Cross-cultural web usability model (2017)

Spiderman and Bruce Lee point at each other
This article presents some pointers on how to design web pages for different cultures

Different cultures consume information in different ways. This is why a website that’s designed for a western audience might not necessarily work well for an eastern audience, and vice versa. Alexander, Murray, and Thompson propose design guidelines that make it much easier to create and evaluate usable cross-cultural websites.

Why it matters

Chinese and American websites don’t look the same. Their writing systems differ of course, but cultural factors also influence how people from different cultures browse the web and consequently how web pages are designed.

Over the years the design community has come up with design guidelines that aim to help designers incorporate cultural factors into website designs. However, these guidelines are often too high-level to be of practical use. Moreover, they’re often based only on cultural theories and lack usability tests that support their claims.

The authors therefore propose a new cross-cultural web usability model that addresses these issues by incorporating design elements, cultural factors, and HCI factors.

How the study was conducted

The study appears to lean heavily on reviews of existing literature, which includes quantitative work that has been done previously by the paper’s three authors (Alexander, Thompson, & Murray, 2017).

Prominent design elements

Previously the authors studied differences in design attribute usage between cultures by evaluating Australian, Chinese, and Saudi Arabian web pages. That study provided quantitative evidence that many design elements are indeed culturally specific.

The table below lists prominent design elements, i.e. design elements that appear at least 40% more often in websites from exactly one or two of the three countries.

Design attribute Prominent design element AU CN SA
Layout High use of headings, links, and images in a web page ×
High number of items relative to web page length ×
Navigation Dynamic main menu × ×
More than 10 visible links in the main menu × ×
Two levels of choices in the main menu ×
Fat footer × ×
Links High use of links ×
Links open in a new window ×
External links ×
Multimedia Animated text and/or images ×
Scrolling text and/or images ×
Use of images ×
Visual representation Images of young individuals ×
Images of leader ×
Images of political leaders × ×
Colour Bright colours with traditional colours × ×
Text Use of bold ×
Use of headings ×

Cultural factors

According to Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2005) cultures can be distinguished by ranking them among four factors on a 100-point scale:

Another widely used model is that of Hall and Hall (1990), which distinguishes between:

The corresponding values for the Australia, China, and Saudi Arabia are listed in the table below:

Cultural factors Australia China Saudi Arabia
Power distance Low (36) High (80) High (95)
Individualism High (90) Low (20) Low (25)
Uncertainty tolerance Medium (51) Low (30) High (80)
Long-term orientation Low (21) High (87) Low (36)
Context Low High High
Time perception Monochronic Polychronic Polychronic

HCI factors

HCI factors describe how cultures process information with regards to time, context, and mental aspects. These factors include:

What discoveries were made

Combining findings from the literature review with correlations between prominent design elements, cultural factors, and HCI factors results in a more general model that will also work for countries that are not Australia, China, or Saudi Arabia.

The model

The model is primarily presented in the form of two tables.

The first table describes correlations between HCI factorsI’m not entirely sure where the interaction factors come from… and cultural factors:

HCI factor, together with low: Power distance Individualism Uncertainty avoidance Long-term orientation Context Time perception
Information speed Low High Low Low
Information density Low Low
Information frequency Low High High Low Low High
Information redundancy High
Information sequentiality Low Low
Interaction sequentiality Low Low
Interaction exactness Low
Interaction speed Low High Low Low
Interaction frequency Low High High Low Low High

The second table provides advice on how to employ web features for audiences with particular cultural characteristics:

Cultural factor Web attribute Web feature
Low power distance Visual representation Little human presence in images
Low individualism Visual representation Much human presence in images
Links Low focus on the user’s goals
Many links to external websites
Low uncertainty avoidance Navigation Little guidance and navigation control
Little support, in a structured way
Many redundant pieces of information
Little long-term orientation Navigation Deep hierarchical structures
Layout Low information complexity
Low-context Multimedia Little visual information
Colour and text Less extravagant use of colours
Low time perception Links Less linear navigation

The tables don’t make that much sense on their own. Fortunately the authors also provide some examples that should make it a bit clearer.

Cultures with a short-term orientation are more focussed on completing single tasks and therefore dislike information complexity. This corresponds with navigation menus which show only a few items at a time and hide most items within deeply nested hierarchies.

Users from long-term-orientation and low-uncertainty avoidance cultures on the other hand, will want to see as much information as possible. They’re better at efficiently filtering large amounts of information and thus don’t like it if a user interface hides information from them.

Similar patterns can be seen in footers: high-uncertainty avoidance cultures, which dislike ambiguity, prefer fat footers with redundant information in order to avoid overlooking potentially important information.

Websites from high-power distance, low-uncertainty avoidance, and long-term orientation countries like China make heavy use of external links, which often open in new browser tabsThe article only mentions browser windows, but nowadays most browsers default to opening new tabs instead.. These make it easier to access larger amounts of information and emphasises relationships between websites (of organisations).

Presenting those same links to users from cultures that do not share these cultural characteristics is a good way to confuse them.

Multimedia, colour, and text

Web pages typically consist of text and visual images. The ratio between those two depends on two cultural characteristics:

Visual representation

Humans are automatically attracted to images of humans, so website designers often try to incorporate lots of them.

How to use the model

The last two tables in this article can tell you what you should and should not do when creating designs for culture-specific web pages, provided that you know the appropriate cultural factors, which serve as input values:

The important bits

  1. A model is proposed that maps cultural factors to concrete guidelines for web features and HCI factors to take into account
  2. Web pages that target Chinese users should use visual elements, links, and flat hierarchies to facilitate non-linear browsing patterns

References

  1. Alexander, R., Thompson, N., & Murray, D. (2017). Towards cultural translation of websites: A large-scale study of Australian, Chinese, and Saudi Arabian design preferences. Behaviour & Information Technology, 36(4), 351–363.
  2. Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York, NY: McGraw–Hill Education.
  3. Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1990). Understanding cultural differences: Germans, French and Americans. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural press.