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I read the article by Dan Grover on Chinese Mobile app UI trends and the differences compared to English or western mobile apps. The main list is provided below:

  • Input is Hard
  • Indeterminate Badges
  • Walled Gardens, Portals, Platforms
  • Accounts and Login Screens
  • Chat as Universal UI
  • Buying Stuff
  • Location, Location, Location
  • Everything Can Be Downloaded
  • A Word on Moments

There are a lot of different factors at play here, but I have always wondered just how much the language impacts on UI design. It also seems from the list that only input is really tied specifically to the language whereas everything else is to do with behaviour. Since we don't get a lot of questions that are related specifically to a particular language (unless it is like Arabic because of the orientation), it would seem that the language has a limited effect on the design by themselves, whereas culture has to do with the content and behaviour design.

Are these separate forces that come together when both the language and culture being catered for are different, or are these independent factors that can be designed for and customized individually?

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I see quite a few areas where language and cultural impact immediately on UI :

Color:

Color is a culturally sensitive! look at country flags and you can get and immediate sense of how it matters. of course there audiences for which colour matters more than others so i would consider the impact of colour when designing for specific geographical locations.

Icons:

Because icons are representations they are also prone to cultural sensitivities. for example "savings" normally represented with a piggy bank icon will not work for audencies who don't consume pork meat or have other connotations attached to this representation.

Labeling and messaging :

The choice of words used to label controls is also culturally defined. this will be even more so given the overall trend to move towards more user friendly interfaces that mimic day to day interactions: Error messages are typical example- try translating friendly error messages from english to spanish or greek or arabic!

Information architecture:

To a lesser extent the way we view information hierarchy is also cultural as users from different backgrounds and cultures prioritise information differently.

The bottom line is to help make communication effective between a global business and a local user. It simply isn’t enough to use a standardized website that translates the text and utilizes the same images, layout and color of the parent site (Becker and Crespo, 2001). For instance, consider the OK gesture; in most English-speaking countries, it is a sign of everything working well, but in several European countries the same gesture means “zero” or “worthless.”

The above quote is from a really interesting piece titled" Cross cultural considerations for user interface design"

Fascinating subject!! hope that helps

Update: Related

How to design a site for international audiences

It Seems that Macdonalds is always referenced when designing for other cultures!

I also found this case study (pdf) which explored techniques to bridge cultural divide in terms of UX design.

4

Switzerland speaking.

Language is one of the toughest challenges we face everyday here in Switzerland. Not only is our German different from Germany-German, but also French and Italian are different than it's big siblings. We all get along quite well with the big siblings (German, French, Italian) language, but only perceive something as a great experience, if the language is close to our mental model. That's where random jumps in. You can have a perfect experience without that the people that designed it, paid any attention to our language. Because in this context, German and Swiss-German are the same.... anyway, we were talking different languages and cultures.

As already mentioned, Switzerland has different languages but usually a commonly shared mental model. We do have big cultural differences (that's our own perspective) but I believe we share a similar mental model of most things which makes our cultures close (from a UX perspective). Because we always used to use products from other parts of the country and most stuff is the same anyway. The biggest challenges are usually the length of the different words & expressions used in interfaces as well as how you say something (formal, informal, singular, plural etc.). So as long as you don't google translate and have an eye on typography, things tend to work out.

Long story short: In my experience, culture and language are pretty close and both parts are very important but culture has a bigger impact on UX than language.

Keep in mind: This is my Swiss perspective and this may differ in other regions.

2

I believe language (alone) affects UI design only as far as input/output elements and behavior are concerned, as you rightly point out above.

I am inclined to say that they can be viewed as independent design considerations, just from the fact that English-language localizations of products designed for other languages and cultures exist, and also from how apps must exist for places like Switzerland where UI in multiple languages must cater to the same (overall) culture.

But because language and culture are so tightly coupled (at least in high-level bilingualism), one wonders if they should be designed for separately at all, unless the targeted users are known to either be low-level bilinguals, or some other group that is comfortable with/expects a language that does not "correspond" to the behavior implied by the rest of the interface.

It seems like poor user experience to create a certain set of expectations for product behavior with the UI language, but deliver a different experience. Just anecdotally, I recall distinct culture shock at going into the English versions of Pixiv (Japan) and WeChat (China), which are both essentially just localizations which maintain all the cultural quirks of the original. I got used to it after a while, but even now there's always some cognitive dissonance when I open the apps up.

1

While I agree that culture can & should drive decisions about content, colors, themes, imagery, etc, I'd argue that from a UX and technical perspective the language has a much greater impact on the outcome.

I work with language learning products (designed primarily for a U.S. English-speaking audience) that generally share a common UI across more than two dozen different languages. Some key issues we encounter regularly:

Right-to-Left text, workflows & layout variations

RTL support can be very difficult to adjust later on if you didn't plan for it initially, or if you lack proper tools & subject knowledge.

  • Left-to-right mindset & designs can easily overlook usability issues that emerge when the language & expectations are mirror opposites. Where does "Submit" really belong? What direction does that swipe gesture really need to go in?
  • Buttons, inputs, menus, and that pixel-perfect grid alignment you created often need to be reversed. Sometimes the browser/OS is smart enough to handle it for you, sometimes not, or the way your programmers coded the site prevents it from doing so. Oops.
  • Just getting properly created content can be a pain: e.g. Arabic text created in U.S. versions of Adobe products is all disjointed & wrong (and your artists probably won't know the difference).

Support for non-Latin typefaces

  • Required fonts may not be installed, or may need different encoding that even UTF-8 doesn't cover. Users get the "?" or "boxes with Xs in them".
  • There are often competing romanization/phonetic standards, and sites may not have the ability to input native language characters where often only Latin ones are expected (urls, names, passwords, addresses, etc).

  • Many African & Asian languages require custom 3rd party keyboards or input methods, and you can't be sure which one people will use.

Dynamic Type Considerations

There's huge, unpredictable variation between how much space written languages require. A 140-character Tweet is typically vapid, abbrev'd, & curt in English, but can contain significant grammatically correct content in Chinese. This affects UI design by requiring adaptive/flexible layouts, text input areas, menu design/terminology, etc. (Note that in examples below I gave up trying to position the Arabic character count to the right... I couldn't figure out how to put it where I wanted it)!

  • English: My hovercraft is full of eels (29)
  • Arabic: (حَوّامتي مُمْتِلئة بِأَنْقَلَيْسون (23
  • Russian: Моё судно на воздушной подушке полно угрей (42)
  • Swahili: Gari langu linaloangama limejaa na mikunga (43)
  • Mandarin: 我的氣墊船裝滿了鱔魚 (10)

You keep using that word ... I don't think it means what you think it means...

You're only as good as your bilingual Subject Matter Expert.

If you expect "port" to mean "a dessert wine" but they translate it as "a place for boats to dock" and nobody else involved is able to spot the error, you're going to seriously confuse your users.

While cultural considerations play a significant role in presentation, messaging, expectations, etc, sometimes all that preparation goes out the window due to translation error & simple misunderstanding.

Expectations & Conventions

Popular Japanese news & chat websites today often remain a rainbow of colors, dancing cutesy gifs, tiny/heavy text, and layouts straight out of the late 1990s, but they've also used QR codes & mobile email/browsers for that long, which is unusual. Mobile-savvy, but comfortable with "bad" (from an outside perspective) layout & design. Lots of cultural influence in this case vs language, but there's a definite connection.

Also consider that the internet is still largely English-driven. Even though specs have changed to accommodate non-Latin URLs, etc, many users still must adjust their thinking and behavior to interact in a 2nd language. Conventions (mentioned in the "Chinese Mobile" link above) like name fields, passwords, captchas, login processes & security questions often require the ability to read/write/understand some English, romanize your name/address, etc. Can you imagine if every website made you write in Chinese & it wasn't your native language?

  • It's great to get a different opinion/perspective on this topic, and with good examples to illustrate the points. – Michael Lai Jan 2 '15 at 8:29
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I believe culture is a much bigger influence than language. From a cognitive development standpoint, we learn to recognize color, shapes and gestures much earlier than we learn to speak. It's why infants can learn sign language before speech. Humans are generally very visually oriented which culture lends itself to very much more than language.

This is also an interesting read about the theory of the origins of language http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/1999/2/the-gestural-origins-of-language/1

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Multicultural person here (Russian + Kazakh + Czech + French).

As someone born to the culture anthropologist mom, I strongly believe and know empirically cultures influence not only the surface differences for everything — UI included — such as color or CTAs but most prominently the user thinking, and that ends up in a core objectives differences.

When representatives of some cultures just want to be dryly sold something, representatives of other cultures want their ego being stroked (and they are willing to pay for it), whereas representatives of third cultures want nothing but their aesthetic feeling to be pleased, and fourth culture is all about peace of mind. This will render one simple e-commerce interface in four completely different ways. In look, feel and the deeply underlying core concept, the thought behind the system.

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