Thinking Globally

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A column by Janet M. Six
August 20, 2012

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss how to think globally, with respect to user experience.

Each month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to us at: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer at Cummins; author of Designing Mobile Interfaces
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); UXmatters columnist; author of Global UX: Design and Research in a Connected World

Q: With respect to UX, what does it mean to think globally?—from a UXmatters reader

“Thinking globally means opening yourself to other points of view—taking a genuine interest, without judging,” replies Whitney. “It means realizing that there are other ways to do even everyday things—that you cannot simply design from your own experience. Being culturally sensitive to other ways of thinking, to other beliefs.”

For their book, Global UX: Design and Research in a Connected World, authors Whitney Quesenbery and Daniel Szuc interviewed UX professionals around the world—asking everyone they interviewed this question. Here are a few of the replies:

“To think globally is to just have a sensitivity to the local cultures and how that might change the standard way that you might design or do research.”—Chris Rourke

“It’s about distance from my own viewpoint. When I’m working further from my own culture, I have to be more vigilant about the kinds of assumptions that I make.”—Josh Seiden

“Designing globally is understanding the different ways of thinking. So I think global design is to be able to understand and also open to the differences or finding ways to gather the knowledge of that.”—Vicky Teinaki

“To me, it’s the people. I can’t say Australians are like this, or people in the US like that. What I can say is this: for the user of our product, this is what works for them.”—Tomer Sharon

“We also heard the general theme,” continues Whitney, “that thinking globally has an ethical component, because it means thinking about what is good for people in many different places and situations.” During her interview for Whitney and Dan’s book, Darci Dutcher, who works as a UX designer in the UK, said, “It should mean thinking about everyone who is involved. All the different cultures and situations and people who will use the product. On a broader level, ‘think globally’ is about responsibility on a personal, ecological level. Ultimately, both answers come down to awareness and respect. We’re no longer isolated companies—we have contact in new ways.’”

Designing for Different Regions

“Thinking globally could mean a couple of different things,” answers Jordan, “but I think you’re referring to regionalization and how different people interact with an experience around the globe. There are three main components of this type of global thinking:

  1. technological considerations—These include things like the penetration of smartphones within a market and the percentage of a population that has broadband access.
  2. language considerations—These include how users input text, how text is displayed, the use of iconography, and accessibility.
  3. convention-based thinking—This means thinking about what conventions have been established in a market and how they might vary from market to market. For example, some markets are fine with arrows for pagination while others might want page numbers.”

“Some design parameters get more complex than you may expect,” cautions Steven. “In many countries, the population is multilingual, but they may have strong language preferences for specific types of activities. For example, much Internet use is in English, even in countries where English is not in heavy use otherwise.

“SMS is very often a dialect, mixing not just Internet shorthand, but more than one language, and making you pine for the abbreviations of teen texters in the West. These are not just interesting facts, but things you have to plan for. For example, if an organization were building a call center that would respond to SMS as well as voice messages, they would need to recruit workers who are familiar with SMS dialects, which may vary by country within a broader region.

“To find out about these regional considerations, you have to balance discovery with your ability to do something with the data that you obtain, and you must get the data rapidly. Some great insights come from anthropologists and ethnographers who have spent weeks, months, or even years living in other cultures to bring insights back to us. But what if you just want some basic information? Luckily, we have the Internet. There are numerous blogs and—still more common—newsletters that cover not just key technical innovations in specific regions, but also demographic, consumer, and regulatory trends.

“Finding regional information sources often requires the help of a local. But any time you’re relying on locals who you know personally, be careful. Just as you can’t rely on the Web-browsing habits of your—presumably very technically savvy—coworkers, your contacts in other countries, regions, or cultural groups are likely to be atypical. But they speak your language, as well as the native language, and have reliable access to technology and networks. If they haven’t already given you the same caution, quiz them a bit more, making sure they understand that you want to know what everyone else does.

“For the purpose of setting a baseline on how people in a region live and work, obtaining information on their non-technical business behaviors—for example, about the local restaurant industry or farming practices—may be a better approach. With so many businesses employing technology solutions today, such general articles may mention specific technologies or brands you should be aware of and can look into.

“You can refactor taking a global approach to design as taking a multicultural approach to designing a product,” suggests Steven. “In either case, you need to start by being explicit about language, region, culture, and user persona parameters that go beyond your current set and may be outside your comfort zone. For example, you may need to ask, How well educated is the population?

Considering Access to Technology

“A key aspect of thinking globally is a region’s access to technology,” observes Steven. “In many parts of the world, connected desktop computer penetration is far below 1%. In some cases, access to a computer is under 5%—even when counting access via an Internet cafe or a kiosk at work, which some factories in India, for example, provide. Mobile phones, while broadly used, are mostly feature phones or dumb phones and don’t have a Web browser. Smartphone penetration is around 4 to 9% in Africa, and that’s all growth in just the last 18 months.

“If a natural growth model—the Western model—continues, this lack of access to technology in some parts of the world is likely to result in a digital divide. Setting aside the issue that this is bad for society as a whole, the consequence for your projects in the developing world is that they won’t be able to take advantage of new technologies. So you shouldn’t build Web sites only for smartphones. Instead, you should make sure sites are slim enough to work on high-tariff feature phones. Create an SMS alert or response system for dumb phones, because SMS may be necessary for feature phones and smartphones when users travel outside good coverage areas.

“This digital divide may not be entirely a matter of income, but also a result of technical, business, and political factors. Offering an ecosystem of services will be more important in these markets than in developed technical markets if you expect to achieve growth, penetration, and trust.” 


Quesenbery, Whitney, and Daniel Szuc. Global UX: Design and Research in a Connected World. Waltham, MA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2012.

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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