Cross-cultural UX: Six tips for success

User experience is all about empathy for the user, and understanding cultural differences is central to this. If your international website – or product or service – does not adapt to cultural differences, it will not truly meet users’ expectations or create business value.

Providing the best possible website experience for users in different markets goes beyond localising the language, switching currencies and updating a few images to represent the local culture. The road to successful cross-cultural design with great UX is more complex. Here are six tips to bear in mind:


1) Don’t assume that countries that are near each other, are like each other

It is easy to assume that neighbouring countries are culturally similar—and in many ways that can be true. But when it comes to cross-cultural user experience design, understanding the differences between cultures (even if they are geographically close) is essential to creating a high performing website.

For example, ‘Europe’ is often treated by website designers as a single entity when in reality, each country has its own UX preferences and norms. France and the UK are close neighbours – but French websites typically show prominent pricing, large photos and clear calls to action, whereas UK websites tend to be more minimalist. By contrast, India and Mexico are geographically far apart but have surprisingly similar UX preferences.

Rather than focusing on geography, a cultural framework like Hofstede’s Theory of Cultural Dimensions can be a better way to group countries – e.g. into individualist versus collectivist countries, and so on. Alternatively understanding the difference between high context and low context cultures, and grouping markets accordingly, is another worthwhile approach.


2) Research local user interface patterns

Hamburger and Kebab icons in UX

In certain cultures, specific design patterns are accepted as universal. For example, thanks to Facebook and Gmail, the hamburger and kebab icons have become ubiquitous for revealing navigation links and further menu options. However, outside the West, users may be confused by them.

Research by Dan Grover, former product manager at Tencent, showed that in the most popular Chinese apps (including WeChat and Weibo) hamburger or kebab symbols do not exist. Instead, a “discover” button, usually represented by a compass icon, is used for the not-quite-essential extras. This is because Chinese users see apps as an ecosystem rather than a single functioning product. To Chinese users, the action of “discovering” sparks intrigue and curiosity—which is more valuable than a straightforward “here-are-more-options” functionality.

The same was true in India when Amazon launched its services there. In late 2018, Amazon could not understand why customers in India were not using the search feature for products to buy on the homepage of the mobile site. It transpired that the magnifying glass icon was not something people associated with search in India. It made no sense in an Indian context as users thought the icon represented a ping-pong paddle. As a solution, Amazon kept the magnifying glass but added a search field with a Hindi text label to let people know this was where they could initiate a search.

Design teams should carry out a competitor and local product analysis to understand the local User Interface patterns in that market and to ensure User Interface preferences are rooted in local culture and language.


3) Identify the market’s primary devices and connectivity

If the target audience for a product is wealthy tech employees based in California, it’s reasonable to assume that most users have the latest iPhone—making it easy to design for that device. However, when designing for a new market, it is important to avoid assumptions and start with research.

Make sure you understand the device usage in that market, specifically for your sector and your target audience. For example, in some markets, some target audiences might not use smart phones, or they may have low connection speeds – which will affect design. Designs need to be formatted for the right screen sizes and load in a way that suits the target market’s minimum connection speeds. By identifying a market’s primary devices and connectivity stats, a design team can produce an effective design for its intended environment.


4) Conduct user research

User research can give you insights which complement quantitative data – such as users’ needs, expectations, and explanation of their behaviours. These are things that you cannot get by looking at conversion rates alone. The best way to conduct user research is in-person, but if this is not possible, there are plenty of tools to conduct remote user research.

User research will uncover cultural norms around displaying and consuming information. For example, Chinese websites tend to be much busier than many Western websites – a good example being JD’s homepage. This is because Chinese users place more emphasis on browsing than focusing so, as a result, Chinese websites tend to be divided into multiple independent spaces, in contrast to Western websites which tend to be focused on a single focal point on each page. Chinese users are used to consuming more information within a single screen – as a result, website content appears more dense, with smaller images and more links.


5) Use both quantitative and qualitative data to understand users

Both quantitative and qualitive research methods can provide insight into local users’ behaviour. For example:

  • Usability tests
  • Interviews
  • Analytics data
  • Heatmaps
  • User session recordings
  • Academic research – e.g. credible white papers, user behaviour reports and publications

These research methods will reveal nuances that are not always obvious—and that will improve the user experience and ROI.

Testing helps you to understand which elements of your website design are affecting your success. You can run A/B tests on different aspects of your digital marketing campaigns – different messages, imagery, layouts and more – to see which elements provide better results.

When you perform an A/B test, you should only choose one element to test at a time so you can read the results.  For example, if you are testing a landing page, you might start with testing the headline to see which version performs best. However, if you want to test multiple changes at once, you should try A/B(n) or multivariate testing (MVT) to test various combinations of your changes. For example, you may want to test what combinations of your different headlines and calls-to-action perform best.


6) Localise marketing copy

It is always best to use a Local In-Market Expert to understand the linguistic nuances of your target market. Relying on machine translation risks making businesses and products appear careless or even questionable, and there is a significant difference in performance between translated copy and localised copy.

Even within languages, there are big differences in how they are used across markets. For example, the use of English varies across English-speaking markets:

  • Britons say ‘sweets’, Americans say ‘candy’, and Australians say ‘lollies’
  • What is known as a ‘truck’ in American and Australian English is called a ‘lorry’ in the UK
  • What might be called a ‘vacation rental’ in the US might be called a ‘holiday let’ in the UK
  • In the US, ‘soccer’ is what is known as ‘football’ in other English-speaking countries

. . .

Oban can help

As global brands like Netflix, Starbucks and IKEA invest in localisation by employing specialised teams all over the world, there is no doubt that creating cross-cultural designs make international users more likely to adopt and stay loyal to localised products and services. To find out how Oban can provide you with invaluable cross-cultural UX insights, please get in touch.

Grecia Garci

Grecia Garcia | International Digital Strategist

Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion. Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.

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