Cross cultural challenges in web design, an overview

by Maria Antonietta Marino Date: 21-12-2020 webdesign culture challenges design

The user experience design of a product essentially lies between the intentions of the product and the characteristics of your user.

- David Kadavy -

The task of building a culturally appropriate website for a new market can be challenging:

in this article we are going to talk about the impact of national culture of people’s behavior, and try to understand the reasons why - for example - the use of speech balloons in comics may be confusing to a rural audience, or why East Asian designers seem to make a greater use of images in comparison with Northern European or Anglo-American designers; but first, let’s get acquainted with the concepts of culture and cultural dimensions.

According to social psychologist Geert Hofstede culture can be defined as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another”, while the cultural dimensions theory is a framework for cross-cultural communication he developed and refined over the years.

The dimensions of national culture included in the framework are:

-Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV), “related to the integration of individuals into primary groups”;

-Power Distance (PDI), “related to the different solutions to the basic problem of human inequality”;

-Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI), “related to the level of stress in a society in the face of an unknown future”;

-Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS), “related to the division of emotional roles between women and men”;

-Long Term versus Short Term Orientation (LTO), “related to the choice of focus for people's efforts: the future or the present and past”;

-Indulgence versus Restraint (IND), “related to the gratification versus control of basic human desires related to enjoying life”.

Other cultural factors worth mentioning for the purpose of this article are those theorized by anthropologist Edward Hall, namely:

-High- vs low-context communication, the extent to which contextual knowledge matters in communication within a certain group (a high-context culture is group of people who don't use a lot of verbally explicit communication and have strong boundaries that define outsiders to the group, while low-context cultures are those that value logic, objectivity, individualism, and competition);

-Monochronic vs polychronic time orientation, related to the way members of different cultural groups perceive time (monochronic time is organized with a single task focus, while polychronic time is usually multi-tasking);

-Proxemics, thestudy of the nature, degree, and effect of the spatial separation individuals naturally maintain (as in various social and interpersonal situations) and of how this separation relates to environmental and cultural factors.

With regard to web design and cultural factors, a 2008 studyon Social Interaction Design in Cultural Context claimed that “in the cross-cultural comparison of web pages, there are three essential variables–information context, cultural values, and creative strategies–which seem unavoidably to be related to cultural contexts and to be factors that determine whether web pages can be accepted and accessed by target consumers”, and concluded thatmultinational companies “lack standards with regard to matching different cultural contexts”.

In relation to cultural context (the type of context that  encompasses all aspects - both conscious and unconscious - of a culture), further research on Australian, Chinese, and Saudi Arabian design preferences found that:

- English users scan a web page from the upper left corner, whereas Arabic users scan Arabic web pages from the upper right corner (**);

- Chinese and Saudi Arabian websites use more images, cartoons, and animated objects than Australian websites. Chinese and Saudi Arabian cultures are considered high-context cultures, in which additional information beyond a written format is preferred. The heavy use of images, cartoons, and animated objects in a high-context culture aids their understanding of a web page. However, the aesthetics of high-context culture websites may appear overwhelming for members of low-context cultures;

- users from monochronic cultures prefer linear and hierarchical structures, whereas users from polychronic cultures prefer parallel structures (Chinese users are polychronic, and they prefer to navigate in a parallel structure; the heavy use of links that open in a new browser window aids parallel browsing);

- users from low-uncertainty avoidance countries, who are tolerant of risk and uncertainty, tend to prefer less control in navigation;

- users from low-context cultures and short-term orientation cultures prefer navigation structures that are simple and characterised by quick navigation;

- users from a high-context culture (e.g. China), feel comfortable with visuals related to local culture; however, users from a low-context culture (e.g. Germany), feel uncomfortable when they can’t see the logical connection between two elements on the page, and prefer links alphabetically arranged in the navigation bar;

- collectivistic and high-power distance cultures use images to promote characteristics of collectivistic societies and greater focus on leaders (images that promote collectivistic characteristics were popular in Chinese and Saudi Arabian websites);

- low-power distance and individualism in cultures favour public images (images that promote individualistic characteristics were popular in Australian websites);

- the overall usage of colour differs between cultures “Linguistic relativity and color naming across cultures” for further details on this point];

- images of leaders, elderly individuals, larger groups, as well as political or religious images, and group achievements are popular in Chinese and Saudi Arabian websites. The heavy use of these types of images can be related to the high-power distance and collectivistic culture of the Chinese and Saudi Arabian cultures, as described by Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov.”

Finally, let’s look at some concrete examples of cultural issues that might impact website design, provided by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C):

1. On how terms or labels can be of widely differing lengths in different languages.


2. On formatting and reading data (“Russian and Japanese addresses are written from the general to the specific, top to bottom. You may need to figure out how to produce these different orderings for forms. Also, the name of the Russian person above is in the dative case (expressing the idea of 'to the person').


3. Symbolism and examples (“This check symbol means 'correct' or 'ok' in many countries. In some countries, however, such as Japan, it can indicate 'incorrect'. Japanese often convert check marks to circles (their symbol for 'correct') as part of the localization process.”).


4. Color (“Wearing a black dress for a wedding is not the issue in Japan that it might be in the UK”).


To conclude, when it comes to web design, together with “obvious” differences in language, currencies, and measurements, other subtle (and often “implicit”) differences in users’ cultural background must be taken into consideration in order to appeal to the target audience.


(*) A joke on the importance of language in cross-cultural communication and design:

A disappointed salesman of Coca-Cola returned from his assignment to Saudi Arabia.    

A friend asked, "Why weren't you successful with the Saudis?"

The salesman explained, "When I got posted, I was very confident that I would make a good sales pitch.  But I had a problem. I didn't know how to speak Arabic. 

So I planned to convey the message through three posters:

First poster : A man lying in the hot desert sand totally exhausted and fainting;
Second poster : The man is drinking Coca-Cola;
Third poster : Our man is now totally refreshed.
And then these posters were pasted all over the place."

"Terrific! That should have worked!" said the friend.

"The hell it should have!" said the salesman. "No one told me they read from right to left!" 




- Alexander, Rukshan & Thompson, N. & Murray, David. (2016). “Towards cultural translation of websites: a large-scale study of Australian, Chinese, and Saudi Arabian design preferences”. Behaviour & Information Technology. 36. 1-13. 10.1080/0144929X.2016.1234646.

- Hall E.T. (1959). “The Silent Language”. New York: Doubleday

- Hall, E.T. (1966). “The Hidden Dimension”. New York, NY: Doubleday

- Hall, E. T. (1976). "Beyond culture". New York, NY: Doubleday

-Hall Edward T. (1983). “The dance of life : the other dimension of time”.New York, NY: Doubleday

- Hofstede, G. (1991). ”Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind”. London: McGraw-Hill

- Hofstede,G. (2011).“Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context”. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).

-Huang, K., & Deng, Y. 2008 Aug 30.Social Interaction Design in Cultural Context: A Case Study of a Traditional Social Activity”. International Journal of Design [Online] 2:2. Available here.

Design vector created by stories -
by Maria Antonietta Marino Date: 21-12-2020 webdesign culture challenges design hits : 3331  
Maria Antonietta Marino

Maria Antonietta Marino

Interculturalist: cross-cultural business advisor and self-appointed psychographic segmentation genius.
I help individuals and teams succeeding in an increasingly globalized workplace.
- Individual coaching for leaders and members of culturally diverse teams
- International Sales training

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