The Need to Understand Culture – A Designer’s Perspective

Imagine this: you buy a new watch and its hands turn counterclockwise. Would you return it to the store immediately or would you try to adjust to a whole new way of thinking? What if stop signs all of a sudden were squares instead of octagons; would you immediately recognize them on the road? These two examples, while mildly amusing, start to paint the picture of a world that has been designed without recognizing a user’s cultural background. As user experience designers, we must acknowledge not only physical and cognitive differences in people, but cultural ones as well.


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Let’s look at how researchers approach the study of culture from the following lenses:


Let’s start from the beginning. What is culture? The definition of culture is dynamic and depending on whom you ask, you’ll likely get a different answer. It seems the only constant to the study of culture is the lack of a single accepted definition. Some anthropologists view culture as anything outside of an individual’s genetic control that serves to adjust the individual within their ecological communities. Other anthropologists believe culture consists of whatever it is one has to know in order in order to operate in an acceptable manner with the culture’s other members. And still another group of anthropologists view culture as systems of shared symbols and meanings.


Psychologists have also adapted their methods of studying culture over time. Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, conducted a pioneering study of cultures across modern nations. In this study he defined four cultural dimensions that can help describe national cultures: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism versus collectivism, and masculinity versus femininity.

Table 1. Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

Power Distance “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations accept that power is distributed unequally”
Uncertainty Avoidance “the extent to which people feel threatened by ambiguous situations, and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these”
Individualism versus Collectivism Individualism – “a situation in which people are supposed to look after themselves and their immediate family only”
Collectivism – “a situation in which people belong to in-groups or collectivities which are supposed to look after them in exchange for loyalty”
Masculinity versus Femininity Masculinity – “a situation in which the dominant values in society are success, money, and things”
Femininity – “a situation in which the dominant values in society are caring for others and the quality of life.”


Within engineering, questions of culture were also explored creating a whole new field of study: cultural ergonomics. Cultural ergonomics emerged in the mid 1970s when Alphonse Chapanis, the father of ergonomics (a field devoted to designing and arranging technology and systems so that people can easily and safely use them), wrote papers and organized a conference on the topic. He recognized that one of the most challenging problems facing ergonomics today is deciding how to make ergonomics robust enough to cope with national and cultural variables, including: anthropometric differences, the babel of tongues, physiological differences, psychological differences, as well as practices and customs.

A number of questions arise from a cultural ergonomics standpoint: “Should ergonomics design for societies as they are today? Should we design for societies as they are likely to become at some time in the future? Or should ergonomics design for societies as they ought to be?” Chapanis argues that ergonomics, through careful design, can and should produce societal change.

So What Does This Mean for Designers?

One approach is for designers to segment cultures in order to inform their designs. Designers have to understand the user’s world in order to correctly design for them. So then ask yourself this: Is it acceptable for designers to place cultural identities on people? Or do people need to self-assign their culture? Membership to a specific cultural group can be defined in two ways: (1) objectively and (2) subjectively. Theorists define an objective sense of culture as when a person has sufficient social attributes in common for members to constitute a distinct social group. A subjective sense of culture, however, requires that one be recognized by both themselves and by others in one’s society as being part of a social category. The subjective sense of culture is also referred to as an “identity sense.” This identity sense of culture requires that members of the same culture identify as part of the culture.

Some anthropologists believe that individuals follow rules of which they are not consciously aware, and view the world through a cultural lens that they in fact have subconsciously created. When conducting culturally informed design, should designers use an objective definition or a subjective definition? While designers may have an initial answer at the beginning of the design process, they might need to re-evaluate throughout.

People are Complex

If designers do choose to assign culture to individuals, they must consciously avoid stereotypes. Culture extends deeper than assigning a person to a single category such as race, gender, social class, or sexuality. There is no single cultural category that satisfactorily describes how an individual responds to their social environment. Intersectionality, a term originating in the work of African American feminist scholars, speaks to this concept. Intersectionality looks beyond a single cultural category (sex, gender, race, class, religion) to consider simultaneous interactions between different cultural aspects of a person’s identity. The intersection of multiple cultural identities creates both oppression and opportunities for the individual. For example, an African American male may face certain oppressions due to his skin color but may be given advantages due to his sex. Using an intersectional approach allows researchers to look at a person as belonging to more than a single cultural group. In another example, instead of singularly looking at how gender affects health or how sexuality affects health, the use of an intersectional framework considers the intersections of a person’s multiple cultural groups (e.g. gender and sex).

Culture is just one dimension in understanding a person’s needs, motivations, and desires. While there is no one right way to examine culture, it is clear that designers need to start thinking about the cultural identities of their users. Research shows that a lack of cultural relevance can be a barrier to trust in technology. We need to start a dialog around culturally-informed design and how a focus around culture might impact our methods. How have you incorporated cultural understanding into your UX research and design? What methods have you used with success?