The cost of misunderstanding your customer culture

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Chloe Daly


October 6, 2022

Is your business looking to expand into global markets? If so, this article is a must-read for you…

As a business, it’s crucial to understand who your target audience is by using data and utilising user research. Businesses can begin to get an understanding of the user’s demographic such as age or income, but what about the user’s cultural background? Does it really matter to truly understand cultural behaviours?

In this article, we will talk about…

  • Why does culture play an important role in a business’s User Experience?
  • What cultural differences have caused business problems in the past?
  • What businesses are listening to their audience?
  • Business benefits from understanding your user’s cultural behaviours
  • How can you ensure you know your user’s culture?
  • Two people writing at a desk on coloured sticky notes with a MacBook to one side.

Why does culture play an important role in a business’s User Experience?

Culture to a person is their way of life from beliefs and habits such as religion, language, mannerisms and even the way they dress. Depending on where someone lives in the world their cultural behaviours and beliefs are different.

A Group of diverse people sat in a line on a bridge, arms wrapped across one another’s shoulders, looking out towards the sea.

“it is no longer enough to simply offer a product translated in ten to twenty different languages. Users also want a product that acknowledges their unique cultural characteristics and business practices.”

Elisa M. del Galdo and Jakob Nielsen

International User Interfaces

To create meaningful User Experiences it’s essential that we understand our users, however, culture is often overlooked. Gathering the users’ habits and beliefs can unlock new possible solutions to problems or provide us with key insights to ensure we don’t offend or confuse the user.

What cultural differences have caused problems in the past for companies?

Ebay sign-up:

Ebay was seeing a lack of sign-ups in Japan. Ebay made the mistake of requiring users to submit credit card information at the initial sign-up phase, this caused Japanese users to not sign-up as Japanese customers are risk-averse and didn’t want to initially submit their card details.

(Cross-cultural Design and the Role of UX, 2022)

Basic health in Mexico:

A poster design was created to inform indigenous communities of a basic health package. The poster was a black and white image of a boy alone with the words “basic health package”. Firstly in rural communities, a self-image is associated with isolation, sadness and abandonment. The people who the poster was aimed for couldn’t understand why he had been left alone. Secondly, black and white is a visual cliche of how indigenous communities are depicted by outsiders as romantic and nostalgic. The Community did not associate themselves with this style of imagery. Many overlooked the poster as they thought it was aimed at tourism.

(Pater, 2016)

As you can see from the examples above the possible problems that can cause loss of business if in-depth user research isn’t conducted correctly considering user’s cultural behaviours, habits and beliefs.

Let’s take translating UX copy for example. As native English speakers, we’re able to write and assess copy across products, but hit barriers when translating apps for the global offices and audiences of our clients. The same copy doesn’t work in languages that have different sentence structures, grammar, vocabulary and cultures. During a recent project, where multiple languages are required, we identified early on during the prototyping stage, that we weren’t able to fit ‘Geschäftsbedingungen’ in the same size button container as our English ’T&C’s’ when translating a client’s product to German; breaking designs and creating new workflows for copy updates.

Instead, we need to seek out localised knowledge to add a personal, friendly touch and fill our knowledge gaps. Audiences won’t give us time if the only time we’re willing to give is to Google Translate. By never assuming what is culturally relevant, forcing non-match translations and seeking the advice of trusted translators, we were able to give users in German an experience that suited and included them, even if it is slightly different than the journey for English audiences, and fill the button container with an easy ‘ABG’. Hurra!

What businesses are listening to their audience?

Uber is a great example where a company has understood the cultural needs of their users all across the world. For example, in Paris people use scooters as one of their primary ways of transport, Uber In created a collaboration with Cityscoot in order to add scooters to their existing fleet. Another great example led by Uber in Istanbul allows the users to book an Uberboat (operated by the local company Navette), as a way to move away from the car and railway traffic that inflicts the city.

(Gomes, 2022)

Benefits from understanding your user’s cultural behaviours

By connecting with your users you will be able to instil trust and build confidence in your company, which inevitably leads to more conversions, increased customer retention and better business.

Using the insights that you find through user research and data analysis

  • Leverage insights for business benefits (provide examples — Using geographic data trends)
  • Customisation to optimise conversions.

How can you ensure you know your user’s culture?

The easiest and most effective way to truly understand your user’s culture is by talking to them, surrounding yourself within their culture and way of life, visiting the places they spend time in and absorbing what they do whilst there. (get out of the office!) Fact, test and sense check anything that makes it out into the world as best you can.

Below is a checklist to help you:

  • Is your copy inclusive? Don’t be afraid to ask someone to read it before sending it out into the wild.
  • Where is your work getting posted, who will see it and when? Add any relevant celebrations and dates to your own calendar so you can be mindful of what it is you are sending out, and when.
  • When creating personas and archetypes you could include sections on religion if applicable, how and when the person prefers to communicate and give the option for them to outline their own guiding principles and morals. This will help produce a richer overview of different cultural personas.
  • Make it easy for people from different cultures to communicate with your business and brand. Not everyone is comfortable speaking on the phone, some prefer to email whilst others will only conduct business in person

Make sure you have an open mindset, before jumping to conclusions or making assumptions — do some background research around the project/client/business first.

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