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UX Design and Cultural Heritage

Our culture defines our values and our behavior – not only in our everyday lives, but also online. What catches our attention, what makes us trust a website, how we search for information, what we consider relevant, what triggers our actions, and how we perceive a website or application – at the end of the day, it all depends on our cultural background. For product designers, this presents a true challenge: How can we ensure a culturally-sensitive user experience if we are not truly familiar with cultures other than our own?


At first glance, the concept of culture seems simple because we all have a relative understanding of what it is. But, what really is culture? What are the characteristics of different cultures and how do they influence localized UX?

Before we get into detail, Culture( /ˈkʌltʃər/), according to Wikipedia, is an umbrella term that encompasses the social behavior and norms found in human societies , as well as the knowledge, beliefs, laws, customs, capabilities and habits of the individuals in these groups.

Cultural Heritage, according to Wikipedia, refers to the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society.

Design Elements and Culture

If you’re a user experience (UX) designer, you’re probably already aware that culture affects your job – if you’re not, you should be. This is especially true when creating localized UX for your customers. Each culture places a different value on different design elements, just as they do in their society. Customers also absorb content in different ways due to these cultural perspectives.

One of the most well-known cultural theorists, Geert Hofstede, defined the cultural dimensions that explain cross-cultural differences very well.

  • VISUAL DESIGN - “Visual design is the graphic treatment of interface elements. It is the ‘look’ in ‘look-and-feel” (Garett, 2000).There are two design elements that are commonly used to enhance the user experience;color and symbolism. They are both greatly influenced by your user’s cultural perceptions.
          Let’s break these down.  

          Symbols are often used as a metaphor, this helps your users associate familiar concepts           or ideas with unfamiliar ones, and if you’ve worked with translations you are probably also           aware that things, like metaphors, can’t be simply translated. For example how to           acknowledge something, how to stop a bike, etc

          Colors on the other hand influence your users’ perception of different UX elements. Color is           essential because where you might be designing based on color psychology your user’s           culture might influence what they truly perceive. This is to say that colors have certain           cultural values attached to them as well. For example, while white in most Western cultures           symbolizes purity or peace, in other cultures it is attached to mourning and sadness.

  • SITE NAVIGATION - The most important thing about a site’s navigation is that it’s intuitive and clear to all users. It is one of the most, if not the most, important interactions there is. Our culture influences how we take in and process information, and therefore how we access information in memory. Combined, these factors influence how a user navigates through a website as well; where they start, what they pay attention to and the opinions they form about the content.
          The reason culture influences navigation has a lot to do with cultural communication.           Depending on the culture, there’s a specific style and manner of preferred communication.           For example, feminine oriented cultures tend to favor more links on a landing page           because they prefer having multiple options and making connections between more           elements. Long-term oriented (i.e. value pragmatism and future thinking) cultures interact           better with visual content, while short-term oriented (i.e. value traditions) cultures prefer                 a more focused site with fewer distractions.

  • INFORMATION PROCESSING - As mentioned above, the way individuals process and retrieve information differs with cultures. Research has shown that there are two distinct ‘ways’ of thinking: holistic and analytical.                                                                                           Analytical cultures (mostly Western) tend to focus on individual information elements, hence valuing minimalism and whitespace. In western cultures like Sweden and the USA where information in its desirable form needs to be easily readable and processed.The holistic approach to thinking is generally associated with Eastern cultures, where your users would be more inclined to scan through a whole web page before forming an opinion. Eastern cultures like Japan and China 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.
  • READING DIRECTIONS - Writing systems vary across cultures. Western cultures read from left to write, some Middle Eastern Cultures read from right to left and other cultures read from top to bottom. This means some layouts, typical of Western user experience design, won’t always translate well internationally.

CULTURAL INFLUENCE IN OUR LOCAL CONTEXT

In our local context, we have clear examples of how our culture has influenced user experiences and therefore tailored them more to the local context.

Here are some examples:

  1. Most smartphones operating systems now have multicultural emojis that relate better to the locals.
  2. Illustrations in SafeBoda app among others have been given an African look skin tone to relate with the market.
  3. The concoction of terms like “Ugandan App” because of the quality most users have come to expect Ugandan-created apps tend to look or function like.
  4. Exploitation of symbols to represent African heritage on platforms like Nyege Nyege, akabbo among others. This makes the experiences more relatable.
  5. Use of local currency and formatting on a lot of the localized websites and apps over dollars or Euros.
  6. The use of localized language like jambo over hello, boda over motorbike, Xente over money creates a more familiar experience.
  7. Interpretation of distance in terms of time over kilometers or miles based on the user’s culture.
  8. Creating more focused interfaces with main sections and intentional calls to action clearly highlighted because users won’t read much of the information in explanations.
  9. The strong attention attached to colors and illustrations or symbols in interfaces for easier interpretation. Most ride hailing apps have bigger buttons and a lot of colored components since they make more sense.
  10. Adaptation of some technologies because of their advancement in certain areas. For example, Google maps navigation is a lot easier in cities with bigger technology exposure and better mapped cities like Nairobi as opposed to Kampala

HOW CAN WE DESIGN A BETTER CULTURALLY - SENSITIVE USER EXPERIENCE.

Visual design elements mean different things to different cultures. So when designing localized UX, be sure to do your research and be aware of the differences. In doing so, your UX design work will be more effective at conveying the messages or ideas that you want it to.

  1. Everyone comes with their own cultural biases when designing, particularly at an international level. Your bias stems from influences like, upbringing, culture, beliefs, and previous experiences. Acknowledge these and work with that in mind. 
  2. Assume nothing and open yourself to learning about the culture you’re designing for. This helps you work through your biases, framed by your own experiences.
  3. Understand the value that different cultures place on certain colors; these can be, and may also act as symbols.
  4. Understand how metaphors, (therefore symbols) can be “lost in translation”; local values and norms influence how people relate the ‘known’, ‘unknowns’ and it’s vital to understand why this is so.
  5. Understand the cognitive needs of your target users and create your design accordingly. Cultural dimensions influence your user’s perspective on information and what is important.
  6. While every culture is different, there is a lot they have in common. Patterns exist everywhere. Observe how others communicate, value, interpret, and receive information. Identify the patterns and use them to design for that culture.
  7. You don’t always have to use words to communicate, sometimes you simply won’t be able to. If you can not use words to communicate something clearly, use gestures, visuals etc to bridge the language barriers with your users.
  8. It’s important to use localized semantics to avoid misinterpretations. It’s also important to identify what is culturally appropriate language.  
  9. When you’re designing for a new market, it’s important to research the devices users have. Keep in mind that not every user has the newest mobile phones. This is especially so when designing for mass markets. According to Android Best Practices, You should make the effort to optimize your application for different screen sizes and densities. In doing so, you maximize the user experience for all devices and your users believe that your application was actually designed for their devices - rather than simply stretched to fit the screen on their devices.
  10. To design a localized product, we should think about this: Is the language shorter or longer? How much white space will there be once translated? How long are the names in the local language?
  11. Create personas for your local users, these are very useful when designing for users of different cultures. You can put the users’ cultural characteristics in front of you in the design process, to keep referring to. 
  12. If you’re building a product for international users, work with a diverse team, that is gender, cultural and racial diverse. A diverse team allows the creative process to include different perspectives and generate more creative ideas than a homogenous team can.
  13. You are bound to feel anxious and vulnerable working in different languages and cultures. You are also bound to make mistakes. The only way to know your designs are headed in the right direction and are culturally sensitive is to TEST them.‍

Overall the way you design and present the content on your product affects how users from any culture process the information on it. When creating localized UX it’s essential that you look into how culture has shaped your users’ cognitive processing of information. 




The artisan in industry

by Lawrence John Okoth from Design Without Borders.

The theme of this year’s edition of Kampala Design Week “Culture, Heritage and the Political” has been an opportunityfor us to lightly examine a topic which will, by all means, require several more months of research and reflection; ‘the artisan in industry’ is an exhibition which highlights a shift in craft methods observed by our teams through a selection of some of our own projects in product design/redesign and production optimisation - as local entrepreneurs and their artisans work their way through pressures brought about by the need to indus- trialise, delivering high volumes of outputs with high quality and consistency.

This for us marks an interesting period in Ugandan industry, more-so as we con- tinue to celebrate the inheritance of a strong arts and crafts tradition that boasts the production of unique one-off pieces and supports a growing tourism industry but continues to compete unfairly with foreign products. All this in an industry that now sees digital methods further challenging the role of the artisan .

To kickstart what could indeed be the first of a series of exhibitions, we look at a few of our own projects where local entrepreneurs attempt to trasition into more mainstream industry and where requirements for higher volume production are important - different levels of this transition have been captured providing a glimpse into what could be moments when the artisan(s) had to adapt their technique/approach to involve new means by which they could produce more than a handful of products while managing time, cost and quality.

Through this exhibition the viewer is also encouraged to reflect on government policies and initiatives such as the Skilling Uganda project which pushes the agenda for increased skills training in business and vocational skills among youth as well as the Buy Uganda Build Uganda campign which promises to in- spire a reliable local market for Ugandan made products. Ultimately the ques- tion posed hereafter is: “Are we collectively doing enough to strategically safe- guard and grow our inheritance in craft-making and product development to keep it relevant in a new age of industry?”