Why UX Designers Should Consider Users’ Culture

Judging something or someone is extremely easy. We use adjectives such as rude, beautiful, strange, or logical more often than we might think. However, all these words carry a strong cultural bias. What we consider pretty or normal depends on when and where we live. It’s a perception we share with people who have the same background or culture as us, but it may differ significantly when compared with someone else’s.

Culture defines how we do things — our standards, values, and the way we coexist. Each culture has its own dynamics and principles, some written and many others unwritten. It can appear contradictory and confusing from the outside, but for better or worse, it plays a key role in our lives. We cannot disconnect anything we do from those values and assumptions.

When designing user interfaces (UI) or user experiences (UX) in a multicultural context, we should be aware of our own culture, assumptions, and biases. As Ruben Pater says in “The Politics of Design,” “In a global world, we can no longer assume that our audience shares the same visual language and values.”

In the design field, many professionals are trying to understand the role of culture and how we can adapt our designs to better connect with people from all over the world. Many are considering research at the intersection of language, culture, and design, such as:

Cultural dimensions and their impact on design

In “Cultures & Organizations, Software of the mind,” Geert Hofstede created six cultural dimensions to explain the major differences we might find between cultures:

  1. Distance to power refers to the way people relate to each other on a hierarchical scale — to what extent the less powerful members of the society accept and endorse authority and an unequal power distribution. In a society with a high distance to power, there are more power differences and status privileges, so the people who are in a lower position in a hierarchical state might prefer to be guided and directed. Countries that stand out in this index are Malaysia, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Cultures closer to power, on the other hand, expect more democratic or egalitarian relationships; examples would be the Nordic countries, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia.
  2. Individualism vs. collectivism. Individualistic societies, such as the United States or United Kingdom, focus more on the rights of individuals and their needs. Those societies expect people to look after themselves, make individual choices, and take less responsibility for others’ actions. In contrast, for collectivist societies, such as Panama, Guatemala, Pakistan or Indonesia, the community is fundamental, and human relationships and loyalty are much more relevant.
  3. Aversion to uncertainty. This category focuses on society’s tolerance for ambiguity and how well they cope with anxiety. If people feel threatened by unknown situations, then they are part of cultures with a high aversion to uncertainty. The higher the aversion, the more strict and detailed rules and laws a society will have, and the more the group will rely on them. Some of these cultures are Finland, Mexico, Japan, Greece or Russia. Societies with less avoidance are more open to change, and to differences of opinion. Here, countries such as India, Sweden, Jamaica or Singapore stand out.
  4. Masculinity vs. femininity. In societies deemed masculine, the roles of men and women overlap less and values include competitiveness and assertiveness. Examples are Mexico, Hungary, Japan, and Switzerland. Conversely, feminine societies prioritize quality of life and the significance of relationships. They tend to avoid more traditional gender roles and stand for values such as cooperation and compassion. Examples are the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Costa Rica.
  5. Long- or short-term orientation. This refers to the temporal strategies followed by each society and whether they prefer to focus on the future or on what can happen now. The more long-term a culture is, the more values of perseverance, compromise, and pragmatism stand out. China, Japan, South Korea exemplify countries with a long-term orientation. In a short-term oriented society, such as Morocco, the United States, or Egypt, traditions are maintained, and there is an emphasis on principles. In these cultures, quick results are more important than future gratifications.
  6. Indulgence vs. moderation. This refers to behavior in accordance with our instincts. In indulgent countries, the emphasis lies on freedom to follow impulses and pursue happiness. Social life and acting in coherence with our human desires are indispensable. Among indulgent countries are Australia, Argentina, Chile, and some African countries. On the other hand, more restrained cultures regulate people’s gratifications. They pay less attention to individual happiness and leisure. Some examples are Japan, China, Germany, and Russia.

Understanding culture and its influence is crucial in order to engage with our users, as it will help designers to create more empathic and inclusive products. Cultural sensitivity not only enhances the effectiveness of design, but also fosters meaningful connections across borders, enriching global interactions and experiences.

Claudia Lahuerta Pujol
Claudia Lahuerta Pujol is a UX/UI designer at Avaloq in Switzerland.


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