The estimated reading time for this post is 5 minutes.

culture_and_usability_uxUsability has been having different definitions for the past decades. During this time, it was considered to be something focused on performance-related criteria such as ease of use and effectiveness and notions that include a subjective aspect and user satisfaction were added later on.
According to ISO 9241-11: Guidance on Usability (1998), usability is “the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.”

To say it in more familiar terms, usability is a quality attribute; it assesses how easy and pleasant user interfaces are to use. Usability is a versatile word and can be defined as many things, but the main components are: learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors and satisfaction.

It has been many times proven that usability is a condition for surviving on the Web. If users find a website difficult to use and understand, if the homepage doesn’t state what the business is all about and the users don’t understand what the company is offering, if the content is hard to read or if it doesn’t answer their questions, they will leave and this is not something that we want.

So let’s look more into the context of use and more specifically, into the impact of users’ culture.


Culture means a lot of things, but it can be defined as the common beliefs, customs, art, way of thinking, working and behaving of a group of people. This is what drives them and influences them in the interaction with computers. Our cultural background defines whether we trust a website or not, if we find the information relevant, what catches our attention and how we perceive the things we see.
Edward Burnett, in 1871, defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” (Britannica, 1998)

People around the globe are attracted to different colours, symbols and patterns. Culture is the thing that makes one group different and unique from another. Professor Geert Hofstede said that culture is “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from others.”.
So, considering how different people can be, it is safe to assume that culture has an impact over UX and usability as well.

Cultures have different values in their society and they also perceive differently design elements.

Colours and Symbols

Colours will help you make an impact on the user and this will enhance the user experience. Keep in mind that colours on a website or an app don’t need to be drawing attention as much as they do in real life. You already have the user there, in front of the screen. It is important to understand how colour associations are made and how they vary from one culture or audience to another.

Let’s take red for example:

In North America and Europe, red can be associated with positive and negative thoughts as well. At the same time it can mean love and danger. It can be associated with communism, power, passion and excitement as well. In some countries, like Sweden, red is the colour used for sales.

In Latin America, red is associated with religion and passion and it is used to symbolise enthusiasm and confidence. On the other hand, in China red is the colour worn by brides and it is a symbol of joy and prosperity. They also exchange red envelopes with money, on the Chinese New Year, for good fortune. In Japan, red means life and it is used in their flag as well, where it is associated with the sun.

So you can see that the colours you use are essential because the users can be influenced by this and it can affect they way they understand and perceive the content that is being offered to them.

Graphic Design Interfaces are filled with symbols, but we need to be really cautious with the symbols we use.

Most of the time we use symbols as metaphors so that the user will associate familiar concepts with unfamiliar ones. But not all metaphors have the same translation or meaning in all cultures. This is why we need to know our users and their culture.
Think about “thumbs up”. Many of us think about is as a way of approval or affirmation. Facebook is one of the websites that uses this sign for likes and we all use it for the same purpose. To express our approval for something that someone else has posted or shared.

However, there are countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Greece for example, where it can be seen as an equivalent for the “middle finger salute” used in the UK and USA. Another symbol that came to be banned in some situations from countries like England is the piggy bank icon, because Muslims do not eat pork as it is seen as an impure animal and it was considered offensive.


One of the common complaints after e-commerce usability research is regarding registration. Danes will consider this requirement as something that will invade their privacy. They are more likely to cancel the action and move to another website if they don’t have the option to buy as guests, whereas Romanians may dislike registration in general but this won’t drive them away.

Cultural dimensions

Some international companies design their websites according to the audience. Keep in mind that if your product will be used by different cultures around the world, it should be designed for each of them individually. It is the same product, but the audience isn’t.

Take McDonald’s for example. McDonald’s is a world wide know company. Still it needs to adapt to the users’ needs. They changed the way the date is displayed, the currency, units of measure, colours for each website. The Dutch site of McDonald’s is minimalistic and looks very professional because they are used to solid structures. They need clear statements and rich information on all topics. As for the Chinese website, it is full of commercials, colourful and has a lot of products displayed on the homepage.

All this being said, the conclusion is that the culture matters. Very much. This article doesn’t cover everything, but it touches some soft spots. It is essential to know how all cultures shape people and the cognitive processing of information. We need to know how they perceive different elements and how they impact their perception.

In order to make the good decision, we need to be well informed. There isn’t necessary a good way to do this, but however there are good practices to create a culture driven experience.

Author: Crista Oiegas

image source