Over the years, I’ve traveled through 30 countries and lived in eight. I speak three languages and have designed in five countries. My myriad of experiences include:
- Designed for a women and children’s rights non-profit in El Salvador
- Studied information design in Austria
- Interned at a multidisciplinary design agency in Turkey
- Contributed to interactive data visualizations for a Swedish data journalism platform
- Freelanced for several businesses and organizations in the US
We’re living in an increasingly diverse world where cross-cultural interactions are common through migration and travel. If companies want to have impact, design has to be functional and relevant to differing cultures. In UX design, this is referred to as localization. Here’s what designing for different cultures taught me about localization.
How to Design a Multicultural User Experience
1. Acknowledge Your Biases
Cultural exchanges are rewarding on an interpersonal level. But everyone comes with their own biases when designing, particularly at an international level. Your bias comes from environmental upbringings, cultural behaviors, thoughts, and previous experiences. Recognize it.
2. Become a Blank Slate
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
How do you combat your biases? After visiting country after country, I realized it’s better to come in as a blank slate. Assume nothing and open yourself to learn about the culture you’re designing for. This helps you avoid your biased thoughts framed by your own particular experiences.
3. Identify Patterns
While every culture is different, there is a lot they have in common. Patterns exists everywhere. Observe how others communicate, value, interpret, and receive information. Identify the patterns and use them to design for a culture.
Below are a few examples of varying homepages from brands like Uniqlo, Ikea and Starbucks. By comparing them we understand how these brands localize by identifying patterns across the websites.
Minimalism vs Density
Minimalism and whitespace is valued in western cultures like Sweden and the US where information in its desirable form needs to be easily readable and processed. Eastern cultures like Japan value finding information promptly, resulting in websites that by western cultures are considered dense and unappealing. Interestingly, what’s appealing to the west is rather inefficient to the east. David, a Japan based software engineer, explains the linguistic, cultural and technical factors influencing Japanese website trends.
Uniqlo in the US, Germany and Japan
Both Uniqlo’s websites in the US and Germany have similar content, but Germany’s website is displayed in a wider layout compared to the US’s. That difference could reflect the longer words characterized by the German language. It’s important to choose a typeface carefully and leave whitespace to scale and localize between languages with a similar root like English and German. A typeface shouldn’t look convoluted in another language with longer words and there should also be enough whitespace in case the same word in another language has multiple words or one really long word.
In the case of Uniqlo’s Japan website, the design is vastly different from its English and German counterparts. It contains a lot of information compact in a slender, vertically oriented design. That appropriately fits a culture that values quick access to a lot of information.