Website Designs for Various Cultures – Proceed with Caution

Cultures matter. Cultures especially matter if you are moving into an international market with your product or service and need web design that is appealing and inoffensive to a people whom you may or may not understand.

Culture is a sum total of a people’s history, customs, values, religious and secular beliefs, laws, moral principles and view of the world. It also includes communication styles, art, music, gender relations, and family member roles.

As you prepare to insert a website that is “localized” for a specific culture, then you had better conduct some serious research into that culture and produce “responsive web design,” that is, content, music, images, photos, etc. that celebrate that culture, and do not offend it. Remember, you are trying to build relationships and brand loyalty, and your website must foster that relationship in its design. If you do not honor the cultural priorities of a people, you can offend. And that offense translates into lots of negativity that goes public very quickly. Relationships are then dead and you are forced into full damage control mode, if that damage can even be repaired.

Important General Considerations as You Design Your Website

Before and as you move into a consumer audience of a different culture, there are several specific steps that you can take to be proactive and to ensure that your site will be well-received, attract a lot of traffic, and communicate a solid understanding of and respect for the local culture. And within each culture, there are specific sub-culture demographics that differentiate what is pleasing, acceptable or offensive. So, in addition to researching a specific culture’s traditional values, customs and beliefs, you will also have to understand how those traditional features are evolving and changing in 21st century globalization. Just as in America, for example, generations are very different. Our grandparents would never have tolerated the language, body exposure, and contents of many television programs today. Rock music is “where it’s at” for younger people but terribly offensive to older generations. So, as you consider your website design and contents, you must consider your target audience as well. If you intend to appeal to younger generations, your design will be quite different than if you are appealing to older demographics.As well, you must understand the class structures within a society, for what is pleasing and appealing to one social class may be terribly offensive to another. It is obvious that you need a great deal of understanding and some real expertise, if you intend to move into international markets successfully. Below, you will find some of the more important considerations you must take into account as your website is designed, improved, and re-structured over time.

Getting a Partner

One of the most successful strategies is to “go the expense” of establishing a collaborative relationship with someone who is of the culture in which you intend to expand. This may mean at least temporarily employing someone who is from that culture originally or contracting for private consulting services from a “local.” Then, the website design, content, and any other venue used to spread your content can be reviewed by that individual to ensure that it will be well received by your target audience. It’s important to understand class structure as well. If your products or services are meant to appeal to a specific demographic (college students, for example), then what that demographic finds appealing and/or offensive may be very different from another demographic within the same country. Likewise, if your target audience is of a specific socio-economic class, the design and content must reflect the values and belief systems of that class.

Language Really Matters

Every language has specific grammatical structures, idioms, vocabulary connotations, etc. Translations, then, can be tricky. And vocabulary can vary between classes within a society. For example, the term “Mama-san” in Japanese is a term used primarily by lower socio-economic classes. Using it in web content that is meant to appeal to the middle-class and above will be offensive. Finding a premier translator may be a bit pricey, but in the long run, it will be well worth the expense to have vocabulary and idioms that reflect the language specifics of your targeted audience.

“Design Culture”

Every culture has its favorite music, pictorial scenes, media and other images. As you add themes, music, images and other media to your website, be certain that they are culturally-specific. And, keep in mind that these “favorites” vary within a culture, based upon age and other demographics. You are best advised to get a consultant from the demographic you are trying to reach, if you want to grow an audience and a customer base that will find your media appealing.

Design Culture

Consider Cultural Values

If, for example, a culture values independence, self-reliance and individualism, be certain that you have such things as privacy policies and words and images that depict single individuals having success. If a culture values “collectivism,” on the other hand, you want groups of people in formal and informal settings, working or socializing together. If family is hugely important to a culture, then your site design should reflect family units that are compatible with that culture.

Be Aware of Small Things

Holidays are important to all cultures. Adding a turkey image during the month of November or a rabbit and eggs in the spring will simply look silly to many cultures. Make every attempt to honor the holidays of the culture into which you are expanding, with greetings and images that will change as often as new holidays are on the horizon. You need to be aware of the use of colors too, for they have emotional connotations within many cultures. For example, while white may connote purity and goodness in one culture, it connotes death and mourning in another.

Watch the Pictures You Use

Visuals are important in any web design.They hold interest and make a site much more interesting. It is easy, however, to offend other cultures by the images you use, based upon their cultural mores and morals. The owl, for example, may symbolize wisdom to us, but in India it is a symbol of bad luck. And it goes without saying that, while a bikini-clad young woman or a muscular guy with no shirt is perfectly acceptable in American and Western European cultures, such exposure in a traditional Muslim population would be horribly offensive. Here again, the consultant is an invaluable resource to review any picture you might be considering.

Watch the Pictures You Use

Navigation Features

These will require some localization as well. Remember, some cultures read left to right, so text that is justified on the left may be visually not pleasant and/or difficult for them. As well, be mindful that some languages just take up more space. If you are using form fields for visitors and/or customers to fill in information, they must be of a size that will be suitable for the language. Address fields are really important as well – not every country has a street address, a city, state, and zip code!

Number Usage is Important Too

Measurement systems vary and not all cultures use Arabic numerals. Thus, you may need to use the metric system as opposed to the Arabic. Clothing and shoe sizes are also different, and people in other cultures will not take the time to figure out which size they may need for an item you are selling- they will simply leave your site. As well, it goes without saying that currency values must be in the local one. Remember, too, that numbers have different meanings in different cultures. What may be a lucky or unlucky number in one culture will not be in another. While Americans view the number “13” as unlucky, in Italy it is “17.”

Number Usage is Important Too

Methods of Addressing People

A really important part of the principles of design variety for various cultures involves the formality or informality of addressing someone. We are prone to say, “Welcome back, Kevin” when a customer returns. In oriental cultures, however, this is way too informal and actually offensive and disrespectful. A greeting might better be stated, “Hello, Mr. __________. We are happy that you have returned to our site.” Again, this may be quite different, dependent upon the age and/or other demographic characteristics of your target audience. While older Asians insist upon formality, the younger demographic does not, and the more informal first name greeting will be just fine.

Product Naming and Other Visuals are Important too.

Crayola found that the crayon name “Prussian Blue” was offensive in some cultures and so had to change it to “Midnight Blue.” Another example of a huge mistake involved using cute animals to advertise a product or service. Pets are important to Americans, and the use of them on websites and in advertising is certain to be appealing. This is not the case in many other cultures. A manufacturer of sunglasses once tried to use dogs wearing sunglasses in its website localized for Thailand. Unfortunately, in Thailand, animals are considered really low forms of life, and no one thought it was cute – epic fail! All product names and advertising that uses images should be “cleared” with your consultant before they are published. Remember also that in cultures that read from right to left, your progressive images and “before and after” shots will have to be reversed.

A Final Word

No smart company that moves into international markets does so without an expert cultural consultant or a great deal of research. It’s just not smart to assume that western culture has fully invaded every other country and culture on the planet. Small to medium-sized businesses make cultural “mistakes” all the time, because they fail to invest in the research and the cultural experts who can pave a smooth path into an international market. But some pretty big companies have made some pretty big errors in this regard too. A major toothpaste manufacturer once decided to move into the Vietnamese market. What it did not realize is that, in that culture, people chew beetle nuts which turn their teeth black. Having black teeth in Vietnam is valued, because the nuts are believed to strengthen the teeth. The toothpaste ads showed Asian people with sparkling white teeth, and sales were almost non-existent – a lot of money wasted on a sales campaign that should never have been. If the “big boys” can fail, so can you. Make sure there is really a market for what you are selling and, above all else, design your website to reflect the local culture and, as well, the specific demographic within that culture that will comprise your customer base.

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