Embracing Cultural Design Differences: Advice for Designers

Many designers can get into a flow. Soon, they’re knocking out wireframes, designs, and even full UX overhauls without even thinking about it. And while this creative trance can do wonders for productivity, it’s saying something else about you and your company’s approach to design. 

The reason so many of us can reach this type of productivity is that we know exactly what we need to do because, in large part, we’re creating a different version of the same traditional design we’ve always done. However, what many in the UI/UX design community forget is that “traditional design” is not universal.

In reality, cultures around the world take significantly different approaches to their web experiences and interfaces. While that productive flow can always be helpful, take the opportunity to be more intentional with your design decisions and introduce some diversity into your design. As we’re about to discuss, it can make a huge difference. 

What is Design Diversity?

“Diversity” is a word that can send us in a number of directions that lead to valuable conversations, but here, we focus on what drawing upon a range of UI/UX influences can do to help your designs, projects, and career from becoming stagnant.

While many designers may think diverse design starts and stops with web accessibility, it goes deeper than that. Diverse design should also be thought of in terms of cultural diversity, as well. Living and working in the United States potentially leaves designers with a limited scope. In designing a webpage, information density, browser compatibility, and visual layouts can all take on cultural implications.

Eastern vs. Western Design

The thing about design methodologies is that we often don’t realize we are entrenched in one, for the simple reason that it’s what we’ve always known, and we may not even realize that alternatives exist. This difference is perhaps best seen in the discrepancies between traditional design practices in Eastern and Western cultures. 

Western design is often characterized by big headings and short blurbs. It also uses frivolous spacing to convey a sleekness to the interface. The appeal of the Western design is in the negative space, or areas without text or images. This negative space is also meant to help the ease of navigating through a page while keeping the user’s attention on keywords. 

Eastern design pretty much stands in exact contrast. Eastern models thrive on information density. In this methodology, the design is meant to build trust with the consumer. The more a website can convey what you do, the more the person visiting the site will believe in your product. Whereas the West may emphasize the ease of scrolling, Eastern interfaces want to provide ease of clarity. Suppose, for example, a client wants to see proof of the type of business or service a company can provide. In that case, an Eastern site will likely have all the information available without needing to click through multiple prompts and webpages. 

The Advantages of Integrating Diversity Into Your Design

Bringing more diversity into design allows for inclusivity from the start, which enables all types of users to take advantage of the product. Designing a product that skews away from traditional design norms also allows companies to grow successfully in multiple markets.

While embracing cultural design differences can help appeal to a broader range of consumers, you can also use real-world examples to provide accessibility to a smaller subset of people or a specific consumer base. In Japan, many sites and page designs place substantial importance on browser compatibility. Why? Well, this is because Japan has an increasingly aging population. And if there is one thing we know about older generations, it is that they may not be as technically savvy as you or I. Because of that, it is safe to assume that much of this population may have outdated hardware or software. By highlighting browser compatibility in their designs, Japanese designers are ensuring that numerous potential customers or site visitors are able to access their site even if they’re still rocking Windows 97.

How to Achieve This Moving Forward

Look to real-world examples of companies smartly using a diverse design model and feel inspired by those who are not currently benefiting from such design-openminded-ness. 

Companies such as Esty and Yahoo have found success in international markets largely because they have committed to incorporating page experiences that draw from different places. Etsy benefitted from changing up their checkout flow user experience to cater to their consumer base in Japan, while Yahoo has Yahoo International, a directory of sites made for different countries around the world. 

Meanwhile, MailChimp, which has some of the strongest branding out there, actually could rethink its design to incorporate more Eastern influence into their product. As an application, MailChimp is packed with data and can offer numerous services to its clients—but the UI tells a different story. Their entire product, not just their homepage, really embraces negative space. While it may look appealing, wayfinding in the product is difficult, and “scanability” is poor due to excessive font scale and dramatic spacing. Understanding their product requires too much searching, clicking, and going back to other pages.

Designers should also look for inspiration away from the usual suspects. When you’re designing an eCommerce app, don’t think that Amazon’s design is the only good example. Allow Eastern models to influence you, as well. A great exercise is simply exploring some of the most successful apps in the market you’re familiar with and then comparing them to their counterparts. Look to Uber and Lyft, then contrast them with Grab, or explore Line to see how it differs from Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. 

It is also always crucial to diversify your network. It makes sense that incorporating some design practices you aren’t familiar with will feel unnatural at first. Expand your network and talk to people who use different design theories. Don’t shy away from connecting with someone who speaks a different language than you either; semiotics is influenced by language and culture. Let them help you and maybe even critique your first few tries at designing a more diverse app or webpage. 

It may be intimidating to try new design techniques, especially when the ones you know have gotten you this far. However, experimenting with and embracing the use of different techniques from around the world will not just improve your usability—it can also serve as a fun learning experience to help you master your craft. 

Sydney Mai is Product Designer at Kickstarter.