirement benefits. Marcus and Gould (2000, p.40) also note that members of high-UAI cultures tend to be expressive, talking with their hands, and show their emotions. Low-UAI cultures are less expressive and people are reluctant to show strong emotions. Organizational structures in low-UAI cultures are less formal, and in educational systems, teachers are expected to speak in plain language and may run more open-ended classes (Marcus and Gould 2012, p.40).
Cook and Finlayson (2005) note that websites from high-UAI cultures often have a structure of limited choices in layout and navigation, while websites from cultures scoring low on this dimension have a greater degree of complexity and navigation structures with many choices. This also can be noted when comparing government websites from the Greece, which have a UAI-score of 112 (the highest UAI-score of all countries in this dimension) with a government website from the UK, which has a UAI-score of 25. As seen in figure 16, below, the Greece website has only a few navigation links and a highly structured layout, while the UK website, Figure 17, below, has a much more complex layout and a navigation structure offering many choices.
Long- versus short-term orientation (LTO)
The LTO-dimension of Hofstede’s theory addresses culture’s attitudes towards time, persistence, reciprocation of favours, and respect for tradition. According to Phuong-Mai (2017, p. 15), the most significant element of this dimension is how a culture perceives future planning and how far the future is envisaged and prepared. Phuong-Mai (2017) also assert that businesses in cultures with a strong short-term orientation (low-LTO) tend to develop ‘reap-and-run’ strategies for immediate profits while organisations in long-term oriented cultures (high-LTO) may accept short-term losses in favour for future gains. Long-term cultures also focus on education, working hard, being preserving and well prepared for the future (Phuong-Mai 2017, pp. 15-16).
Reinecke (2010) note that websites from low-LTO countries tend to have a strong hierarchy of content presentation and a low information density compared to high-LTO countries, which often have less structure and a higher information density. Comparing the government websites from Iran and Switzerland in Figure 18 and 19, below; Reinecke’s observations also can be noted. As visible in the website example of the Iranian government which scores fourteen on the LTO-dimension displayed in Figure 18, below; it has a strict layout structure and limited choices. The Swiss government website with a LTO score of 74 visible in Figure 19, below, on the contrary, has a high information density and many choices.
This post has shown that the perception of design varies between cultures. Designers in today’s global market, therefore, need to ascertain the needs and preferences of their target audiences and not only need to acknowledge that cultures differ in their perception models of design; but also should build an understanding to how these differences are materialised, and furthermore also work to understand why these differences occur. Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions, which was introduced in this post, can provide designers with such insights and offer a method for comparing cultural values between cultures. Hofstede’s theory can help designers obtain a better understanding of how culture influence the perception of design, and how to create web-designs that are better adapted to the preferences of culturally diverse website visitor segments.
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