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Carmen Wright
Carmen Wright

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Notes: "Cross-Cultural Design" by Senongo Akpem

This article originally appeared on my website.

I'm a fan of writing notes while reading design books. The book belongs to the author(s). The notes are a quick reference for myself and others if they need it.

Cover of Cross-Cultural Design

Cross-Cultural Design

Senongo Akpem


WEIRD: Westernized, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Developed

  • "We use imagery, typography, and taxonomies familiar to us, without researching their impact in other cultures and languages. Those of us in WEIRD countries treat the web as an extension of our own lived experiences" (1).

People and Culture

We have space to learn what we don't know. It's easy to say "I wasn't aware of that. Thank you for telling me and I'm changing my [behavior] now."

Instead of thinking of the monolithic "user", we should ask these questions:

  • Who makes up the web these days?
  • What do they look for in the digital things they use?
  • What role does the web play in their lives, especially when they span languages, time zones, and political systems?

"Databases, websites, mobile apps, social-media platforms, and (especially) intranets are all systems that reproduce, revise, and amplify different parts of our cultures -- both good and bad. They illuminate our preferred methods of communication, our social rules and perceptions, and even our aesthetics" (11).

"Different societies may expect different things from digital interactions, interpret information differently, and hold different mental models than your own. Don't assume those mental models are fixed within the same country or culture, either" (13).

"It's common for Western designers to point to concepts like rational type systems, clean lines, an absence of decoration, and mathematical layout grids as universally 'good' design without realizing that most of those principles originated in the century-old Bauhaus movement" (16).

Cultural preferences across major visual design elements:

  • Space
    • Japan: web pages with a lot of information are functional and aesthetic
    • Western aesthetic: key is negative space
  • Imagery
    • Some cultures may have a taboo against certain images or expressions of beauty
    • Example: photos of people giving others something with left hand
  • Color
    • Carries culturally symbolic meanings
    • Example: Japan Post's primary brand color is red and post boxes are also red
  • Type
    • Density of certain scripts (Japanese)
    • Relative length of words (German)
    • Means type scales, letter-spacing, and line-height will need to be adjusted

Identity facets:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Social class
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Individual identity
  • Algorithmic identity
    • "categories of identity covertly assigned to you by means of algorithmic analysis of the data that has an organization such as web analytics firm has amassed on you" -John Cheney-Lippold

Cultural Dimensions -- Geert Hofstede

  1. Power Distance (PD)
    • how less powerful members of a society both accept and expect that power is distributed unequally
    • Low PD:
      • members of the society can openly question authority and the distribution of power
      • ideas of equality are welcomed and expected
    • High PD:
      • a clearly established hierarchy that isn't openly questioned
      • inequality is expected and even promoted
      • Example: parents and teachers demand respect, children and students almost automatically put their elders on a pedestal
      • a
  2. Individualism vs. Collectivism
    • Individualistic societies
      • People have loose social ties to one another
      • Value personal opinions, challenges, and material rewards at work
      • Relationships are centered around self-respect and honesty
      • Guilt is the best way to affect personal change
      • Government: strong right to privacy, limited use of state power, strong free press, individual interests, and self-determination
    • Collectivist societies
      • Close-knit web of friends, extended families, and other societal groups
      • Everyone belongs to a larger group
      • People value training and work has intrinsic value
      • Avoiding shame, saving face, and maintaining harmony within the group
      • Government: tighter control of the press and economy and prioritize consensus and social harmony over personal freedoms
  3. Masculinity vs. Femininity
    • based on traditional gender normativity
    • Masculinity
      • prefers assertiveness, achievement, heroism, and toughness
      • Gender roles strictly maintained
      • People value financial and social rewards for achievement or career advancements
      • Political sphere is usually dominated by men and little public support for those who don't conform to traditional gender roles and expressions
    • Femininity
      • prefer cooperation, modesty, and quality of life
      • Vulnerable are cared for and there is less competition for resources and rewards
      • Gender roles aren't rigidly enforced
      • People value good working conditions, collaborative and balanced relationships, and a promising and secure career
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance (UA)
    • Measures a society's tolerance for ambiguity and the unexpected
    • High degree
      • Preference for rules, formality, structure, and absolute truths
      • Managers prioritize tactics over strategy and there are more rigid behavioral expectations
      • People expect clarity in communication and are more direct and active in getting their point across
      • Differences are seen as threats
    • Low degree
      • More accepting of differences and show less anxiety around new or unexpected things
      • People don't tend to use aggression or strong emotion to communicate
      • People are more easygoing and the business focuses on strategy for the long term
  5. Long- vs. Short-term Orientation
    • Long-Term
      • See more value in the looking toward the future
      • Pragmatic, appreciate adaptability, and commonsense solutions
      • Family and friends as sources of information and credibility
      • Focus on gaining useful skills over time, saving for the future, and patiently adapting to market and cultural changes
    • Short-Term
      • See more value in looking to the past and present
      • Problem solving for immediate results
      • Cultural norms remain largely fixed over time
      • See rules and traditions as their primary sources of information
      • Focus on quarterly results and near-term gains
  6. Indulgence vs. Restraint
    • How much freedom people in a given society have to act on and fulfill their human desires
    • Indulgent society
      • Allows its members relative freedom to enjoy life, particpate in recreation and leisure, and pursue individual satisfaction
      • Work emphasizes employee comfort
      • Feel free to voice opinions and free speech is protected as a core human right
    • Restraint
      • Control how the members satisfy their needs and wants
      • Strict social, sexual, and disciplinary rules
      • Money is saved, not spent
      • Right to speak freely is deprioritized
      • Maintenance of social order takes precedence

Problems with the Cultural Dimensions:

  • Focus is on nations over individuals
  • Makes it easy to blame our bad design decisions on users' cultural orientations
  • There isn't practical guidance for modern digital experiences

"Culture is a series of negotiations over influence, meaning, and language, and those happen when people actually get together and talk" (44).

Principles of Cross-Cultural Design

"Cross-cultural design asks you to:

  • embrace cultural immersion,
  • research creative communities,
  • work with experts,
  • question assumptions, and
  • prioritize flexibility" (47).

Cultural immersion:

  • Read the poetry and literature of your target culture, both old and new
  • Check local colleges for events
  • Consume media from the culture
  • Visit cultural centers
  • Visit ethnic enclaves and neighborhoods where your target audience lives and works
  • Look for culture-specific design publications
  • Sign up for regionally focused newsletters
  • See what creative practitioners are working on

Question Assumptions

  • Document your assumptions about the client, the audience, and the project.
  • Share your assumptions with all stakeholders.
  • Turn any assumptions into a list of questions to guide your upcoming research.


  • Document the thinking behind your design choices.
  • Keep your work in shareable formats
  • Systematize workflows
  • Start rough so you can work through cultural blind spots
  • Explain design variants and options

Cross-Cultural Practitioners

Must be able to listen, to ask questions, and to incorporate information that may feel wildly different from their own culture

"We assist people in seeing and assuming the perspective of others, to help create interfaces, products, and services that are responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties. Designers are also stewards in the other sense of the word, because we protect the creative process." - Diogenes Brito

Cross-Cultural Competence aka Cultural Intelligence (56)

  • Provincial
    • "You are effective and knowledgeable when it comes to your cultural background and familiar design problems, but may struggle in new contexts."
  • Analyst
    • "You systematically assess new situations and adopt repeatable, go-to strategies that help you navigate cross-cultural design problems."
  • Natural
    • "You rely on your intuition to quickly reach cross-cultural design solutions. Ambiguous situations may make it hard for you to trust your gut."
  • Ambassador
    • "You are confident and sure of yourself, even if you lack cultural knowledge. You are often able to correctly assess and adapt to cultural differences."
  • Mimic
    • "You mirror the cultural behavior you see in others, even if it is new or difficult to decipher, making you effective in small, interpersonal situations that require conversation and negotiation."
  • Chameleon
    • "You are able to assimilate and blend into cross-cultural situations. Your strength is in gathering design insights and adding cultural context to them."

Habits of the Cross-Cultural Designer

  • You tell stories.
  • You ask big questions.
  • You share ownership of creative projects.
  • You work across disciplines.
  • You creature cultural spaces.

Cross-Cultural Research

Cultural probes

  • way to engage audiences and provoke inspirational, open-ended and multi-sensory feedback
  • Written, drawn, and photographed responses can shed light on users' lives, thinking, and motivation
  • Conducting one
    • Identify the goals of the probe
    • Design the tasks
    • Assemble the kits
    • Distribute them
    • Synthesize the information

Local facilitators

  • someone with lived experience in the culture you're researching in any kind of observational methodology
  • Having someone on hand who can understand and communicate in these linguistic forms will make your insights deeper and more culturally relevant

Bollywood technique

  • Ask participants to imagine they're in a dramatic situation like a Bollywood film
  • Users are given permission to participate in a fantasy thus giving them permission to think outside their social norms
  • How to do it
    • Create a base narrative
    • Create variations that match cultural dimensions
    • Write out your testing scenarios and variations
    • Use local facilitators

A common step for WEIRD designers would be to gather insights and quantitative data, head back to the office, and craft personas.

Walking Havana method

  • Researchers gather a group of residents and asked them to create characters for a TV series based in Havana
  • While "scouting" locations, residents pointed out different issues and features of the community
  • This activity helped researchers immerse themselves in the environment and the residents' struggles with finding employment and economic opportunities.
  • How to do it
    • Ask participants to name their work
    • Use appropriate images
    • Create space for sharing
    • Define what will happen to the work

Possessions Personas

  • focusing on possessions in personas is a great way for cross-cultural design projects to incorporate a larger view of the user experience
  • How to do it
    • Ask questions about possessions
    • Discuss devices in personas
    • Show people with their things

Implicit bias

  • unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that affect your actions, perceptions, and decision-making
  • will trip you up every time you conduct research or design work

"Culture lives and dies by the stories its members tell each other, whether or not they are true. Your lazy brain will happily ignore facts that don't fit the narrative it's already set up, so your challenge is to give it a new narrative, one that is not reliant on stereotypes and guesswork" (85).


  • defining an audience by a shortcoming
  • Example: "We help poor farmers in climate-stressed countries use technology to grow what they need to survive."


  • defining the audience or strategy by a positive feature
  • helps us short-circuit the brain's tendency toward negative narratives, stay centered on our audience,and prioritize their success
  • Example: "We help small landowners boost crop yields and built their communities' climate resilience."

When approaching persona strategies:

  1. Identify positive truths of your audience.
  2. Focus on your audience's agency.

"By focusing my design strategy on aspirational stories about my users, I can craft artifacts, content, and interfaces that do not stigmatize or stereotype" (87).

"Because personas were originally developed to describe WEIRD audiences, they are sometimes too Western-focused to be usable in other parts of the world. We often don't consider the political and social agendas that come with the traditional user persona, and in doing so, we make them much less effective" (87).

Culturally Responsive Experiences

"People visit sites that offer them no cultural mental models or visual framework to fall back on, and they end up stumbling through links and pages. Effective visual systems can help eliminate that guesswork and uncertainty by creating layered sets of cues in the design and interface" (91).

The role of icons

  • represent an organization, service, or a product
  • identify key information
  • illustrate relationships
  • show how to navigate content
  • supply warnings
  • give instructions
  • provide context

Many of the icon systems we find online, whether free or paid, are not representative of global cultures, so designers end up putting in extra work to adapt them.

Icon sets that attempt to be globally acceptable run the risk of miscommunication, and the overall impact can sometimes fall short.

Make icons work

  • Pair with text
  • Visually consistent
  • Have high contrast
  • Use color consistently
  • Keep the meaning the same across design systems
  • Culturally sensitive
  • Customizable

Colors can be associated with sacred rituals, political parties, civic movements, or other cultural touchpoints.

  • Understand how colors are tired directly to cultural and social lore

Changing visual design for different markets is a commonplace exercise when doing global branding and marketing.

  • If you're going to use images of people, make sure to broadly represent people from that culture

Internationalization and Localization

Internationalization (i18n)

  • Designing or updating websites and products so they don't contain any cultural-specific attributes
  • Make digital experiences as flexible as possible so they can function well across various cultures

Internationalization is about making sure the product can go anywhere and localization is about preparing to go somewhere


  • Names
    • Name order
    • Name letters and lengths
  • Locales
    • Postal codes
    • Formatting addresses
    • State/Region/Provinces
  • Dates
  • Currency
    • Inauspicious numbers
    • Currency presentation
    • Multicurrency
    • Tax/Value-Added Tax (VAT)


  • Icon direction
    • Mirror icons that indicate time, motion, or direction
    • Don't mirror video UI
    • Leave icons that don't communicate direction as is
  • Text direction

Localization toolkits

  • documentation that translators need to be effective and ensure they're focusing on what is most important
  • Contains:
    • A list of languages to be translated
    • Descriptions of your audience, their particular needs, and how to write for them
    • A sitemap listing all pages and content that need to be translated
    • Any existing translation memory
    • database that allows translation teams to store and reuse phrases and words that have been previously translated
    • Information on the tech stack and login details for the content management system

TIP: Write like an English as a Second Language user is reading your work.

As written above, these are just my notes for this title. I encourage you to read a copy of your own for further insight into the text.

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