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

12 Must Read Digital Marketing Books

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Here are twelve brilliant digital marketing books that will give you insights into conversion rate optimisation, marketing, design, usability and the psychology of visitor behaviour. These are excellent books for helping you define your strategy and identify insights to develop hypothesis for website/app and landing page design and optimisation.

The first three books are specifically on conversion optimisation. Each book brings a different perspective to the subject.

1. Website Optimization – By Rich Page

When I received this book in the post I thought it looked a bit dry and basic. It sat on my shelf for a few months. The more I read whole chapters I realised that this is a gold mine. It’s one of the most detailed digital marketing books you will ever read.

It is crammed full of ideas on what you should be testing and is especially good for outlining a systematic process for optimisation. Without a consistent and data driven approach to optimisation you will struggle to maintain focus. You will certainly not achieve an optimal return on investment (RIO) from your A/B tests and Multivariate Testing (MVT) tools.

Rich explains everything from investigating your analytics, and choosing tools, to putting together a testing plan for a page or journey. As well as being great for understanding the process of optimization there is a lot of detail on what to test. You can tell that Rich has a massive amount of experience. He holds nothing back to help you identify areas and approaches to testing. I found this book particularly good for developing check lists of how and what to test.

Website Optimization: An Hour a Day

2. You Should Test That! – By Chris Goward

Chris Goward founded website optimisation specialists Widerfunnel and he shares their approach. Despite it being a fairly thick book I found I struggled to stop reading it. Chris brings insights from a wide range of sources and has a holistic approach to the process.

This is the most strategic of digital marketing books I’ve come across. It has a brilliant chapter on persuasion and models of human behaviour. The Lift Model that Widerfunnel employ has been widely adopted as best practice for heuristic evaluation of a page.

Chris’ book is also brilliant for dealing with objections to testing and how to engage people in the process of optimisation. There is also a huge number of examples of tests and many vivid images to illustrate the nature of these experiments. I found Chris is particularly good at advising how to develop strong hypothesis before you go ahead with an experiment. A weak hypothesis is often the cause of many unsuccessful tests. Although we learn from our failures you do need a regular stream of successful tests to convince your stakeholders to maintain their support.

You Should Test That: Conversion Optimization for More Leads, Sales and Profit or The Art and Science of Optimized Marketing

3. Landing Page Optimization – By Tim Ash, Rich Page and Maura Ginty

A classic digital marketing book, as landing pages are the bread and butter of our trade. This book is a comprehensive guide on how to optimise the beginning of your funnel. Visitors can land on a multitude of pages, so it is important to seek to optimise them all.

Many people think that landing pages are simple to design and optimize. When you read the book you will get a better appreciation of how complex this process is. Tim and his co-authors take you thorough and systematic process of optimization.

This book is much more than landing page optimisation. Sure, it covers the seven deadly sins of landing page design. But it also outlines Tim’s conversion Ninja toolbox that helps you diagnose problems, identify psychological mismatches and fixing site problems. Other chapters include the strategy of what to test and the mechanics of testing. The book also has many practical examples and ideas for your testing roadmap.

Landing Page Optimization: The Definitive Guide to Testing and Tuning for Conversions

4. Brainfluence – By Roger Dooley

95% of our thoughts, emotions and learning occur in our subconscious mind. Research suggests that our subconscious mind has often made a decision well before we become consciously aware.

Roger helps us understand how our brain works and how to translate this into improving our marketing and products. He has carefully extracted and summarised the insights from hundreds of interesting pieces of research on how to influence people using key behavioural drivers.

This is one of the easiest digital marketing books to read. It’s a great book for marketers who want a short-cut to understanding what can influence our brain and how this can be translated into marketing strategies.

5. How to Get People to Do Stuff – By Susan

Roger recommended this book to me over Twitter. The book is structured around seven drivers of behaviour:

  1. The need to belong
  2. Habits
  3. The power of stories
  4. Carrots and sticks
  5. Instincts
  6. The desire for mastery
  7. Tricks of the mind

It’s one of those books that you find difficult to put down as it’s packed full of interesting and useful insights. It’s also easy to dip into to find a particular topic. After each insight has been explained there is short summary of the related strategy, which assists you in digesting the important learning from each sub-section. It makes it easy for you to pinpoint relevant content if you want to return at a later date.

How to Get People to Do Stuff: Master the Art and Science of Persuasion and Motivation

6. Don’t Make Me Think – By Steve Krug

One of the most well known digital marketing books you will come across. It is a relatively short book to make it easily digestible for people who are involved in building websites and apps. Steve’s mantra is about keeping it simple and focuses on a few key things that everyone should know.

The book begins by setting out a few guiding principles of web usability, “it should be self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory”. This might appear basic advice, but it is amazing how often simple principles are forgotten. The advice given is an excellent understanding of how people browse the web and how they interact with content and navigation elements.

An important aim of the book is to make the reader understand that usability testing does not need to be complicated. Steve is a great believer in doing-it-yourself. One usability test is 100% better than none. He also makes a critical point that “Focus groups are not usability tests”. Focus groups are a potentially misleading method of research. They are inappropriate for evaluating the usability of a web page or user journey.

Don't Make Me Think

7. Designing with the Mind in Mind – By Jeff Johnson

This is an excellent book for you to grasp they key principles of how and why people interact with user interfaces. The book has useful statistics and insights that support the design rules outlined.

The first chapter “We Perceive What We Expect” begins with how perception is biased by experience, current context and goals. Jeff explains how our brain filters our perceptions accordingly and the importance of considering mental processing when designing a user interface.

Other topics covered in the book include how our vision is optimised to see structure, limits on attention shape our thoughts and actions and much more.

8. Drunk Tank Pink – By Adam Alter

If you are interested in understanding the psychology of how human decision making is subconsciously influenced by our names, labels, colours, etc… this is a brilliant book to read. You will be shocked by how our behaviour and perceptions are affected in obscure and surprising ways.

Adam provides some fascinating and useful insights that can be used to challenge design thinking and develop hypothesis for A/B testing new customer experiences. All too often we assume that most people view the world in the same way that we do, but this book explodes that myth. Perhaps not the most obvious of digital marketing books but sometimes I think you need to look outside your topic of interest to find new and useful insights.

9. Influence – By Robert Cialdini

This is another classic text and should be on any list of digital marketing books because it deals with psychological persuasion. The 6 principles of persuasion are now widely adopted by many digital marketers. There is a constant flow of articles based upon these psychological weapons.

  1. Reciprocation,
  2. Commitment and consistency,
  3. Social proof,
  4. Liking,
  5. Authority,
  6. Scarcity

However, the book is still worth reading as Cialdini uses detailed research to explain some ordinary and extraordinary cases of persuasion. Each individual principle is a complex construct that Cialdini carefully unwraps.

You will be shocked by the nature of some of the behaviour Cialdini uncovers. Many famous and infamous events are dissected and explained using Cialdini’s deep understanding of human psychology. The book is useful for generating ideas on how to make content more persuasive, but also how to avoid falling foul of people who are trying to manipulate you for their own personal gain.

10. How to Win Friends and Influence People – By Dale Carnegie

I’ve noticed this book on almost every reading list I have come across on social media. Given this was written over 70 years ago you might wonder why it is on a list of digital marketing books. Well, when I read it I was amazed at how informative and useful it is. These principles are applicable to online as well as offline marketing.

This book is a brilliant and practical guide to human behaviour and how to get the most out of people, whether you are trying to persuade or just motivate them. It is highly applicable to website optimization. Why should you treat people any different when they come to your site than you would if they turned up at the door to your office? I highly recommend this book to to improve all aspects of your life. I’m sure it will also help generate some powerful ideas for improving your website and how you communicate with your customers online.

11. Decoded – By Phil Barden

Phil Barden is a knowledgeable marketer who brings together the latest psychological and neuroscience research and combines it with his marketing expertise. This is a fascinating and highly practical review of what we now know about what drives people to buy products and brands. Although this not an obvious choice for digital marketing books it is an insightful read on the science of buyer behaviour.

Image of implicit goals

Source: Decode Marketing

From a marketing perspective his research into the 6 key implicit (psychological) goals that drive brand purchase is invaluable. The psychological goals outlined in the book offer an essential framework for positioning a brand and evaluating the relevance of proposed marketing communications. It challenges a lot of the myths created by listening to what consumers say are important to them. This gives you a reality check so that you can avoid some of the traps many marketers have fall into.

Decoded12. Herd – By Mark Earls

An excellent book for understanding our ‘herd instincts‘ and how far reaching and ingrained the influence of others is in driving our behaviour. This book explodes many myths about economics, word of mouth marketing, market research and human nature. A must read for all marketers and anyone interested in human behaviour. Mark is an experienced advertising executive and puts his research into context by offering practical advice on how to apply herd theory in a competitive business environment.

Herd - How to change mass behaviour by harnessing our true nature