In a my March 5 Post on Search and Information Architecture I discussed the issue of culture on designing websites and information architecture. Over the last few months I’ve been researching this topic more and had an opportunity to interact with Jeff Parks, an information architect and user experience specialist based in Ottawa. Jeff pointed me to an interesting podcast, Design Research Conversation from the IxD (Interaction Design) 2010 conference. In this podcast, experienced UX designers discussed how culture and multi-culturalism can impact web design. They concluded that design should start from the commonalities – focus on building bridges and then address the exceptions as you refine.
In an interesting blog post from Thoughtfarmer, Five lessons learned from cross-cultural networking they identified the usual issues of language, interface design issues around colour and imagery, as well as privacy to be factors to be take into consideration, but they also mentioned performance – something I hadn’t considered. (I’m not sure that ‘s necessarily a cultural issue, but it can be just as much of a deal breaker as the others.)
The issue of language and translation of terms in the Thoughtfarmer blog post was what caught my interest. Using the literal translation instead of the more commonly accepted terms is a cultural pitfall. A good argument for the development of synonyms for multi-cultural sites. You want the user to be pointed to the right information regardless of the language, jargon or slang used. However developing a list of synonyms can be time-consuming and costly and can go out of date quickly. A better method maybe the way Google developed their spell-check feature. According to a special report in the Economist on Managing Information, Kenneth Cukier recounts how Google built their spell-check feature: They measured the click feedback from users who clicked on a correctly spelled option to replace a misspelled word. It didn’t cost Google additional monies to develop and they were able to continuously improve their spell-check feature. This approach – present a set of options – record the response – re-use the response, is now being used by other companies to improve their language services. (BTW It’s worth reading the whole article to see how Google developed their translation service. There is also a podcast that accompanies this special report that consists of a number of different articles.)
I believe a variation of this approach could be used effectively for developing synonyms for websites. Not only does it identify the most frequently used terms for a concept, but combined with other information about the user (particularly for internal sites) it would be possible to identify culturally relevant terms. Culture in this case also relates to areas of expertise, such as communications versus research. Creating a culturally relevant list of synonyms could then be used as a resource within the organization for tailoring communications to specific audiences, etc.
So, conclusions? – Look to users to provide insight, automate where possible and…. test, measure, adjust/re-use.