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How to Create a Globally Appealing User Experience

February 8, 2016

If you’re designing a product you want to sell globally, assuming every consumer across the world has the same needs and expectations won’t get you far. Knowing and understanding what makes people different is what will determine your success.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow studied human needs throughout his career and social psychologists such as Geert Hofstede continue to research this topic today. (Dirk Knemeyer wrote a three-part series for UXmatters titled, “Applied Empathy: A Design Framework for Meeting Human Needs and Desires.”)

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Some basic needs such as the desire to feel secure are universally intrinsic to all human beings. Other needs have their basis in cultural dimensions, including masculinity and femininity, power, and social and economic barriers. The Vancouver Index of Acculturation (VIA) “distinguishes the acquisition of the new (host) cultural tendencies from the loss of old (heritage) cultural tendencies.” Human needs that are based on cultural tendencies are the factors that come into play when your goal is to design a globally appealing user experience. Your success in addressing as many of these needs as possible will make or break your product.

Barriers That Prevent Ubiquity

Only a few companies have truly mastered the art of creating culturally ubiquitous products. For example, Apple successfully targeted the iPhone to satisfy a broad set of needs. The iPhone is capable of displaying more than 40 languages, its intelligent assistant Siri is multilingual, and users can download any app that’s relevant to their cultural interests.

Some common barriers that prevent companies from creating universally appealing user experiences could easily be solved with just a little cultural awareness. I once had a client who failed to realize that about half the world uses commas instead of periods when displaying currency values. He’d designed a user interface that supported only US standards in displaying amounts of money. Needless to say, that product caused a lot of confusion among its users.

Similarly, you’d be shooting yourself in the foot if you designed a thermometer that displays temperatures only in Fahrenheit or a device that doesn’t use the metric system. There are only three countries in the entire world—Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States—that use imperial units instead of the metric system, but huge American companies have made such mistakes when designing products for an international audience.

Other barriers aren’t so simple to overcome. Some deeper societal differences such as government-imposed rules and regulations can turn a perfect product into an illegal one. Self-driving vehicles, for example, pose a major international challenge because of the need to comply with local laws. There are different driving rules, regulations, and norms in the many countries of the world, and it would be necessary to consider all of these to create an appealing, let alone a legal product for a global audience.

The rise of personal drones is another great example of a major compliance challenge. This year, in the United States alone, legislatures across 45 states have considered more than 150 bills—each of which proposed different rules and regulations regarding drone-related concerns ranging from hunting to voyeurism. When it comes to global restrictions, the list of do’s and don’ts is even more complex.

Social etiquette is another major factor that comes into play when designing products for an international audience. For example, there’s an American doorbell company called Ring that lets you see who’s ringing your doorbell and verbally communicate with that person from your smartphone. It’s almost like having an intercom system on your phone. Users can tell their relatives to “Come on in” or tell Girl Scouts selling cookies, “No, thanks. I’m on a diet.”

From an American’s perspective, this seems like an intriguing product. For a global audience, however, even for something as simple as door-answering etiquette, there are a lot of cultural norms to consider. Such nuances could make a product like Ring irrelevant in many parts of the world. In my Hispanic culture, for example, we rarely use doorbells. If you’re visiting family or close friends, it’s customary to knock and walk right in. In some cultures, people prefer to knock, while in others, they clap their hands.

Another factor to consider when creating global products is size. In the US, we live by the motto “Bigger is better.” In other countries, however, people place a premium on small things. For example, American medical-device companies have recently been losing market share to Asian companies that make products that are similar, but smaller. Sometimes small products are desirable because of population density and a lack of space, but in other cases, they’re just what’s considered normal. And it’s not just the size of a product that could make success overseas a challenge, it could also be the size of the store selling the goods. Best Buy, for example, botched its international expansion. Big-box stores in general are struggling to succeed across the globe.

How to Assess the Cultural Suitability of Your User Experience

Creating globally appealing products is no easy task. There are countless factors to consider in attempting to create a globally appealing product. Here are three tips to get you started designing for an international audience:

1. Compare apples to apples.

When assessing cultural preferences, make sure you’re employing the same methods of capturing test data and studying the same data points across every demographic. If you’re not comparing apples to apples, you won’t be able to identify regional preferences accurately. To properly measure ease of use, perceived efficiency, and overall satisfaction, conduct a universal survey across all cultures.

2. Collect the same metrics.

Use self-reported satisfaction surveys and social listening—and even consider evaluating your product using the system usability scale (SUS), which lets you grade overall usability across cultures. You need to capture what people are thinking, feeling, and doing, and the SUS is a scalable way of uncovering these sentiments in small segments. You’re essentially building a customer map—laying out the discrete micro-interactions that happen at every level and identifying how customers feel about them.

3. Apply your findings properly.

As human beings, we do share a lot of common needs and struggles. However, when it comes to creating a cross-cultural user experience, understanding the things people around the world don’t have in common is what really matters. Once you’ve conducted user research across your target demographics and collected user feedback, you can use the knowledge and the insights you’ve gleaned from your research to build a product that satisfies as many people as possible. 

Founder and CEO of Key Lime Interactive and KLUE Labs

Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA

Ania RodriguezAnia has advised Fortune-1000 companies on user interface design, product design, and user research for nearly two decades. Her company, Key Lime Interactive, masterminds all things usability for the Web and mobile, tablet, and medical devices, using both qualitative and quantitative research methods.  Read More

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