Design to align to different cultural contexts

Market share of Taobao and ebay 2003 - 2007


Designing for different cultures is a big challenge.  People from different cultural backgrounds often have very different experiences, perceptions and expectations. Designs that work in one culture often fail in another. These cultural differences are often subtle, making them difficult to recognize, understand and adapt to.

One prominent example for this failure of adapting to local differences is the rivalry between the US online auction powerhouse eBay and the Chinese consumer marketplace Taobao (a subsidiary of Alibaba). By focussing on a small number of distinctive features, such as a chat to allow for a close buyer-seller relationship, Taobao was able to surpass eBay and eventually force it out of the Chinese market.



So how can we detect success factors in foreign markets? Can human-centered design principles be applied to identify cultural differences and bridge the cultural gap? In one of our recent projects we were faced with the challenge of adapting a car-sharing service developed in Germany to China, so it would work for Chinese users seamlessly.

In the Western Hemisphere, car sharing largely emerged as part of the rising sharing economy in recent years. For Generation Y, the traditional emphasis on (car) ownership has been largely replaced by a more pragmatic demand for mobility in urban areas. Car companies are responding by offering services centered around car access instead of possession, and focussing on customer experience and fulfilment. In contrast, Chinese consumers still greatly value the social status that comes with owning a car,  and car sales are rising steadily in China.

China’s cultural, ideological and socio-economic traditions and development are shaping the success or failure of products and services in many ways. In today’s China, we observe a constant tension between historically ingrained cultural implications such as collectivism, and more recent phenomena like the ostentatious display of wealth and luxury. People strive to get recognition and face from their peers and show off success and status. At the same time, many Chinese have great worries about the safety of products and foods, and have a higher savings rate than most of the world.


Hidden cultural factors are hard to spot.



Given this complex structure of user needs and expectations in an unfamiliar cultural and socio-economic context, deciding which adaptations and localisations to make can be a challenge. From our project experiences we put together a short list that reflects our approach and best practices, and can give you some guidance for your next cross-cultural project.

Mind the cultural gap

To get started, the first step is to acquire knowledge about the cultural differences you’re dealing with  But don’t just stop at desk research. If in any way possible, try to immerse yourself in the foreign culture to gain deeper insights and become empathetic to the local needs and peculiarities. It can also be hugely valuable to have someone on your team with personal experiences in the market you’re trying to address.

Make it tangible

International projects often have a complex stakeholder setup. It is necessary to integrate different perspectives and views. This can be done best by making things tangible. We often used quick prototypes such as a smartphone click dummies, or large print-out customer journey maps in order to create a common understanding of the project. It’s also very helpful to prototype a service in its entirety for doing user research and contextual interviews.


Get your hands dirty

Last but not least, get local. We flew to China and experienced all the pain points a Chinese user would have first hand. We visited the city where our service would be rolled out and got a feeling for the infrastructure, the traffic problems and the mobility needs of potential users. It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to get in touch with locals and their everyday conditions. Go out, walk the streets and talk to strangers!

This post is based on a talk about cross-cultural service design, given by Eva Pika and Marcel Münch at the Intersection’15 conference in April 2015. Edited by Marius Giesske