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Copyright 2003 CMP Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.  

March 1, 2003


LENGTH: 2574 words

HEADLINE: Cultural habits invariably bias the design of global Web sites and the way users react to them. Before you go global, learn about the dimensions of culture. -- Are You Cultured? -- GLOBAL WEB DESIGN AND THE DIMENSIONS OF CULTURE

BYLINE: Aaron Marcus

When a company decides to globalize its site, the Web team often learns the taboo colors and appropriate dress codes of a given culture, translates the text, and launches. But cultural differences run deeper than visual appearance or language; they reflect strong values. Rarely do globalized sites incorporate the nuances of a culture's social hierarchy, individualism, gender roles, time-orientation, or truth-seeking attributes.

Scholars have studied cultures thoroughly for years and have published several classic theories, many of which are not well known in the Web design community. The attributes mentioned above were set forth in 1997 by Geert Hofstede in Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (McGraw-Hill). They may sound rather academic, but under-standing them is the key to successfully globalizing your site, products, or services.

culture gurus

When Hofstede published Cultures and Organizations, his focus was not on the definition of culture as "refinement" of a people, but rather on essential patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. This makes his work especially useful when applied to site design and usability. Hofstede identified five dimensions of culture:

1. Power distance is the extent to which people accept social hierarchies and the power gaps they create.

2. Individualism versus collectivism is the orientation to personal or group achievements.

3. Masculinity versus femininity is the degree to which a culture separates or does not separate traditional gender roles.

4. Uncertainty avoidance is the degree to which a culture is uncomfortable with ambiguity and seeks certainty.

5. Long-term time orientation is a culture's orientation to Confucian thought, which emphasizes patience.

Hofstede analyzed fifty-three countries, rating them on each dimension, with values varying from zero to one hundred. This index is an extremely useful guide to understanding cultures of interest to your business.

1. who's first, who's last

Power distance refers to the extent to which a culture expects and accepts unequal power distribution amongst individuals. Whether a culture is high power-distance or low power-distance can have a profound impact on your UI design.

High power-distance countries tend to have centralized political power and exhibit tall hierarchies in organizations, with large differences in salary and status. Subordinates may view an employer as a benevolent dictator and are expected to do as they are told. Inequalities are expected, and may even be desired. People in low power-distance cultures expect and desire equality.

A culture's concept of power distance should determine the following aspects of UI design for the Web:

- Access to information: highly versus less-highly structured.

- Hierarchies in mental models: tall versus shallow.

- Emphasis on social and moral order: (e.g., nationalism or religion) significant or frequent versus minor or infrequent use of morals as a motivator.

- Focus on expertise: (authority, experts, official stamps, or logos) strong versus weak.

- Social prominence: leaders versus citizens, customers, or employees.

- Importance of security: restrictions/barriers to access; use of certificates; explicit, enforced, and frequent restrictions on users' mobility versus transparent, integrated, and implicit freedom to roam.

- Social roles used to organize information: (e.g., a managers' section visible to all but sealed off from non-managers) versus less-obvious references to social roles, perks, and authority.

These power-distance differences can be illustrated on the Web by examining university Web sites from two very different countries (see Figure 1). The Universidad Tecnologica de Panama ( is located in a country with a high power-distance rating of 95. The Technische Universiteit Eindhoven ( is located in the Netherlands, with a rating of 38.

Note the differences in the two sites. The Panama Web site features more axial symmetry, a focus on the official university seal at the top left, and photographs of monumental buildings devoid of people.

The Dutch Web site features an emphasis on students (not leaders), much stronger use of asymmetric layout, and photos of both genders. This site emphasizes the status of students as consumers and equals.

2. but enough about me

Individualism in cultures implies loose ties; everyone is expected to look after themselves or their immediate family, but no one else. Collectivism implies that people are integrated from birth into strong, cohesive groups that protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. Based on this definition, individualism and collectivism may influence the following aspects of UI and Web design:

- Personal achievement: maximized (expect the extraordinary) for individualist cultures versus underplayed (in favor of group achievement) for collectivist cultures.

- Success: demonstrated through materialism and consumerism versus achievement of social-political agendas.

- Rhetoric: controversial or argumentative speech and tolerance or encouragement of extreme claims versus official slogans and minimizing hyperbole or controversy.

- Imagery: youth versus aged, experienced, wise leaders; activities versus states of being.

- Social prominence: individuals emphasized versus simple images of products or of groups.

- Goals: extrinsic, personal goals emphasized ("you can lose weight so you can look good") versus intrinsic or official group goals ("fight overpopulation, have fewer children").

- Morality: emphasis on truth versus relationships.

- Change: emphasis on what is new and unique versus tradition and history.

You can see these cultural differences in action by examining national park Web sites from two countries with very different indices. The National Park Web site ( is based in the U.S., which has the highest individualism rating at 91. The Web site from the National Parks of Panama ( ) is based out of a country with a much more collectivist rating of 11.

The U.S. site emphasizes the visitor and his or her goals, uses the slogan "Experience Your America" in the window title, shows three pictures of individuals, emphasizes "your National Parks Pass," and labels one button "Visit Your Parks."

The Panama site emphasizes nature, features a large image of leaves taking up one-third of the main content area, downplays the individual tourist, and uses another one-third of the main content area for text that emphasizes the contents of the forests and parks.

3. gender neutral?

For our purposes, the definitions of "femininity" and "masculinity" refer to gender roles, not physical characteristics. Hofstede focuses on a masculine orientation to assertiveness, competition, and "toughness," and a feminine orientation to home and children, people, and "tenderness." In feminine cultures, the distinctions tend to collapse or overlap; both men and women exhibit modesty, tenderness, and a concern with quality of life as well as material success. In masculine cultures, gender roles are distinct and strongly maintained.

Based on Hofstede's definitions, masculinity and femininity emphasize different aspects of UI Web design. Design for masculine cultures should focus on the following:

- Distinctions: clearly defined and disparate roles divided by gender, family, or age.

- Accomplishment: tasks, roles, and mastery, with quick results for finite tasks.

- Control: navigation oriented to exploration and user control.

- Sport: games and competition used to gain user attention.

- Utility: graphics, sound, and animation used for utilitarian purposes.

Feminine cultures would emphasize the following user-interface elements:

- Ambiguity: blurring of gender roles.

- Cooperation: teamwork, exchange, and support, rather than mastery and winning.

- Artistry: poetry, aesthetics, and unifying values used to gain attention.

Japan has the highest gender-difference rating at 95, and Excite has a special site for Japanese women ( The women's site emphasizes content about cosmetics or cooking and features a pink color scheme. The regular site ( ) focuses on "general" users (men), and emphasizes business, stocks, and cars. The United States has a much less masculine culture index of 62. Excite's U.S. Web site (, does not feature a separate women's site.

4. anxiety attack

Uncertainty makes many people anxious. Cultures vary in their avoidance of uncertainty, creating different rituals and values regarding formality, punctuality, legal and religious requirements, and tolerance of ambiguity. When designing for high uncertainty-avoidance cultures, emphasize the following:

- Simplicity: Limit choices and amounts of data.

- Results: Let users know the implications of their actions before they do anything.

- Comfort: Mental models should focus on reducing user error.

- Clarity: Design characteristics (color, typography, sound, and so on) support navigation and reduce ambiguity.

Low uncertainty-avoidance cultures would emphasize the reverse:

- Depth: Allow for wandering and risk-taking, and avoid over-protecting users.

- Choice: Maximize options and content.

- Surprises: Less control of navigation, with links opening new windows and leading away from the original location.

- Help system: Focus on a content index as opposed to task-oriented procedures.

- Variety: Coding of color, typography, and sound would focus on maximizing information (avoid redundant coding).

The Sabena Airlines Web site ( ), based in Belgium, and the British Airways Web site ( ), based in the United Kingdom, illustrate the results of uncertainty avoidance differences (Figure 2). Both sites have a primary travel booking area with approximately the same number of selectable items (nineteen versus sixteen). However, Belgium has an uncertainty avoidance rating of 94, the highest of the cultures studied. You'll note that the Sabena Airlines site has a home page with very simple, clear layout and limited choices outside of the booking area. The United Kingdom has a rating of 35, and the British Airways site has much more complex content and more than twice the choices. What's more, user options are located in multiple groupings with a variety of input and appearance characteristics.

5. a little patience

Hofstede's fifth dimension, long-term time orientation, plays an important role in many Asian countries because of their reliance on Confucian philosophy over many thousands of years. This philosophy states that a stable society requires unequal relations, and that the family is the prototype of all social organizations. Virtuous behavior to others means treating them as you would like to be treated, and virtuous behavior at work means trying to acquire skills and education, working hard, persevering, being frugal, and patient.

Hofstede compared only twenty-three countries for this time-orientation dimension.

According to Hofstede and other analysts, Eastern countries seem more oriented toward the practice of and the desire for virtuous behavior, while Western countries seem more oriented toward belief and the search for truth.

Based on this definition, countries favoring long-term time orientation would emphasize the following:

- Value: Content focused on practice and practical value.

- Credibility: Personal relationships as a source of information.

- Investment: Patience in achieving results and goals.

Countries favoring short-term time orientation would emphasize the contrary:

- Certainty: Content focused on truth and close-held beliefs.

- Structure: Rules as a source of information and credibility.

- Urgency: Desire for immediate results and achievement of goals.

Examine two versions of corporate Web sites developed for countries with different long-term time orientation values. Pakistan has a rating of zero, and the Siemens Web site ( ), shows a typical Western corporate layout-influenced by Siemens's German corporate headquarters-that emphasizes crisp, clean, functional design and text aimed at achieving goals quickly. The version for China ( ), which has a value of 118, typically uses more pictures of people, emphasizing personal relationships.

what's more

This review of cultural dimensions raises some critical questions about how to best globalize a site:

- Should online teachers and trainers act as a friend or guru?

- What motivations should you offer: money, fame, honor, or achievement?

- What role exists for personal versus group opinions?

- What role should community values play in individualist versus collectivist cultures?

- How does the objective of distance learning change in individualist versus collectivist cultures?

- Should Web sites focus on tradition, skills, expertise, or earning power?

- How would job sites differ in individualist versus collectivist cultures?

- Should you develop different sites for men and women?

- How well is advertising hyperbole tolerated?

- How is ambiguity received?

- What differences might permeate Western versus Eastern Web sites in regard to truth versus virtuous practice?

the numbers

English speaking countries constitute 8 percent of the world's population, but by 2005, approximately 75 percent of Internet users will be non-English speaking. Already, 80 percent of corporate Web sites in Europe offer more languages than English even though launching multi-language site portals with a dozen or more European languages is a significant burden to operations. Of course, culture is more than language.

Consider cross-cultural issues earlier in your planning stages. Provide developers with checklists, guidelines, and other tools to assist them in their phases of analysis, design, and evaluation.

Understanding culture dimensions and how they relate to user-interface design components, as well as to other dimensions such as trust or intelligence, may help designers make better decisions about usability, aesthetics, and emotional experience.

Thinking about how culture affects Web design, from the developer's and the viewer's perspective is just the beginning.

A new universe of possibilities, challenges, and achievements awaits.

Aaron Marcus is President of Aaron Marcus and Associates, a Web user-interface design, usability analysis, and consulting firm. He would like to acknowledge the assistance of co-author Professor Emilie Gould for her assistance in contributing to and editing earlier versions of this article.

Copyright (c) 2003 CMP Media LLC

LOAD-DATE: March 4, 2003