Why Is A Silo Mentality Killing Your Growth Strategy?

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Conversion rate optimisation (CRO) is on a roll but is a silo mentality undermining the effectiveness of CRO? Companies are falling over themselves to recruit CRO specialist. Yet few companies are getting the uplifts in conversion that they expected to achieve.

The problem is that CRO is often set up as a stand-alone department which encourages a silo mentality. For example when I was in a full-time CRO role I was asked to create a testing roadmap, without any budget for customer research or usability testing. It was as if I was the oracle for CRO. However, CRO is a business strategy. It is not the sole responsibility of an individual department or business unit.

This approach to CRO does not lead to sustainable business growth. It tends to run out of steam once the obvious things to fix are exhausted. Furthermore, CRO requires collaboration across departments to draw in a diverse range of skills and expertise.

Unfortunately in many organisations CRO suffers from the same silo mentality. It results in slow, bureaucratic business decision making and a culture which encourages waste and strangles innovation. Despite a desire to improve business efficiency the basic building blocks of most organisational structures are still the traditional functional silo.

Why does a silo mentality damage CRO?

For CRO to deliver business growth it needs to be embedded in the culture. It requires a collaborative approach to business change. For example testing needs to integrate with the product roadmap, reflect business goals and inform marketing strategy. Companies which operate within rigid silos find CRO fails to deliver sustainable growth. The silo mentality discourages collaboration and cultural change.

“The great defect of scale, of course, which makes the game interesting. The big people don’t always win, as you get big, you get the bureaucracy. And with the bureaucracy comes the territoriality—which is again grounded in human nature.” – Charlie Munger – Berkshire Hathaway

A silo mentality also prevents organisations fully exploiting the collective knowledge of the customer that is held across the organisation. Silos make it more difficult for customer data and knowledge to be effectively shared to inform decision making that creates the most value for the customer and organisation.

Image of Kodak logo

Kodak was organised into product silos. In the 1970s it controlled around 90% of the film market and 75% of the camera market. They invented the digital camera in 1975 but were in the business of making film. Their largest operational silo reinforced this perception to defend its own self-interests.

Kodak went bankrupt in 2012 after selling its digital camera business to save the film business.

Why do silos form?

Silos are a natural reaction to organisational growth and greater complexity. Companies create specialist functions in response to business expansion and increased work load. Silos facilitate the building of expertise and knowledge for specific business purposes.

Our herd instinct encourages people to become strongly attached to those within our immediate group. We form emotional bonds with people we have experiences with. A silo mentality can result in people putting the needs or goals of their business unit ahead of the objectives of the organisation.

Sheep on the road image

Source: FreeImages.com

As projects are often resourced and financed from within a function means that outcomes and insights are not always shared outside of the business unit. This can lead to both physical and emotional obstacles to collaboration between business units. In the worse-case scenario this can result in conflict between departments. They aim to protect their own interests rather than those of the organisation as a whole.

Why do silos harm growth and innovation?

A silo mentality creates competing subcultures within a business. This limits ways of working and communication between business units. It also reduces social interaction and trust between people working for the same business. Digital silos disrupt information and knowledge sharing which is essential for CRO.

This is why large organisations can be bureaucratic and slow to adapt to both internal and external demands for change. This often damages the customer experience. It becomes difficult to respond swiftly to changes in customer needs or preferences.

What problems do silos cause for CRO?

Fragmented vision:

Unless CRO is part of the culture of the organisation. Functional business units will continue to create their own goals and strategy for optimising the user experience or conversion rates. Apart from duplicating effort and resources, a silo mentality results in the vision of the organisation becoming fragmented. This creates conflict and dilutes the effectiveness of customer strategies.

Inefficiency – silos create friction and mistrust

The conflict from silo mentality damages trust between functions. It often causes inefficiencies as departments fail to share knowledge and duplicate tasks. I’ve seen this result in brands replicating successful A/B tests conducted by another business unit rather than acknowledging and learning from the test. In addition priorities are set according the business unit’s goals rather than what is important for the business as a whole.

With CRO this often results in experiments being delayed due to a lack of design or development resource. Unfortunately such delays can make tests less relevant or obsolete in some cases as product releases change the default experience.

Image of Sony HQ in Japan

Sony case study:

In 1994 Sony reorganised into eight stand-alone business units. Initially this led to cost savings and an improvement in profitability. But managers also began trying to protect their units, not just from competitors but also from other departments. Due to a silo mentality Sony’s business units became less willing to share experimental ideas or rotate the brightest staff between departments.

Collaboration stopped and nobody wanted to take risks. In the late 1990s when the Internet began to disrupt the distribution of music. Each Sony department tried independently to experiment with new solutions. However, none collaborated with the Sony Music Entertainment Group (previously CBS records) because SME refused to cooperate with any department. Its officials were terrified that digital music would undermine revenues from records and CDs.

Image of Sony Walkman

Apple on the other hand worked as one cohesive company with one profit and loss. Engineers at Apple developed a two-step solution to allow users to download music from the internet and then listen to them on a portable device.

Apple also developed the iStore to provide music groups with some royalties and designed the platform so that it could be accessed by anybody using any platform. Sony’s digital music system on the other hand relied on proprietary technology that had to use their own platform. This limited Sony’s ability to compete with Apple in both the music download market and the portable music player market which Sony had practically created with the Walkman.

In 2001 Apple launched the iPod and has since dominated the portable music player market. Sony failed to take a significant share of a market it once led with the Sony Walkman.

False assumptions:

Silos are very good at perpetuating myths on inaccurate perceptions that circulate without being challenged in an individual business unit. This is because a silo mentality encourages people to become over-reliant on information from within their own department.

I experienced this one time when I challenged why the term “CAPTCHA” was being used in content for customers. The response that came back was they had checked with their team (all web developers) and they all felt their friends and families would understand the term. There was zero awareness that perhaps their team and even their close friends and family were not representative of a typical customer.

This level of overconfidence in the knowledge held within the silo can reduce willingness to interact with other business units and limit opportunities to share knowledge and expertise. Employees may therefore become isolated and feel dissatisfied. It can have serious consequences for staff morale and retention. This can damage efforts to improve the customer experience and often leads to complacency which can be disastrous for CRO.

Limited customer insight:

Image of online surveys

To understand user expectations and experiences it is critical that data and insights are combined and processed from sources throughout the organisational structure. If data is not freely shared and combined with insights from other units the opportunity cost can be huge. A silo mentality significantly limits the value of customer data to the organisation and individual departments as connections and insights are not fully uncovered.

With CRO this is from one piece of market research or insight being used to push through an update on subjective opinions. This can create conflict between teams. One piece of information should never be used in isolation to support a change in the customer experience. A culture can seriously damage the customer experience and reduce conversion rates.

Blame culture:

A fragmented approach to organisational change programs such as CRO caused by the dominance of individual silos creates a blame culture and can result in complacency. When CRO targets are not met, the temptation for some departments is to blame other areas of the business rather than take the responsibility.

A silo mentality therefore discourages collaboration. Such initiatives can threaten a person’s career or credibility within their own department. In CRO it is important to encourage people to prove themselves wrong by creating online experiments to challenge existing best practice.

This is often how innovation happens as if we don’t take risks we are unlikely to create anything new and transformational. However, to identify improvements in the customer experience it is essential that people from different areas of expertise work together in a collaborative and trusting environment.

Groupthink:

When all think alike, then no one is thinking - Walter Lippman - The danger of groupthink

Small teams drawn from a single business unit have been found to be prone to make poor decisions due to their tendency to suffer from what psychologists call groupthink. Companies often believe that by recruiting the smartest people they can prevent poor decision making. The opposite is often true as small homogeneous groups suffer from a lack of diversity, insufficient independent thinking and a desire for conformity.

“Diversity and independence are important. The best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” – James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds

People in such teams are also often over-respectful of senior people and so don’t sufficiently challenge ideas from these team members. Diversity is important because homogeneous groups become more cohesive than diverse teams. As a consequence they become more reliant on the group for ideas and support.

This insulates the group from external sources of information and makes group members more assured that the group consensus is the best solution to the problem.

“Suggesting that the organization with the smartest people may not be the best. Organization is heretical, particularly in a business world caught up in a ceaseless “war for talent”. Governed by the assumption that a few superstars can make the difference between an excellent and a mediocre company. Heretical or not, it’s the truth, the value of expertise is, in many contexts, overrated.” – James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds

Of course many large organisations insist on recruiting the brightest minds from the top universities. However, this restricts both racial and cognitive diversity which enables homogeneous groups to form.

How do you break down silos?

CRO needs to be an agile process to allow teams to respond to new customer knowledge and insights from the multitude of sources available to a customer focused organisation.

Collaboration is essential to enable knowledge and data to be delivered. It is vital to any organisation that seeks to improve profitability by improving the customer experience and conversion. No single team can optimise the user experience on their own.

To break down organisational silos to develop a strong CRO culture it is necessary to begin at the top of the business and change old working practices. The key strategies to create a more collaborative approach to CRO are:

CRO needs board level buy-in:

If you look at the companies that have most successfully implemented a CRO strategy such as Amazon, Booking.com and Skyscanner.com. They have people right at the top of the organisation who are passionate about CRO and take ownership of developing a supportive culture. Skyscanner for instance recently promoted their chief experimenter to become Director of Experimentation.

Having a board level manager in charge of CRO gives the strategy the profile and support to build a culture of customer focus and experimentation. A junior manager would never have the clout to try and optimise the product as well as web content.

Agree a unified vision for CRO:

Image of Amazon signIt is important to have a single vision for the company to retain focus and ensure consistency of objectives within the leadership team. Amazon has a very strong and clear vision as follows:

“Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company. To build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” – Source: The Balance.com

The focus on customer centricity gives clear direction to all employees so that everyone can relate the vision to their own job. This helps CRO because people can see the relevance of optimisation to the company’s vision and their own individual and departmental goals.

Set a common goal:

Silos often cause conflict because individual business units set tactical goals and objectives that can discourage collaborative working. To avoid this problem the leadership team need to set out a single goal for the company. For example Amazon’s Jeff Bezos said;

“It is the company’s goal to make it irresponsible to not be a Prime member.” – Jeff Bezos

This should be made clear to all employees so they can understand how they can contribute individually to achieving the goal. This assists CRO because having a clear goal makes it easier to identify a relevant success metric.

Agile product management:

To facilitate collaboration across individual business units it is necessary to form product management teams that draw expertise from a diverse range of areas of expertise. For CRO this means having teams which include developers, UX designers, marketing specialists, experimenters and product managers to develop hypothesis, build tests and implement successful ideas.

Identify why trust has broken down:

It’s important to understand the reasons for a lack of trust and get people to recognize the problems that silos create before implementing solutions. Changing a culture of working within silos has to reduce resistance and obtain co-operation. For CRO this means frequent communication and workshops to engage people throughout the business.

Flexible communication solutions:

The growth of global teams can prevent knowledge sharing and timely decision-making. Furthermore, the use of email, phone and real-time messaging services have a virtual workplace that fragments communications and reduces face-to-face interaction. Business process management and resource planning software can help break down silos walls and allow people to work together on shared goals. It encourages the exchange of information and ideas.

Let go of CRO:

One way of killing collaboration in CRO is not being willing to let go and allow others in the organisation to have some autonomy. Sure, there is a need for oversight and co-ordination. It is necessary to trust people to follow the agreed framework for CRO.

It is important to get people across the business trained up to add their input and expertise to the CRO program. Your UX designers should provide wireframes for your ideas, copywriters content, and your own developers should build experiments. Sometimes it can help by bringing in a CRO agency to co-ordinate this process. In the long-run it is perfectly possible to create all the necessary expertise within most organisations.

Conclusion:

Finally, ensure you build in feedback and monitoring systems to evaluate how well your strategy is working. CRO is a change management process and so adoption will take time and is rarely universally successful. However, as gaps or problems are identified you have the opportunity to review your approach and try new ideas.

Beware of vanity metrics, such as number of tests per month, which often don’t closely fit the desired outcome. This can result in the cobra effect which can lead to unexpected and unwanted behaviour. Look out for these behaviours and adjust targets accordingly as some people do try to play the system.

The Psychology of Pokemon Go

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Learn the psychological secrets of Pokemon Go’s success!

In just two weeks Pokemon Go, the augmented reality smartphone game designed by Niantic, achieved over 21 million active users in the US, more than Candy Crush did at its peak. The game’s popularity has quickly spread in other countries and it is now becoming a global phenomenon. So, why did Pokemon Go become a such an instant success? What are the psychological buttons that it pressed to create so many users?

1. Nostalgia from a childhood brand:

Pokemon is a brand that has grown across multiple entertainment categories for over 20 years. This provided Pokemon with the opportunity to target an existing and passionate audience of players who grew up in the 1990’s and wanted to indulge in an old obsession. This instantly helped Pokemon Go establish itself on a new platform (smartphones and tablets) and created the conditions for the game to spread through social networks to a more diverse and younger audiences.

Image of implicit goals

Source: Decode Marketing

The desire for adventure and escapism is just one of a number of implicit psychological goals that motivate brand choice. Using the latest research from psychology and neuroscience marketing consultant Phil Barden has identified 6 key psychological goals that brands can be perceived to meet. The extent to which people perceive that a brand will fully meet certain psychological goals that they find compelling will help determine which one they choose.

Image of Pokemon Go in App store

Source: Pokemon Go, Niantic Inc, iOS App Store

Learning:

Leverage brand equity by targeting existing engaged customers to give you a head start to building your app store presence. Ensure brand communications target appropriate psychological goals that can help generate a strong emotional response to your game or product.

2. Herd mentality:

As social beings our decisions are heavily influenced by what we think other people around us are doing. When in a new or uncertain situation we naturally look to see what other people are doing as a guide to desired behaviour. Pokemon Go benefited from copy-cat behaviour as our herd instincts assisted the spread of the awareness and adoption of the game through our social networks. Once the number of downloads gave Pokemon Go entry into the download charts this would have further boosted its desirability among trend seekers or gamers unsure about the nature of the game.

Top iOS apps in USA for 23rd July 2016

Source: App Annie top iOS apps in USA for 23rd July 2016

Learning:

Using social proof and encouraging people to interact with your brand across offline and online social networks is a powerful influence on success or failure. How people interact with each other and what they do with your product or idea will determine the nature of your brand. Not what you set out in your brand guidelines.

3. Novelty gets attention:

Our brains are hard-wired to be wary of change. The blending of the real world with the digital world of augmented reality brings fantasy into the game experience in a seamless and engaging manner. This creates a novel user experience that attracts attention. Novelty is a powerful psychological trigger for stimulating our brain. Although augmented reality has been around for a number years, Pokémon Go cleverly integrates it with a real-world game that also activates user’s curiosity.

Image of Pokemon Go Drowzee

Learning:

Use novelty to grab attention and create curiosity about your brand.

4. We desire control:

The design of Pokémon Go means that players have a good chance of intercepting a monster where ever they travel. There is no necessity to head for a Pokestop or Gym if it doesn’t fit in with the user’s plans. Monsters often pop-up randomly as players go on their daily business.

Pokémon Go allows players to remain in control. It is up to the user to decide how much effort they want to put into the game. This is important from a psychological perspective. Autonomy is one of three basic drivers of human behaviour identified by psychologist Daniel Pink that make people happy and engaged in activities.

Image of Pokemon Go with Venonat showing

Learning:

Autonomy and our desire to act with choice is something people naturally seek. Psychologists believe that it improves our lives. Where possible always offer people choice as we dislike doors being shut or forced down a particular path.

5. Mastery :

Pokemon Go uses achievements to reward players for progressing through the levels of the game. People love to obtain a high degree of competency in activities they undertake. But can easily get frustrated and abandon a game if a task is not realistically achievable. On the other hand if it is too easy to complete players can lose interest in the game. Pokemon Go achieves a balance by setting a low degree of initial difficulty for new players. Using a distance/time barrier to ensure it takes some physical effort to discover more creatures.

Learning:

Ensure challenges and tasks are realistically achievable, but not so easy that players lose interest. Mastery is one of our most powerful and intrinsic motivators which drives our passion for achievement.

Pokemon medal for 10 normal Pokemon

Source: Pokemon Go, Niantic Inc

6. Variable ratio schedule reward model:

In the 1950’s the American psychologist B.F. Skinner conducted experiments to understand how people respond to different reward schedules. He discovered that a variable ratio schedule, where the reward is based upon the number of times the task is undertaken. But the timing is randomised to make it unpredictable, is the best method for encouraging repetitive behaviour. This type of schedule encourages people to complete the behaviour over and over again as they are uncertain when the next reward will be received. It is also resistant to extinction by its very nature and can make some behaviour addictive.

Learning:

Link rewards to the frequency of the behaviour, but use a variable ratio schedule to make the timing of the reward unpredictable.

Pokemon Go level up 4

Source: Pokemon Go, Niantic Inc

7. Use classical conditioning to obtain an automatic response:

When a user walks near a Pokemon, gym or Pokestop, their smartphone gives an audible buzz. As the players is then rewarded with a new Pokemon or other creature. This sound becomes associated with the forthcoming reward in the same way that Pavlov’s dog would salivate at the sound of a bell. Classical conditioning creates automatic behaviours by paring a stimulus (a sound) with a response (search for monster nearby).

Learning:

Use audible sounds, smells or movement to create automatic behaviours through classical conditioning by pairing a stimulus with a response. Once users react in a certain way, you may pair another stimulus to the desired behaviour and create a new automatic response.

Image of Pokemon Zubat before capture

Source: Pokemon iOS app

8. We are all social beings at heart:

Unlike most apps, Pokemon Go provides the opportunity to meet new people. It requires you to visit local landmarks and walk to places nearby to find Pokémon’s. As human beings we are hard wired to connect and interact with other people. Indeed, social isolation and loneliness are harmful to our long term health and can trigger depression. Playing Pokemon Go therefore benefits are psychological health by creating opportunities for gamer’s to meet and interact with other people.

Image of Pokemon Go gym

Learning:

Allow people to share or interact with other people as this is an important human characteristic with many benefits for the individuals concerned.

9. We benefit psychologically from walking:

There is increasing evidence to suggest a sedentary lifestyle is harmful to our health. Walking is beneficial from both a psychological and physical perspective. We have an innate desire to get outside and research suggests that walking can reduce depression and our risk of diseases such as diabetes.

Learning:

Creating a game or product that requires or encourages physical exercise has health benefits for the customer. It can create natural breaks in product usage which improves attention and engagement.

Image of Pokemon Go map

Source: Pokemon Go, Niantic Inc

10. Good timing:

Launching the game in the summer and just at the start of the holiday season meant that people are already primed and ready to go outside and explore. We are naturally drawn to sunlight because it increases the amount of vitamin D in our bodies which can help prevent cancer and improves our alertness and mental performance.

Learning:

Always consider timing and how it may influence usage to give your product or campaign the best chance of success. Research your audience to identify key factors influencing adoption or likelihood to view your content.

Image of Pokemon Rattata outside Pets at Home store

Source: Pokemon Go, Niantic Inc

11. Easy equals true:

The app is so simple and intuitive to use that it does not require any detailed instructions or much practice to become competent. This means there is little friction associated with getting started and this minimises cognitive load which encourages continued engagement with the app. Many apps are so poorly designed that they require extensive onboarding instructions and navigation aids. Such complexity can cause cognitive strain and frustration which often leads to apps being abandoned.

Learning:

If your user interface requires detailed instructions or navigation aids to allow users to learn how to use it you have failed. Keep user interface designs simple and intuitive.

Image of Pokemon Gym description

Source: Pokemon Go, Niantic Inc

12. Piggy back on existing habits:

People are creatures of habit and so adoption is much easier if you can piggy back off an existing habit rather than having to create a new habit. Most smartphone users take their devices with them as they go for a walk or travel to the office or the shops. Pokemon Go was therefore able to benefit from habitual behaviour which assisted take-up of the game.

Learning:

Where possible identify existing habits that your product or campaign can benefit from rather than trying to create a new behaviour.

Image of Pokemon Horsea creature

Source: Pokemon Go, Niantic Inc

13. The power of free:

We are attracted by free apps because people are inherently afraid of loss and free is a powerful motivator because we don’t like to miss out on a bargain. Further, allowing users to play for free minimises the perceived risk of signing up to Pokemon Go because there is no monetary cost to the player if they subsequently find they don’t enjoy the game.

In addition, even partial ownership (e.g. a free trial) tends to make people more attached to what they have and make them focus on what they could lose rather what they may gain. This is why free trials offered by the likes of Spotify and Netflix are so successful.

Pokemon Go generates revenues by players purchasing virtual coins to exchange for items such as Pokeballs to capture monsters. Once players have moved up a number of levels they may also want to pay to store, hatch, train (in the gym) and battle opponents. Companies also have the ability to sponsor locations to attract players to a real location.

Learning: 

Ownership changes are our perception of things and our aversion to loss makes it more difficult to give up things that we have. For non-fremium apps, offer a free trial to give users ownership and allow them to check out the user experience. To monetise a free app allow players to buy in-app currency to spend on digital goods or enter competitions.

Image of loading screen for Pokemon Go

Source: Pokemon Go, Niantic Inc

What should we take out from Pokémon Go’s success?

Good marketing planning and having the right partners for a venture certainly help. Although we may not be lucky enough to have a global brand that has 20 years of heritage behind it, we can still be careful to create a compelling proposition and ensure that implementation is not rushed. What Pokémon Go does show is that if you can align your marketing with human psychology you will benefit from important drivers of consumer behaviour.

How Culture influences Website Design

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This post explores the science of how culture influences website design and conversion rate optimisation. Marketing is about persuading visitors to take action. But what if your visitors come from a range of different countries and cultures? Will one strategy work for all visitors even though they come from different cultures? Design and culture are highly interrelated and yet little allowance is often made for cross-cultural differences.

Culture: 

Culture has a deep and pervasive influence on how people perceive and react to web content. For global brands it is important to consider how culture influences website design because they attract visitors from many different countries and cultures. They need to understand how people from different cultures interpret, and respond to such variants as colour, language, images and technology to be able to serve optimal content.

Design does not evolve in a cultural vacuum. For example, McDonald’s has a separate website and uses different colours for every country they operate in. They do not attempt to have a consistent brand design and website for consistency’s sake. They appreciate that culture influences website design because culture affects how people respond to different design and communications.

Singapore/Russia

Image of McDonalds homepage for Singapore and Russia showing how design and culture are interrelated

Germany/Brazil

Image of McDonalds hompeage for Germany and Brazil showing how design and culure are interrelated

The most influential research studies on cultural differences in communication were conducted by the anthropologists Geert Hofstede while at IBM and Edward T Hall when he taught inter- cultural communications skills at the US State Department. Their research studies are a must for anyone wanting to understand how culture influences website design. Their work provides many important insights into how design and culture are highly interrelated.

A Framework for Understanding Culture:

Professor Geert Hofstede conducted probably the most comprehensive study of how cultural values vary by country between 1967 and 1973. Whilst working for IBM he analysed data from over 70 countries. He has since used studies, such as the World Values Survey, to validate and refine his cultural dimensions theory. This identifies 6 cultural dimensions that can be used to explain observed differences between cultures. This can be used to help align design and culture to avoid mistakes when creating an experience for a specific culture.

Hofstede’s 6 Cultural Dimensions: 

1. The Power Distance Index

How is power distributed in a culture? The Power Distance Index is the degree to which people accept and expect inequality in a society. Cultures that score low on this dimension will seek to reduce the level of inequality and expect justification for where it does exist.

2. Individualism versus collectivism

Is a person’s self-image defined by “I” or “we”? In Western cultures, we tend to focus on the needs and wants of the individual. Conversely, Eastern cultures place the needs of the collective ahead of individual.

3. Masculinity

Does a culture have a preference for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards? If so, to what degree? In this context, femininity translates to collaboration, modesty, caring and quality of life.

4. Uncertainty Avoidance

How comfortable does a society feel with uncertainty and ambiguity? A high score indicates a society that has formal rules and policies and are often intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. They also like to plan for every eventuality and are more concerned about product specifications than societies that score lower on this dimension.

5. Long Term Orientation

This describes a culture’s time orientation – long-term vs short term. Scoring low means a culture favours long-standing norms and is suspicious of societal change. Cultures that score high are pragmatic and take a long-term view of business.

6. Indulgence versus Restraint

Does a culture restrain or indulge in fun and instant gratification? A high score means a culture
encourages instant gratification and enjoying life and having fun. Low scores reflect strict social norms which suppress indulgent behaviour.

Free Resource on Cultural Differences:

By measuring how different cultures compare on these six dimensions we can better understand the common ways culture influences website design. Data from over 100 countries has been made available by the Hofstede Centre. This is very useful if you’re trying to boost conversions by aligning design and culture to improve the customer experience in a cross-cultural context.

For instance, this chart shows us that Japan scores much lower on individualism than the United States. This suggests that web content in Japan needs to focus more on the community and relationships, rather than showing pictures of individuals in isolation. Japanese people don’t like to stand out from the crowd and are more likely to put the needs of society before personal preferences.

Their high score for masculinity reflects their competitive drive for excellence and perfection, together with a strong work ethic. These values should be reflected in web content through both high quality imagery and messaging about how the product quality cannot be beaten.

At 92, Japan is one of the most uncertainty avoiding countries in the World as they like to plan for every eventuality. This means Japanese people usually won’t make a decision until they have reviewed all the facts and figures. Risk assessment and planning tools, as well as detailed and fact based information, could help boost conversions in this cultural context. Design and culture must be aligned here as otherwise visitors will seek the information they are looking for elsewhere.

6 Dimensions of Culture – Country Comparison

Image of table showing Hofstede’s 6 cultural dimension values by country that can be used to align design and culture

Cultural Preferences and Facebook

Art preferences are affected by cultural norms and tends. For example, a study of over 400 Western and East Asian portraits found that the subject’s face on average made up around 15% of the total area of the picture in Western art compared to just 4% on average in East Asian portraits.

However, one study that analysed Facebook profile photos found that 12% of Americans’ photos lacked any background – compared to only 1% of photos from the Far East. Both our art and Facebook profiles reflect our cultural ideals and preoccupations that influence our behaviour in all kinds of ways. This is just another way that design and culture are interrelated and this occurs in all aspects of society.

Western culture emphasizes individualistic and independent traits. People focus on their own face and pay less attention to the background. Eastern culture emphasizes communal and interdependent traits. There is more of a tendency to include context (e.g. the background) and other people in their pictures.

Image of how culture influences how people frame photos - design and culture

Low Context vs High Context Cultures:

The anthropologist Edward T Hall identified differences between high and low-context cultures in how they communicate routine messages:

  • High-context cultures (e.g. China and Japan) have many ‘unwritten rules’.
  • Low-context cultures (e.g. the United States) leave little left to interpretation. “It is what it is.”

Low context and high context cultures relate to a number of cultural traits, including commitment, trust, overtness – and even time. Design and culture can be easily aligned here by identifying whether the society has many unwritten rules or people leave little to interpretation.

Monochronic vs Polychronic Cultures:

People in low context cultures often have a monochromic perception. This means they see time as tangible and sequential. They follow strict time schedules, focus on one task at a time and set deadlines that they aim to meet at all costs.

High context cultures tend to have a polychronic perception of time where it is more fluid. Punctuality and structure is less important and deadlines are seen as more flexible and people work on multiple tasks at once.

Monochronic Societies Prefer Simplicity:

So how can we apply these insight to ensure culture influences website design when we launch in a new country?

Since monochronic societies dislike clutter and fluidity, a simple design with a clear action should work well. Things like:

  • A clear hero image.
  • Short bullet point messaging.
  • Clear focus on the product.
  • In polychronic cultures, rich context can be displayed using:
  • Multiple graphics, icons, boxes, and animation
  • Animated navigation.
  • Greater complexity.

Check out Chinese e-commerce website Taobao on the left and compare it with the UK’s John Lewis site. Both are very successful e-commerce sites, but vastly different website design approaches due to the cultural values of the countries they operate in. It is wise to consider monochronic and polychronic cultures when designing a user experience for cross-cultural websites. This will ensure culture influences website design in an appropriate and sympathetic way.

Taobao – China/John Lewis – UK

image of Chinese and UK ecommerce homepages from Taobao and John Lewis - design and culture

Colours of our culture:

Colours have different meaning according to where you are in the world (nope, there’s not a colour that converts best). Yet many organisations insist on consistent brand colours across different markets. It could be that you’re losing conversions by not accounting for cultural variations in the associations of colours in different countries .

Brands that align design and culture are normally more successful because their websites and apps are designed according to local cultural preferences rather than trying to impose the cultural norms and traditions of the brand’s home country.

In his book, Drunk Tank Pink, the American psychologist Adam Alter suggests that colours have meaning partly because they are associated with practically every pleasant and unpleasant object on Earth.

As a result our interpretation and preference for colours is strongly influenced by factors such as language, climate, gender, age and context. For example, the way languages categorise colours are not universal (e.g. Russian has two words for blue). Some colours are also used to express moods and feelings in some languages which inevitably affects how we perceive them.

If you’re curious, you can see which colours mean what here: Colours Across Cultures, Translating colours in interactive marketing communications by Global Propaganda.

Colours Mean Different Things to Different Cultures: 

In 1999 American researchers investigated how people from 8 countries perceive different colours. The analysis allowed researchers to generate a colour spectrum of meaning with red at one end and the blue-green-white cluster at the other end. Red is associated with hot/vibrant and the spectrum gradually moves towards calm/gentle/peaceful that the blue-green-white cluster is associated with.

Testing by international search and conversion agency Oban International suggests that cultural preferences for particular colours may also be driven by strong national associations and brand identities taken from individual sectors of the economy. Joe Doveton tested this hypothesis in Germany where brands such as Siemens, Mercedes and Audi are renowned for promoting engineering excellence as an integral part of their USP.

In tests for global air charter company Chapman Freeborn, they discovered a strong preference among German visitors for a silver button and a big dislike for a red button. Silver in Germany is synonymous with the Mercedes brand. Red may be associated with the old Soviet Union which at one time controlled East Germany. Again, this is why it is important to align design and culture.

Germany – Silver CTA/UK – Red CTA

image of Chapman-Freeborn.com homepage for Germany and UK with different CTA colours according to cultural preferences - design and culture

Use Localised Copy For Personalisation & Conversions:

Your value proposition is the most important element of your communication. The danger of using direct translation, especially for keywords, is that you will end up with copy that uses words out of context. The term “mobile” for example is fine in the UK, but people in the United States refer to mobile phones as “cellphones”. In Germany people use a different word again, “handy” and in France “portable”. The same term can also have multiple meanings in a language.

Understanding your customers is the best way to craft a great value proposition. However, your customers preferences’ will likely vary according to their culture. This is where you can use qualitative research to learn new insights and validate or challenge your existing ideas on how to improve conversions by aligning design and culture. You can then use A/B testing to evaluate different copy and images to identify the best performing messages.

Pro tip: use loanwords in your copy – they’re often left out of copy that is directly translated.

Fonts and Font Sizes:

Fonts often have visceral connotations behind them, and they often vary culture-to-culture. For example in the United States people relate Helvetica with the US Government and the IRS because it is commonly used on tax forms. This again demonstrates how design and culture can heavily influence how visitors view something as simple as a font.

Another example is how logographic language cultures use smaller, tightly packed text, confusing American readers. That’s because the language itself (e.g. Japanese) communicates a lot of information in just a few characters. Further, as Japanese doesn’t have italics or capital letters it is more difficult to create a clear visual hierarchy to organise information. So web designers often use decoration or graphic text to create emphasis where required.

For more on font psychology read this post by Alex Bulat.

Further complicating the issue of conversion across cultures, we have the distinction between bi-culturalism and multi-culturalism.

Bi-Culturalism and Multi-Culturalism: 

In the 2010 US Census over 6 percent of the population (over 2 million citizens) associated themselves with two or more ethnic or racial groups. Psychologists have discovered that bi-cultural people engage in frame switching, which means they can perceive the world through a different cultural lens depending upon the context of the situation and whether it reminds them of one culture or another.

So we can’t assume people coming from a different culture (e.g. Vietnamese Americans), will retain all the same preferences as individuals still living in their native culture. Web analytics may help you identify potential bi-cultural visitors.

Even across monocultural people there are strong contrasts in values and behaviour. The concept of honour tends to be more strongly associated with East Asia than the West. However, even in the United States honour is known to influence behaviour more in southern and western states than in the northern states. All this goes back to understanding your customer’s journey and aligning design and culture.

Other Considerations: 

Technology:

We can’t assume people will all be using the same technology in different geographical markets.

  • In Africa, for example, mobile commerce is much more established in certain sectors, (e.g. banking), because of a lack of fixed-line internet infrastructure.
  • For various reasons, iPhones have failed to establish a large market share in Spain, so Android and other operating systems more relevant to the Spanish mobile user.
Browsers:

Browser usage is also fragmented at an international level.

For more detailed information check out data from StatCounter.

Search Engines:

The major search engines use different algorithms for different countries and languages.

  • Although Google has increased its penetration in Russia, the local search engine, Yandex, is still an important search engine in the country.
  • In China, Google is not used at all, with Baidu being the top search engine with a market share of over 50%.

For more details of search engine market share see an article from extraDigital.

Payment Methods:

There are different payment methods. This means having a single cashier or ecommerce check-out design is unlikely to be optimal for a global audience.

  • In Europe, credit card penetration is much lower in Germany, Netherlands and Poland. For cultural reasons many Germans dislike credit and as a result the single most popular payment method (38%) is (ELV).
  • In the Netherlands a similar payment option, iDeal, is the referred method of payment for 55% of online shoppers.
  • Security-conscious Russians still like to use cash as a quarter of them use Qiwi to make online payments. This allows people to deposit cash into ATM style machines and then make payments online without having to transmit sensitive bank or credit card numbers over the internet.
  • Even in Turkey where credit and debit cards are very popular (87% market share) you won’t see Visa or MasterCard on most cards.
  • In Islamic countries Sharia law prohibits the acceptance of interest or fees for loans and so potentially limits the use of credit cards and other Western style financial products. The expansion of Islamic banking is making e-commerce more accessible to Muslims, but again adds to the complexity of online payment processes and demonstrates the importance of aligning design and culture.

6. Culture Implications for Optimisation:

Websites that use identical content and colours across all countries and cultures are at a major disadvantage because of the impact diversity of values, norms and other differences have on how we interpret the world. Here are the key takeaways for optimising a global website by aligning design and culture:

1. Research competitors:

To obtain a feel for whether your website is out of sync with the local culture conduct a competitor review of sites in the country concerned. This will give you the opportunity to look for similarities across your competitors’ websites that may indicate areas for A/B testing. (Just don’t copy your competitors; they don’t know what they’re doing either).

2. Focus on colours and words:

There is sometimes a tendency to focus on purely transactional matters (e.g. payment methods) when adapting websites for an international audience. This is a mistake and I would recommend paying attention to your website colours and the language you use to ensure the site conforms to local preferences.

3. Use qualitative research to get a local perspective:

In addition, use local contacts, such as colleagues and suppliers to obtain feedback on your site in different countries. I’m surprised how often I come across websites and apps where it is obvious that a key page or journey has not had input from someone in the targeted country. Don’t fall into this trap as it is dangerous to rely solely on website experts who are not embedded in local culture.

4. Consider cultural dimensions and context:

Utilise the country comparison tool to understand the cultural dimensions of your audience and how contextualised your website needs to be. The more your website can reflect local cultural preferences the more likely your visitors will happily engage and interact with your content. However, use testing to ensure you validate your hypothesis as there needs to be a return on investment as otherwise you may be better spending your money elsewhere.

4. Serve targeted content:

A/B testing is also ideal for evaluating the use of dynamic content to target images and messages that are responsive to how different cultures see the world. This allows you to increase conversions by using geo-targeting (i.e. based upon country IP address) or other cultural indicators and let the data guide your website design.

Singapore/Chile

Image of Hertz homepage for Singapore and Chile - design and culture
Source: Hertz.com

Both of these Hertz websites are on the same domain and root directory (Hertz.com), but have different languages, visuals and appropriate text.

5. Analyse customer behaviour:

Cultural targeting has perhaps the greatest potential for your existing customers where you can track and analyse their behaviour over time. Use your customer database to analyse behaviour by cultural indicators to see if you can identify key cultural drivers to their behaviour. Alternatively try A/B testing personalisation based upon cultural differences to see what impact this has on your KPIs.

6. Multiculturalism:

Due to the increasing influence and spread of cultural preferences across the globe there are likely to be opportunities to segment by cultural indicators even in your home country. There are strong cultural and racial indicators, such as customer names, that you can utilise to segment your customers by and test the performance of targeted content.

Given the complexity of the human psyche and the pervasive power of cultural influences on our behaviour it is dangerous to assume anything when trying to improve website performance. Make A/B and multivariate testing your friend and guide in the multicultural jungle.

For more of our blogs visit conversion-uplift.co.uk/post/.

Featured image from Amazon – China