Friday afternoon at a random bar. Two friends are catching up. The first of them, who is on holidays visiting his hometown, explains how what initially was a two-month study trip in an exotic country led him to discover a society radically different from his own. He shares how much it took him to adjust to life in his new city. With the first idyllic months exhausted, culture shocks test everyday life of even the most intrepid. “I met Georgina (her current partner) at a dinner with some colleagues from the university. I was barely a week in Korea and I didn’t have many friends yet, so I didn’t think about it much when they proposed to join his plan.” Between exaggerated imitations and laughter, he recounts the bad time he had at that first dinner; all the diners at the table sipped the soup and made an exaggerated noise. “I didn’t know where to look at. For me it was very uncomfortable, an ugly gesture on the table.” Thousands of miles away, the noisy soup sippers could perfectly be sharing anecdotes and laughter recalling the same dinner, but from a completely different point of view.

When we are in contact with a culturally different society, the differences appear when you least expect them. We can compare the concept of culture for a society with the memory of an individual. A series of routines -traditions- and codes -conventions- generated from experience that facilitate daily activity. Culture structures societies by promoting coexistence and collective development. It endows individuals with shared references in their imaginary and unites human groups. This collective imagery, as a side effect, conditions the way we interpret the stimuli of the world around us. 

When establishing intercultural relations, it is essential to consider the way in which these peculiarities condition our interpretation of the world. We can only transmit the 100% of a message if using the appropriate connotations, although this implies symbolizing the message in a different way to adapt it to the perspective from which it is viewed. The current reality of globalization generates the most prolific context for intercultural relations in the history of humanity. The digital revolution and the emergence of the internet allow us to live in a hyperconnected world, in which citizens continually receive new tools and capabilities. From our smartphone we can congratulate the birthday of a friend who is in the other corner of the world, start a conversation with a stranger with whom we share concerns, or even openly broadcast a daily event to a wider audience than the one that offered traditional media in the last century. Contrary to what might be expected, this potential is no longer uniting societies. Individuals are less able to interact with each other without a screen in between, creating social isolation. The frustration caused by the lack of approval from those whom we consider equals multiplies proportionally to the dissemination capacity of social networks. Accustomed to the immediate gratification of premium services, building lasting personal relationships becomes more and more hard. At a collective level, there have been manifestations of discontent since the beginning of the century – the Arab Springs, citizen movements in Spain and Greece, nationalisms – that have a common denominator: the conflict of identity of individuals, and the lack of representation in the system. The challenges posed by globalization are met by the responses proposed by the dominant cultures -leaders of the globalization process- causing human beings to be forced to face a changing world without references to identify with. The role that technology plays is a homogenizing factor of culture, imposing a biased global system that responds to the cultural peculiarities of part of the population.

The cannibalization of cultures resulting from the technological development is subject of reflection for contemporary intellectuals. Bringing up positions that consider technological advances as a threat to the expression of minority cultures, there is a critical front towards traditionalism and cultural immobilism. Mario Vargas Llosa reflected this concern in an article published in 2000: “The world in which we are going to live in the century that is beginning is going to be much less picturesque, impregnated with less local color, than the one we left behind. Festivals, dresses, customs, ceremonies, rites and beliefs that in the past gave humanity its leafy folk and ethnological variety are disappearing, or confining themselves in very minority sectors, while the bulk of society abandons them and adopts others, more appropriate to the reality of our time. ” Although it is true that cultural diversity entails an important immaterial wealth, it is no less true that the ultimate function of culture is to provide societies with mechanisms that allow the articulation of collective development and its survival. When the context that a society has to face changes, so will the responses required by itself.

Taking into account the consequences of technological advances, it is worth asking whether the tools they offer are being used correctly. The experience that a tool provides to its users is defined both by the result obtained using it and by the interaction with it. The ergonomics in the handle of a hammer, for example, determine both the way in which we interact with it and the degree of satisfaction generated by its use. In the case of digital, intangible tools, communication between the machine and the user acquires a fundamental role in the experience it generates.

According to Jakob Nielsen, a reference in usability consultancy, there are three levels at which a digital product with an international presence can avoid friction with local cultural peculiarities. At the first level, the product must have the technical possibility of displaying the characters of each language, as well as the popular symbols -currencies, mathematical symbols-. At the second level, both the interface with which the user interacts and the documentation related to the product must be translated in a usable and understandable way. At the third level, there must be a direct relationship between the system that uses a product to communicate and the references that a user has about the everyday world. The way in which the processes are carried out, or how the information is displayed, will be more usable for a user when they fit within the schemes that he uses in his day to day.

From the academic field, tools emerge with which we can identify the cultural particularities of a human group. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his book Beyond the culture essays on the problem of intercultural relations. He uses the term high-context or low-context culture to refer to the relevance of context as an element in the communication process. In high-context cultures – Scandinavia for example – implicit communication is in the basis of relationships between individuals, emphasizing non-verbal communication. By contrast, low-context cultures – Japan, for example – are related to explicit communication. Applying this concept to the user experience, individuals with a high-context culture are more likely to interpret non-verbal elements – images, schematics, symbols – than low-context cultures, which will need a directly transmitted message for a proper communication.

On the other hand, the social psychologist Geert Hofstede established a framework in which to place a society in regard to other cultures considering 5 dimensions present in all cultures: distance from power, masculinity, individualism, avoidance of uncertainty and long-term orientation. Comparing these dimensions, we identify points of encounter and disagreement between societies, which help us understand the differences that tradition and history provoke in the behavior and values of human groups.

Cultural dimensions have a determining role in managing expectations, or the level of detail that must be offered to avoid situations of frustration for users. Both concepts are essential when building satisfactory user experiences. The avoidance of uncertainty considers the way in which we face situations of insecurity and the degree to which we are concerned about an uncertain future. Long-term orientation, on the other hand, measures the importance of planning an activity in exchange for a reward in a human group. Within a gamification strategy of the user experience, this dimension will influence you highly when evaluating the opportunity cost of the benefits that the product offers you. The distance to power indicates the inequality in the relationships between different hierarchical levels of a society. From this dimension derives the degree of acceptance of authority as well as the treatment offered to a reference interlocutor. Masculinity, or femininity as a counterpoint, values ​​the reproduction of behavior patterns associated with gender; competitiveness faced cooperation, or heroism faced modesty. Finally, individualism, as a counterpoint to collectivism, marks the level at which individuals feel identified or not with the group of which they are part. It determines the way in which they enjoy a community benefit as their own, and it is a dimension to take into account when creating and energizing user communities.

Take Away

Cultural peculiarities of human beings condition the way in which we interact with our environment. They influence the way we relate to, our concerns and emotions. An experience, even if it is digital, does not take place in a parallel reality. The digital world is part of the life of the user, who hopes to relate to it through the same codes – of communication and conduct – that he relates with in the rest of his life and that he is not willing to give up. To achieve a solid relationship, the product has to consider the needs it wants to satisfy and the critical moments in use; motivations and fears. With this objective, we cannot trust its design in opinions or assumptions, but rather take as a basis the knowledge generated about the user through qualitative research. Focusing this research on knowing how the cultural dimension affects the user experience -as far as it is a human user- will allow us to avoid friction and offer the best experience.

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On the author:

Pablo Sio is designer of digital products based in Barcelona. Since 2016 helps out professionals and companies with the creation of digital user-centered experiences.

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