Five psychological insights about cultural differences that make for better design work

Behavioural strategist Rebecca Faulkner from agency Rufus Leonard knows her stuff when it comes to what psychological and ethnographic research can teach us about designing for cultures other than our own.

Her talk Designing across borders – why cultural understanding matters to design explored the dangers of Western design teams creating interfaces for a global audience with wildly different experiences and expectations to our own. "The unwitting assumption behind this is that universally people respond to designs and user interfaces in the same way based on our hardwiring," she says. "But is this really the case?"

Here's what we learned:

1. Think of culture as a "secret weapon"

All the work you make in a cross cultural setting can impact the brand experience. Culture is a “web of meaning” and something biologically engrained in us as human beings, and advertising is successful when it mirrors the values of the culture it’s speaking to. Take the (rather offensive, now) ads of the 1940s, for instance, which often played on the “failed housewife” trope.

2. An image or colour that means one thing can mean something quite different elsewhere

Faulkner points to the example of US baby food brand Gerber, known for an illustrated baby’s face on its logo. The brand tried to launch in West Africa, where the culture is to show the ingredients of a product on its packaging. Naturally no one wanted to buy something that hinted that it contained babies.

3. Remember which tropes are universal and which aren’t

When designing for a global audience, or for other cultures, there are only a few things that are universally recognised. According to Faulkner, these are: “symmetry; colour appreciation; appreciation of music; and experiences of happiness, joy, surprise, anger and shame.” Anything else can’t be relied on to be viewed as having the same meanings everywhere you go, or to everyone you’re creating designs for.

4. Good UX is designed according to the mental models of its audience

When designing a digital user experience, bear in mind that culture has an impact on the way our minds work and the things we find intuitive (and don’t). Apparently when viewing an image of a scene (for instance an aquarium with fish, seaweed, and a frog), in the Western World we are more likely to identify a single images (such as a fish) as the thing we remember most about the picture. This is because Westerners are more focussed on “things” or “objects,” where in Eastern cultures there’s more of a holistic view of an image or place as a whole, with less focus on its individual components. This ties into a culture more based around community as its heart rather than individual goals – collectivist rather than individualistic.

5. If in doubt, read Geert Hofsted’s Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind

Faulkner recommends the text as offering a brilliant overview of ideas around best practice when designing for cross cultural audiences. The book lists the considerations that should be paramount, which include how far your audience is individualists, what their relationship is with time (are they always busy, or is the culture more relaxed?), how far they relate to tropes traditionally considered to be “masculine” (like forthrightness and forcefulness) and how much they try to avoid uncertainty.


Main image courtesy of Adobe Stock