As technology advances to reach billions more people in the near future, product designers are positioned to design and build cross-cultural experiences with more consideration and support for global audiences and the things they do, as well as help unlock potential opportunities for businesses.

What is cross-cultural design?

People across the globe [photo credit: Canva]
People across the globe [photo credit: Canva]

Cross-cultural design is the product design space that embraces cultural differences and figures out how to celebrate and translate cultural differences into designs. Part of this work is ensuring that product design, including copy, is translatable and localizable. But it goes far deeper, too.

Cross-cultural design focuses on understanding how design can be informed and influenced by cultures and their nuances. The practice of designing for cross-cultural considerations encompasses tailoring and adapting design elements, such as images, color, and layouts, to support customer and business needs.

I’ve learned that the time I invest in understanding the cultures of the customers for whom I’m designing products has nearly always been rewarded with an increase in customer satisfaction and engagement.

Why cross-cultural design matters

My own story has informed my thinking and passion about the significance cross-cultural design brings to the things and apps that I use every day.

I come from a multicultural family that lived in different parts of the globe, where I found myself in constant “culture-learning” moments. My maternal Chinese grandparents, 外婆 (Wàipó, grandma) and 外公 (Wàigōng, grandpa), survived the Cultural Revolution in China. Meanwhile, my paternal Austrian-Jewish grandparents, Omi (grandma) and Opa (grandpa), escaped Nazi Germany before WWII and fled to the United States as refugees. But what’s interesting about my Chinese mom and American Jewish dad is that they met in Japan, of all places, so I was born and raised in Japan until I was nearly 11, when we moved to the United States.

Sabrina’s maternal grandparents (left), nuclear family (center), and paternal grandparents (right) [flag photo credit: Canva]
Sabrina’s maternal grandparents (left), nuclear family (center), and paternal grandparents (right) [flag photo credit: Canva]

While we lived in Japan, we also spent a lot of time in Shanghai, China with my mom’s family, where I ended up attending kindergarten.

As a family, we immersed ourselves in the Japanese culture. For example, we spoke Japanese as a family because it was the only language in which my parents could communicate, as it was the language they were both learning. At the time, my お父さん (Otōsan, dad) didn’t speak Mandarin and my お母さん (Okāsan, mom) didn’t speak English. I also attended Japanese public schools and, for the most part, only had Japanese friends because Japan is a very homogenous society. As a young person, I thought we were just like any other Japanese family, and I couldn’t process how homogenous Japan was until it became clear to me that we were perceived as being culturally distinct from others. Wait—you mean, not every Japanese family has a Jewish-American father and Chinese mother who can only talk to each other in Japanese?

I learned that to be more a part of any culture, I had to change the way I communicated and showed emotions. I had to balance how I interacted and connected with others in context of the expectations of that culture.

My cross-cultural design thinking was also influenced by observations I made when I watched family members with different cultural backgrounds interact with technology. In the U.S., it seemed to me that nearly all software and apps that were designed in Silicon Valley were tailored for an audience of U.S. English speakers. For example, when Apple first came out with Siri, it couldn’t understand my mom’s Chinese accent, which just broke my heart.

One of the reasons I wanted to become a product designer was to build products that would be functional and user-friendly to every human across the world, no matter their cultural background or how they communicate.

5 tips for cross-cultural design

Here I share a few cross-cultural design practices that I’ve learned along my life and product design journey.

I hope you might find these practices useful as you think about how to incorporate cross-cultural design into your everyday design practice.

Tip 1: Color

Make sure you choose colors that are culturally significant and appropriate.

Take, for example, these images of TradingView, an American trading app, and 東方財富 (Dōngfāng cáifù), a Chinese trading app, that capture the same moment in time for Dropbox stock (DBX).

At that time, Dropbox stock was increasing in value, a fact that was symbolized by green in TradingView—the color that often symbolizes “monetary growth” in the United States. Compare this with 東方財富 (Dōngfāng cáifù), in which the same Dropbox stock price was displayed in red—the color that symbolizes “good fortune” in China.

The designers for each of these apps reflected cross-cultural design thinking by their choice of colors used to represent positive stock price increase.

 American trading app TradingView (left) and Chinese trading app 東方財富 (Dōngfāng cáifù) (right)
American trading app TradingView (left) and Chinese trading app 東方財富 (Dōngfāng cáifù) (right)

Tip 2: Language

Keep in mind the language of your target audience. When designing for different cultures, there are three key language aspects to consider.

Localization

UI copy should be localized with consideration for the nuances of the target language. Recently, I partnered with Jen DiZio, Head of Cross-Product Research at Dropbox, to conduct user research with Dropbox customers in Japan. Our goal was to learn how people from different countries experience our products. Some language-related findings indicated that customers experienced challenges in understanding how to use Smart Sync, a Dropbox branded feature.

Smart Sync is a feature that allows people to save space on their computers. While they can access a file from their Dropbox folder on their computer, the content of that folder is stored in the cloud.

Smart Sync was translated into Japanese. It appeared in the UI as スマートシンク (sumāto shinku), a phonetic translation of the English word.

In our study, the first part of the word スマート (sumāto) performed well because participants understood and used the English word smart.

But when it came to シンク (shinku), they asked, “What could シンク (shinku) possibly mean?”

They considered:

  • シンク (shinku) could mean think, like you’re thinking about your files or maybe thinking about your dinner
  • シンク (shinku) could mean sink, like maybe you’re being asked to wash your hands in one

In U.S. English, th and s represent two unique sounds; however, in Japanese, there is only one symbol that represents both sounds. So the Japanese participants experienced challenges in distinguishing these sounds in this context and were often confused.

To the Japanese participants, the terms sync, think, and sink all sound the same. And they happen to be more familiar with the English words think and sink than they are with the English word sync, which is short for synchronize. There is a Japanese word for synchronization, but no common abbreviated version of this word. That word in Japanese is 同期 (dōki, which character for character, literally translates to “same time”).

Choose familiar words used in a culture to reduce confusion
Choose familiar words used in a culture to reduce confusion

If potential customers don’t understand the names of products or features, there’s a high probability that they won’t even bother trying to use them.

Text direction

Keep in mind how each text string appears on the page. Western languages like U.S. English and Spanish are written from left to right. However, there are languages like Hebrew that are written from right to left. And still other languages, like Japanese, which are written vertically from the top down and from right to left in books, but follow Western language practices when appearing in digital experiences.

In this Airbnb example, the Hebrew version conforms to the reading direction for this language. All of the UI components on the page also accommodate this cultural need. Notice the image pagination goes from right to left, and the Save button is placed on the left side, as opposed to the right side in the English version.

Airbnb page in U.S. English (left) and in Hebrew (right)
Airbnb page in U.S. English (left) and in Hebrew (right)

Text expansion

When moving from a source language to a target language, any given word in the source language might be translated into multiple words or phrases in the target language. For example, in moving from U.S. English to Italian, German, or Russian, you should consider allowing for up to a 300% text expansion.

In this partial page capture from the Apple site, a two-line header and a seven-line body copy in U.S. English, appears as a four-line header and an eight-line body copy in Italian.

Thinking about this aspect of cultural design in the context of responsive design approaches can ensure that designs won’t break when copy expands during translation and localization work.

Apple page in U.S. English (left) and in Italian (right)
Apple page in U.S. English (left) and in Italian (right)

Tip 3: Content density

Appropriate content density varies widely from one culture to another. When thinking about content density for a specific audience, take some time to research that culture and its cultural norms.

Rakuten is an example of a site that practices cross-cultural design. The Japanese version of their homepage reflects a culture that prefers content-dense pages that have the look and feel of a paper catalog.

The U.S. English version of their homepage reflects a much more content-light design, aligning with the expectations of customers in the U.S.

So what is appropriate content density? There’s no straightforward answer to this. We should think about how we can apply design concepts and combine them with cross-cultural design thinking. What comes out of these considerations would help inform design concepts that hold true for every culture as well as those that change from one culture to another.

Rakuten page in Japanese (left) and U.S. English (right)
Rakuten page in Japanese (left) and U.S. English (right)

Tip 4: Images

Be mindful of image choices when designing content for different cultures. For example, images that include people in swimsuits at a beach might not be appropriate in all cultures, given unique cultural, religious, or geographic considerations.

Also think about how a person is represented in an image. When designing a product for a specific culture, although it may seem obvious, make sure that the images you include accurately represent people in that specific culture.

McDonalds page in Japan (left) and in Malaysia (right)
McDonalds page in Japan (left) and in Malaysia (right)

Tip 5: Technologies

Designs should consider the technologies and devices that are primarily used in a culture. It’s important to understand why those particular technologies and devices are used in that culture.

WeChat is an all-encompassing Chinese app. It serves as a social media app, payments app, chat app, appointments app, and probably other things, too. It’s a hugely popular app and offers flexibility to people who use WeChat to pay market vendors, making China a practically cash-free society.

In contrast, even though Japan is also a technologically advanced culture, it relies heavily on cash exchanges. This approach aligns with a culture that, among other reasons, associates exchanging money with respect. For example, many people are aware that small vendors get charged a fee when someone pays with a card. So paying with cash eliminates the cost-burden for the store owner.

It’s equally important to understand why certain technology is or is not accepted in certain cultures.

WeChat app in China (left) and Japanese Yen (right) [photo credit: Canva]
WeChat app in China (left) and Japanese Yen (right) [photo credit: Canva]

Closing thoughts

Culture is complex, no matter where it originated. Cultures differ from one part of the world to another, even within the same country. And cultures, like languages, are ever-evolving.

As cultures continue to evolve, so will their needs. It’s important for those of us designing for global audiences to build experiences that consider cross-cultural design as well as help shift design thinking and practices to be even more inclusive.

As product designers, we are positioned to bring products to life. Practicing cross-cultural design is one way for us to enable people to do their best work.

How might you include cross-cultural design in your product design work?

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