Culturally Agnostic UX.

Designing a culturally agnostic UX.

By Bob Glaser, UX Designer ©2014
People generic silhouettes   When designing the UX for a MVP (minimum viable product) one of the questions you need to have on your “What I need to know list” what is the initial audience demographic and what is the longer term demographic. For reasons of obvious practicality of business planning, these need to be two separate questions and should have two different answers. If the answers aren’t different, then you might as well be throwing darts at board to determining a marketing strategy. I am, of course, oversimplifying somewhat, but not too much.

The reason for these questions is that the fundamental UX structure should be culturally agnostic. There may seem to be an exception when both the user and task feedback of the UI are highly restricted to a specific and typically advanced content/skill set. (e.g. neurosurgeons.) The issue with that it that it still leaves out language as an attribute.

I don’t want to promote the idea that the UX itself is culturally agnostic because that would produce an experience that is useful to few if any. Also, if a product culturally driven and not applicable to anyone outside the target demographic, then it cultural agnosticism is far less important, but shouldn’t be dismissed completely for issues of innovation that may be repurposed later. (I‘ll address this later.) Often these types of applications or products are meant to address an issue that is specific to both a specific demographic that is also geographically specific as well.

Part of this issue also revolves around the common issue of assumption (that I’ve addressed previously.) Often when we are designing UX and IxD (not to mention content and platforms) we have biases that assign the attribute of “common knowledge” to, or worse “Common Sense”. (I could quote any one of myriad quotes about Common Sense but you can just click on the link to see for yourself.) Now in the fairness of full disclosure, this article which I write in my native US English, and the link just provided also being in English, is not culturally agnostic. Such is the limitation of my writing, but I can hope that someone who is fluent in both English and any other language who see’s it useful, is welcome to translate it. If I make an assumption based on my perspective of American culture here in Silicon Valley, you are free to ask me to clarify it or suggest wording that is more encompassing.

Transitioning to a culturally agnostic process.

Do it incrementally.

It is important to realize that it is unrealistic to expect to switch to an agnostic approach because biases can’t be ‘turned off’ cleanly or suddenly outside of a theoretical environment. Humans are affected by emotion no matter how scientific and pragmatic they may be.

The first thing that you want to do is to add an agnostic filtering step to your UX/IxD development cycle. Initially, this should focus solely on cultural biases that are presumed in the design and architecture. For example, if you have access to employees who spent a significant portion of their lives in a cultural situation that is different than yours, let them review it with the idea that they should focus on anything that you presumed in the design.

Example, you could be gathering inaccurate data by providing a question that looks like this.
I am a:
□ type A
□ type B
□ Decline to answer.

This creates a surprisingly inaccurate response. The reason is the presumption that A and B encompass everyone and that the third choice is taken literally. When the user defines themselves as neither A or B and the generic but all encompassing ‘other’ is not an option, then none of the answers is relevant. They are forced to choose an answer that is inaccurate an in a way that you can’t asses when collecting data. I know from my own personal experience in these types of questions, that I usually am somewhat angered by the fact that I don’t even have the choice of ‘other’. Having to choose ‘Decline to answer’ clearly sounds like I don’t want to tell you or let you know, when in fact, that is opposite of what I’m thinking but there’s no option to express that.

These types of questions can anger the user because they can address partnership status, sex, race, religion, nationality, even accessibility descriptions. In the US diversity questions that an employer is required to ask is a good example of this, but the employer has no control of this as it is a federal requirement. The arbitrary clumping of groups isn’t a bother to anyone who perfectly fits the available choices, but the remainder of the population has to choose between the ‘closest’ but inaccurate designation in some arbitrary way or choose “Decline” with its potentially variable inaccurate inferences.

Now, outside of government mandated questions, the UX designer can focus on those areas that they have control. There may even be the option of diffusing the government requirements by distancing the relevant questions from the government mandated questions to both improve accuracy as well as compliance and accuracy. The options here are numerous and beyond the scope of this article.

You can see that the process step is well integrated when you’ve gone through at least two release cycles and all of the stakeholders can see empirical results that have been influenced by this approach. After you have integrated this step into the process (and expect this to take time) and all the teams are acclimated to it, you can evolve to the next step:

Incorporating cultural agnosticism into the complete process.

Once team members of the step of checking for cultural agnosticism into the process, it is then time to view it as checkpoint line item that appears in every iteration in the development process. The big return here is that other groups can see how this approach can be applied to other areas outside of UX and IxD such as product management, marketing, QA, even engineering and R&D and sales.

It is really important that the prior incremental approach is full accepted or else you’re likely to hit a wall with this. The full adoption of the incremental model will create evangelists for the broader implementation that will make adoption easier and more obvious without UX/IxD being a lone grandstander looking for validation and attention.

Try to include as culturally diverse group as possible and if you can’t get that many in person, you can always go online and ask. In cases like this, always go to the source rather than what you may consider close enough.

For example a Chinese perspective should never be generalized as the Asian Perspective. It is the Chinese Perspective. Even in that there may differences such as Mandarin vs Cantonese perspective.

To make the point using the different taxonomic perspective of gender. There is more than the sex perspective of the subject. There is gender, gender identity, and sexual preference. If any of these are relevant to your UX design, then you need granular differentiation since they are not interchangeable in any way. Clumping them together is likely to give you inaccurate feedback at best and at worst, will anger the subject.

80/20 rule in cultural agnosticism.

As Don Norman says, “At some point you have to stop and release the product.”[1] I realize that the previous section on complete integration can set up for a level of granularity that could create an endless cycle of iteration and scope creep that can have a negative effect on schedule and budget. Here is where managing implementation by narrowing focus for the “Minimum” aspect of MVP. The important aspect to remember is that you paint yourself into a cultural corner that forces you to reinvent the UX Design with each new version, particularly when that new version is meant to have a primary focus on expanding the market of the product.

In the end, when you design the UX with a culturally agnostic approach, you will have a foundational design that becomes portable across cultures through easier and more effective localization.

[1] UX Hacking: An Evening with Don Norman 17TH DEC 2013 AT STANFORD GSB


About rrglaser

Sr. UX Architect/director, with avocations in music, science & technology, fine arts & culture. Finding ways of connecting disparate ideas, facts, and concepts into solving problems. In the last 30 years, I have worked at (among others) various Ad agencies, Xerox, Pitney Bowes, Shortel, Philips (medical imaging R&D), CloudCar. I prefer to stand at the vertex of art, technology, culture and design since there is the where the best view of the future exists. "Always learning, since I can't apply what I haven't yet learned."
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