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Cultural Models and Website Design

Years of study of culture by anthropologists and sociologists have resulted in the development of cultural models. Cultural models consist of sets of international variables, sometimes called dimensions of culture, which refer to various aspects of culture, including the subjective information, such as values, attitudes and behaviours. Some more established models have since recently found their application in international software and website design and evaluation.

For example, the division into high- and low-context cultures introduced by Edward T. Hall is based on the notion that some cultures more than others rely on the non-verbal, implicit context of the message, such as shared beliefs and common knowledge, intonation, body language etc., and are therefore high-context (e.g. Chinese or Japanese). Other cultures (e.g. German, Scandinavian) prefer a direct and explicit mode of communication. In website design, richer context is often provided through the use of animation and many graphics for high-context cultures, as opposed to a more textual and simple design for low-context cultures.

Another variable introduced by Hall, is attitude to time, which can be either monochronic (typical for low-context cultures, e.g. USA, Germany) or polychronic (typical for high-context cultures, mainly Japanese, Middle Eastern and Latin American). Monochronic attitude to time means focusing on one thing at a time and respecting schedules and deadlines. Polychronic people involve in doing many things at once and are highly distractible (people are more important than punctuality). In website design this translates into a general preference for monochronic cultures to have linear or tabular navigation, and for polychronic cultures to use parallel navigation – layers and many windows.

Looking at another cultural model developed by Geert Hofstede in the 1980s, cultures could be divided into collectivist or individualist societies. This refers to the level of importance attached to being part of a group/organisation, as opposed to loose ties between individuals. In design this would be reflected in the emphasis on personal vs. group achievement, consumerism vs. socio-political agendas, novelty vs. tradition, differences in attitude to giving personal information online, and importance of community communication through chat rooms and forums.

Japan is a high-context, mainly polychronic (with the exception when dealing with “foreigners” and with technology, when they shift to the monochronic side, according to Hall) and collectivist society. The Japanese website is very busy with many graphics, icons, boxes and animations (suitable for high-context cultures). The navigation of the site is quite complex and animated with many links on each site – this is suitable for polychronic cultures. The large images scroll vertically (following the Japanese traditional script which is written in columns). There is also a prominent section dedicated to society, charity, family events, local community, as well as images of groups and families – thus addressing the collectivist needs.

Germany is a low-context, monochronic and individualistic society. The German site is much simpler and direct – a large image of the food with a short message on the latest products and price deals – is a good representation of the low-context culture. The navigation menu is very simple and static at the top of the site (monochronic culture). The section on nutrition is very informative – and such is the main role of the site. The main image can be scrolled horizontally which reflects the reading/writing system from left to right. There is a clear focus on the products and the consumerist nature of the business (individualism).

On this example we hope to have demonstrated that in website design – one size does not fit all. There are big enough cultural differences to demand a more focused and individual approach to each market, and while cultural models can give us general hints and ideas – we need a more empirical and measurable way to find the right solutions. Cultural multivariate testing, as proposed by Oban Multilingual, incorporates the best of both worlds – a wealth of information about different cultures, and the software to measure your success!