The Impact of Cultural Diversity on Web Site Design

By Cook, Jack; Finlayson, Mike | SAM Advanced Management Journal, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Cultural Diversity on Web Site Design


Cook, Jack, Finlayson, Mike, SAM Advanced Management Journal


Any organization planning to do business on the Web must pay attention to the cultural attributes of the target audience. What design elements will attract? What may offend? A good place to start before designing a site is with the five cultural dimensions defined by Geert Hofstede: power distance [distribution]; individualism versus collectivism; masculinity versus femininity; uncertainty avoidance; and long-versus short-term orientation. The relative presence or absence of these attributes in a society as indicated in a country-by-country rating chart, can guide site design.

Introduction

Close your eyes. Envision a succulent two-inch slab of dripping-rare prime rib. Is your stomach rumbling, your appetite peaked, or are you offended since your fundamental belief system precludes harming animals? A single image or idea can create many different feelings or interpretations. Consider the diversity within your own organization, campus, or community. Does everyone agree on what is appropriate, acceptable, appetizing, or attractive? An image pleasing to one group of people may alienate or even seriously offend many others. Something as simple as color may elicit dramatically different mental images. For example, in the U.S., white is generally associated with purity, but in Japan it represents death (Chau et al, 2002).

Herein lays the danger inherent in cross-cultural Web site design: the audience must be considered. Good designers know that ascertaining the needs and preferences of people who are or will be the users of a Web site, database, or fishing pole, is critical to success. The apparent simplicity of this task belies its daunting nature. The complexity of defining user preferences can be appreciated by considering the vast number of sub-groups composing the global community, each with its unique array of tastes, preferences, and mores. Failure at this rudimentary level will nullify even the boldest and brightest design ideas.

In 2005, roughly 75% of the Internet population is estimated to be non-English speaking (Marcus, 2003). Nevertheless, language differences are not the real challenge, as spoken language is an easy hurdle to overcome. No imagination or deep intellectual discovery is necessary for linguistic translations. Most Web browsers are equipped with multi-lingual support. A more vital and infinitely more delicate task is to understand the unspoken language of a culture, which is deeply rooted in a system of values, beliefs, and expectations that ultimately shapes a users' preferences.

Culture is not defined merely by ethnicity and geographic locale. In truth, most nation-states consist of many different cultures. Imagine how a native of rural Louisiana perceives the fast-paced atmosphere of Manhattan or the grid locked freeways of Los Angeles. Audiences may be similar in age, location, gender, and other demographics, but their preferences and predilections can be drastically different (Calongne, 2001). These observations only begin to demonstrate the conundrum underlying the design of an appealing global Web site. From a management perspective, the importance of understanding the impact of cultural rifts on Web site usability is grossly underemphasized. "Developers face an uphill battle to get budgets for culture-oriented research and development accepted" (Marcus, 2002, p. 26).

Competition on the Internet is fierce. Consumer trust is not easy to secure. The trend toward globalization makes it critical for any firm aspiring to create or maintain a World Wide Web presence not only to educate itself about cultural semantics, but also to aggressively incorporate the preferences of its target audience into the design. Adapting sites to the multiplicity of cultural biases requires time and dedicated resources, but the potential benefits of increased Web usage, market expansion, and customer satisfaction more than justifies this investment. Casual surfers are significantly more likely to become active visitors, or loyal customers, if a site is consistent with their cultural expectations. …

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