Four Steps For Effective Cross-Cultural Website Design

written by aext on March 22, 2010 in Web Design with 34 comments

The Internet has made the world a smaller place, especially when it comes to online business – it’s now just as easy for a company to attract customers in Nairobi as it is in Nevada. This technological globalization doesn’t translate to cultural homogeneity, though–while you might be able to find a McDonalds in nearly every city on earth now, that doesn’t mean that every city eats and thinks and shops in the same way.

Every national and cultural group in the world retains its own language, its own metaphors, its own identity, and thus, its own way of shopping.


This is an important point to note for online businesses looking to trade to different cultural groups, as there’s a wealth of research proving that failure to localise product marketing inevitably results in the product’s failure. Research papers aside, though, it seems self-evident–people shop in their own language and their own way, and if you try to sell to them in your language and in your way, they’re not going to buy your product.

So we can take it as a given that if you’re planning to build a website to appeal to a global audience, you’re going to need localised versions of that site for each target market — a site for the UK, one for the USA, one for India, one for China, etc. Herein lies the difficulty for website and interaction designers: how to implement a framework to make sure that each different site is appropriate for its target market. If you’re coming from a Western point of view, you’ll know what the viewers for your UK and USA sites want, but how can you figure out what’s needed for the Chinese site?

The academics at the Interaction Design Centre of Middlesex University must have been puzzling over the same issue, because they put together a report on “Cross-cultural Interface Design Strategy” which outlines a handy four-step guide to making sure your website is appropriate for any cultural group. It’s a rather long and terribly dry report, though, so we’ve picked out the top tips and laid them out for you below.

1. Investigation

Step one is to do your research into how your target market’s culture affects their consumer behaviour. Conduct an ethnographic investigation — visit the country, view how they shop and what they like, study products which have been successful in the market and see how you can adopt their strategies. Do your market research by surveying potential customers from your target market and interviewing cultural experts. Finally, conduct an audit of successful websites catering to your target market to find out what they’re doing right and wrong.

2. Translation

Use your findings to create a customer profile for your localised site and a comparison model between your base site and your local site. You should now have a definitive idea of what’s required for your local site, so you can build a beta version and have it tested by users from the target market. Take care to ensure your language translation is on par with your design — only ever use professional translators working into their native language, to ensure the subtleties of idiom are captured.

3. Implementation

You can now implement all of your target market research by launching a culturally sensitive base site partnered with your specialised local sites. The fun doesn’t stop there though! Once the site is live, you’ll want to have it tested again by users from each of your separate target markets via questionnaires and usability studies to make sure all your hard work isn’t going to waste.

4. Evaluation

Finally, collate all these results and evaluate the success of each of your localised sites. Do they need tweaking, or have you got the formula just right? Keep abreast of cultural and current affairs in each of your target markets, as a change in circumstances may necessitate changes to your site. For instance, a change in the country’s economic fortunes might necessitate a rewrite of your copy, or a natural disaster might inspire an online appeal.

It’s not all about the language


As you can see, marketing online to different cultural groups is far more than a simple matter of changing the language, dates and currency, but for those companies willing to invest the time and energy in their global business, the financial benefits will be truly out of this world.