Sunday, February 01, 2009

Designing for other cultures: putting Hofstede to bed

New ways to understand target users in developing cultures...

In the early 70s, Prof Geert Hofstede ran surveys with IBM employees worldwide and produced a set of four cultural dimensions which he used to categorise countries in terms of national tendencies. His four dimensions were:

* The Power Distance Index, which looks at how much people accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
* Individualism, which considers how far people operate as part of extended loyal groups and families.
* Masculinity, which considers how far men's values are from women's in a society.
* The Uncertainty Avoidance Index, which measures a society's tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity and diversity of approach.

It doesn't take long to notice that Hofstede's ideas have little to do with interaction design as such. They are focussed on management and communications and offer analysis at the level of general tendencies; they are not about use. But Prof Hofstede's name has become synonymous with cultural research in interaction design. He is quoted extensively. He is held up as evidence that tidy answers exist somewhere to untidy problems.

Interaction designers do need guidance on how to handle cultural diversity when designing technology with international reach. But that guidance may not be best in the form of metrics and measures. The OzCHI 2008 conference on Designing for Habitat and Habitus explored cultural aspects of designing. And every single experienced researcher came back to the same point: The best way for designers to understand the cultures they are designing for is to go get first hand experience.

Good listening

The OzChi2008 conference began with a workshop on 'Inclusivity, Interaction Design and Culture' . Participants discussed flexible and fine-grained ways of understanding difference in interests, values and use of technology. This understanding, it was agreed, did not come from metrics focussed on national characteristics.

So what did these researchers advocate instead?
The only common method in use was listening. The main goal of each researcher was to get to a condition of trust and respect where 'good listening' could go on. This might involve some understanding of suitable cultural gestures to adopt or avoid, like avoiding the 'thumbs up' gesture, which is rude in Iran or understanding that a head wiggle means 'yes' India. But it had more to do with interest in learning from others and a desire to get insight into other people's needs, behaviours and motivations.

Lesson 1: Embrace uncertainty. Look for the surprising contrasts. Welcome the destabilisation of an unfamiliar situation as a chance to learn about your own assumptions and cultural standpoints as well as others'. Get out there and challenge what you've read about a place or people."    (Continued via Flow Interactive, Ann Light, Usability News)    [Usability Resources]

Different cultures expect different behaviours - Usability, User Interface Design

Different cultures expect different behaviours

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