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UX & Design

Catering to international or local audiences: How does culture affect your website design?

Do you need more than one website to serve your audiences? And how does the culture of your target audience affect design and content choices? We explore the cultural factors to consider when embarking on designing a new website.

Defining culture

What comes to mind when you think of culture? Is it geography, similar likes, background, language, food? Culture can be defined as a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, conventions and practices, social forms and material traits of a group which create patterns of meaning. With the rise and development of a global market, considering how regional cultural differences can shape the needs, desires, and expectations of various audience groups in various countries is becoming more and more important.

This leads to many organisations needing to decide whether to create a local website for one particular culture or region (localisation) or an international website that accommodates as many cultures and regions as possible (internationalisation).


Do you need a local or international website?

If you’re starting to think about designing a new website – or making improvements to an existing one – it’s essential to have a clear vision of exactly who and where your audiences are. This will inform whether you take an international or localised approach to the design.

You may also be considering your budgetary constraints, the business’s own culture, or other factors when deciding which path to go down. To help with this process, we suggest using the NNGroup's 5 factors impacting cross-cultural design as your prompts when making this decision. These include looking at the:

  • diversity within your target audiences
  • overall cultural differences between your audiences
  • the degree to which culture factors impact user behaviour
  • the brand image you want to create
  • the value of the potential market.

If your audience is broad, with diverse or conflicting cultural differences that affect how you market and provide services, then you are likely going to require multiple localised websites. On the other hand, if your audience is similar in their outlook, culture and diversity, with a similar market base and impact, then perhaps a more international, cross-culture website will suit your needs.


Using a cultural framework

Whether you’re taking an internationalised or localised approach, you’ll need to better understand how different cultural factors will affect your design choices – both with respect to content, and the overall ‘look and feel’ of your new site. Different cultures will have different requirements and needs based on their specific behaviour, values, and conventions, as defined by Geert Hofstede in 1980.

Hofstede created 6 cultural dimensions by gaining feedback from across the globe to gain a wide understanding of the ‘make up’ of cultures with differing behavioural differences. They not only serve as a framework for different cultures, but also delve deeper into aspects that make up an individual culture.

They provide a cornerstone framework on which to base decisions and are a useful starting point for looking at how to design for your chosen international or local culture/region website.

So, what are Hofstede’s dimensions and how do they translate to my website design?

Hofstede's 6 Cultural Dimensions
Individualism vs collectivism

This dimension looks at the extent to which people in the culture feel independent or interdependent. Do your target audience like to make independent choices, or are their choices shaped by their perceived role or position within a larger society or community?

How will this affect my website design?

If your target audience fall into the former camp, then it might be most effective to provide content tailored specifically to the individual. If they fall into the latter, you might consider creating a larger group narrative about what your product/service can provide, such as offering more reviews or a ‘top-rated’ aspect to your design.

Power distance

This dimension relates to the degree of acceptance and expectancy that leadership power is hierarchical and distributed unequally. Does your target audience respond positively to clear directives from figures of authority, or do they prefer to be given the opportunity to reach their own conclusions from information provided?

How will this affect my website design?

Target cultures with a high power distance are more likely to respond well to websites with a more ‘authoritative’ look and feel than those with a lower power distance. This extends both to visual elements of design and the types of content that will be most effective. This may be a choice between providing all information up front (high distance), or allowing your users to delve and make their own decisions (low distance). 

‘Masculinity’ vs ‘femininity’

This dimension examines the extent to which your target culture’s perceived gender roles are distinct. Gender roles are more distinct in a ‘masculine’ society; use of force, competition, and winning are important. Gender roles are less distinct in a ‘feminine’ society; people are expected to behave in a more collaborative and considerate way, and competition is not openly endorsed.

How will this affect my website design?

This might affect the overall impression or narrative you choose to create with your website. You may decide to show a ‘softer’, more consultative and nuanced side, such as through more evaluative content. Alternatively, you may choose an approach that is more direct or ‘strong’, in which the user journey is defined and linear.

Uncertainty avoidance

This dimension refers to the degree of tolerance your target culture has for the unknown. Some cultures will tend more towards openness to change and uncertainty, whereas others may be more likely to exhibit anxiety or distrust in the absence of fixed routine or predictability.

How will this affect my website design?

Audiences that have a low tolerance for the unknown will likely prefer to consume comprehensive content presented in a familiar and structured way. This ensures that users feel fully informed and able to make a balanced judgement against similar products/services before making any decisions. Audiences with a high tolerance for uncertainty are more likely to value digital experiences that offer a sense of novelty, spontaneity and individuality when compared with other similar competitor websites.

Long-term vs short-term orientation

This dimension concerns itself with whether a culture believes there is constant change in the word and therefore that preparing for the future is needed (long-term), or alternatively that the world is as it always has been, and that the moral compass of the past should be upheld for any decisions moving forward (short-term).

How will this affect my website design?

When designing for those cultures with a long-term orientation, you’ll want to engage users in future planning or thinking with your product/service. This provides your users with the opportunity to think about new ways to solve problems. Those with a short-term orientation might be better engaged by immediate actions that adhere to established expectations or norms.

Indulgence vs restraint

This final dimension is concerned with whether the people of the culture tend to behave more indulgently and are driven by desire, or whether they are more likely to be restrained and driven by a sense of duty.

How will this affect my website design?

For indulgent cultures, you’ll want to create emotive digital experiences that provide enjoyment and present your product or service as a ‘treat’. Restrained cultures will be better motivated by content, product and services that have a clearly defined functional or practical element.

Using Hofstede's framework

We would suggest you take a look at Hofstede’s website, which not only offers further information about this framework and dimensions, but also has a useful tool to allow you to compare and explore the various natures of different geographical cultures across the world.

For example, let’s imagine your website needs to serve audiences based in the UK, Canada and Japan. By using Hofstede’s tool, it’s easy to see that British and Canadian cultures are more closely aligned across the 6 dimensions, while Japanese culture is distinctly different. It would therefore probably be sufficient to offer a single, international digital experience to audiences based in the UK and Canada, but a Japanese audience may require a more localised approach. Just remember that your organisation’s needs and audiences are unique, so it’s about getting to the bottom of what’s right for your specific situation. In this example, you might still decide it’s most appropriate to design a localised site for all three countries, as communicating the products and services you provide requires a different approach for each audience group.


Design practices

With all of this in mind, hopefully you’ll now have an idea of whether you need to create a local or international website. You'll now want to think about best overall design practices and culture-specific requirements. These considerations will need to be taken into account regardless of what culture/region you will be designing for, but the good news is that the main usability cues will still work across the board! From how users search, to the order in which they consume content on a page, there is no variation between cultures. Ultimately, we all undertake those tasks in the same way.

Nevertheless, areas that may affect your design(s) and are key to discuss include:

  • language choice, such as use of local phrases and/or jargon
  • number, date, and time formats
  • the meaning and acceptability of images
  • choice of symbols and colours
  • whether text appears left to right, right to left, top to bottom
  • the length of the language text.


What does this mean in practice?

If for example, your local culture uses the date in a DD/MM/YYYY format, whereas your target market culture requires the MM/DD/YY format, this will have an impact on the design. Similarly, conventions in addresses vary significantly from country to country – some may require several rows of text to provide a full address, whereas others will need fewer. Colours can have different associations and meanings for different cultures, and it would be wise to use your local expert to inform or validate your choices. Subtle differences in the meaning of words and phrases should also be considered when designing for local cultures. For example, knowing that the colour red can imply danger in some cultures but also prosperity in others could influence your use of it within the colour palette. Turns of phrase will also vary within differing cultures, as will the length and flow of language – which may need more or less space for content to be displayed. Some languages are short and concise, whereas others use more words to describe the same thing.

To address these nuances, it’s always recommended to undertake user research and to bring cultural experts onto the project to assist. Local users, whether for one culture or several, will be able to provide valuable insight into individual needs and requirements. It also never does any harm to check out your competitors and how their websites work for each region/culture as well!


What next?

Hopefully this brief introductory guide will have provided some tools and considerations to serve as a starting point in your journey. At Trillium, we provide a wide range of digital consultancy and website design services to support for our clients. If you'd like to discuss how we might be able to help your organisation, get in touch.

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