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The UX challenge of localisation

Brian Robinson
Brian Robinson
Managing Director UK
7 min read
25 October 2016

Rapid advances in technology and increasing competitiveness in the digital sphere have led enterprises to focus a lot more time and budget on the user experience and interface of their digital estate. There are now entire internal teams and external agencies that spend all of their time thinking about these things.

Some reports indicate that enterprises with great UX have increased revenue by 37%. User-centric design decisions have also been shown to increase revenue. For example found out what users wanted during their homepage redesign and incorporated this knowledge, leading to a 35% increase in revenue.

The importance of UX is perhaps seen even more starkly on the negative side. Way back in 2012, 88% of online consumers were telling surveys they would not return to a website that gave them a bad experience. In 2014, 86% of mobile app users were telling surveys they would stop using an app that didn’t meet expectations. And why not? Competitors are very happy to offer them a better experience and increase their conversions and engagement at the expense of rivals. If you still need convincing, last year’s inaugural Design in Tech Report from KPCB’s Design Partner, John Maeda, is full of information about the increasing importance of UX and design for digital.

One key challenge presented by this increased significance is ensuring that users get a great experience, wherever they are in the world. Global enterprises tend to want both brand consistency and websites/apps that communicate well to users, whatever culture or country they are coming from. This comes with several questions and challenges.

UX and localisation

Think about your favourite e-commerce website or a website that reliably gives you a great user experience, every time. Now think about how users from another country or culture might see the exact same website. Assuming that language translation is perfect (not always the case), how might they see it?

Think about the following questions for your global users:

  • Would navigation be harder for some users than others?
  • Are you using any metaphors or jargon that would not make sense to some users?
  • Is the information you are presenting relevant to the way users from different countries make decisions?

Some of the considerations here are about the fundamental design principles that underpin your website, such as simplicity vs. complexity. Enterprises also need to carefully consider the culture and psychology of the users they are seeking to engage. If you are only translating a standardised website then you have centralised brand consistency but you may be confusing or boring a large proportion of users.

A good way of preventing this is to get your local business users involved in content and localisation early on, but what frameworks can inform you and your teams about cultural preferences?

Geert Hofstede’s 6 dimensions

One such framework that can help to build culturally relevant user experience is Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. Hofstede has been researching cross cultural communication for many years and has developed his model over time, adding the sixth dimension in 2010. Originally based on a detailed survey of IBM’s global offices in the late 1960s, the research now incorporates data from the extensive World Values Survey.

Power distance (PD)

The extent to which less powerful members of institutions/organisations accept that power is distributed unequally.

  • Values – High PD countries have a stronger focus on hierarchy, authority and expertise. Low PD countries tend to be more democratic and informal.
  • Implications – High power distance cultures would tend to prefer strictly organised sites with limited navigation and fewer choices, whereas low PD cultures prefer a less formal structure and a broader range of options.

Collectivism vs. individualism (IDV)

The degree to which individuals are integrated into groups.

  • Values – More individualistic cultures emphasise personal achievements and loose social ties, while collectivist societies are more interested in consensus and cohesive in-groups.
  • Implications – Content that more closely reflects the level of group integration in the society will be preferred. For example, imagery representing individual achievement will be favoured in high IDV societies.

Femininity vs. masculinity (MAS)

The distribution of emotional roles across genders.

  • Values – Masculine cultures tend to be more competitive, assertive, and materialistic and value traditional roles. Feminine cultures are more likely to be cooperative, with more concern for relationships, quality of life and less traditional roles.
  • Implications – Results oriented symbols and information will be preferred in MAS cultures with community and interaction more highly rated in feminine ones.

Uncertainty avoidance

The degree of tolerance for ambiguity.

  • Values – Countries with high uncertainty avoidance exercise more strict laws, rules and regulations to control change while those with low uncertainty avoidance are more pragmatic and value less restriction.
  • Implications – Clarity and detail in visuals and information will be preferred by high uncertainty avoidance cultures. Low uncertainty avoidance cultures will engage with more general and symbolic content.

Long-term vs. short-term orientation (LTO)

The time horizon of the society.

  • Values – Long-term oriented societies are focused on the future, giving reward to persistence and saving. Short-term oriented societies focus more on the present and past, rewarding strong social relationships.
  • Implications– In high LTO countries content that emphasises long-term development and goals of the business and products will be admired. Content/visuals indicating more immediate gratification will be more engaging in low LTO cultures.

Indulgence vs. restraint (IND)

The sixth dimension, added later, refers to what extent the society suppresses gratification.

  • Values – High indulgence societies tend more towards gratification of human desires whereas high restraint societies are regulated by stricter social norms.
  • Implications – Indulgent societies have a strong belief in personal control over life and emotions whereas restraint societies are more likely to recognise the influence of outside factors.

If we take the UK as an example we can see that the data indicates a highly individualist, highly indulgent society with a focus on results and success. According to this model, the UK also has a higher tolerance for ambiguity and would prefer less formal structures.

Of course as with any model, Hofstede’s has its challenges. The data supporting these broad ideas has been presented as averages of a national level, based on questionnaires. There is a danger that models like this one could lead you into the trap of stereotyping when applied in an uncritical way.

However, applied critically, these dimensions can be a framework for gaining insight into what kinds of experiences users in different cultures and places expect. Treat it as a starting point and combine with what you already know about your users to ask what you can learn about customers’ expectations and needs. Some of the wider challenges can be mitigated by the trend towards greater personalisation and relevancy. Meanwhile, handled with reason and awareness, the six dimensions can inform your thinking about the cross-cultural user experience.

UX as an investment

User experience can sometimes seem like a costly undertaking, but getting it right can make the difference between staying relevant for your users regardless of their country, culture or background and seeing them seek a better experience elsewhere. Of course not everyone has the budget available to build an internal UX team or acquire a design agency, but third-party consultants can offer expertise and advice about how to improve your UX. If you are undertaking a redesign or rebuild, make sure that the user experience is central to this and considered from the beginning.

Tools such as these calculators from Human Factors can help you get an idea of what ROI and/or savings you could achieve.
Ensuring a great user experience for all of your customers across local markets is a great investment in the future of your digital enterprise and could be the thing that enables you to remain useful to users for a long time to come.

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