Culturability: What you really need to know about it!


In times where globalization increases and companys go international it is more and more important to know how to attract people from different cultures for your business. The easiest way to do that seems to be via Internet. But is it really that simple? …

A company`s different faces


Pictures taken from:

Looking at the pictures above someone could ask why a single company needs so many different names. In these days when globalization is a popular and often used term, why not concentrate on one single name, one single logo and one single website? If you want to know the answer to this question and why you in no case should have a pig in your logo in the Middle East.

Authors: Stephanie Bauer, Nadja Scheidler, Estee Neo

Differences between cultures: Hofstede`s dimensions of culture


The Dutch cultural anthropologist Geert Hofstede defined five dimensions of culture, four of which are relevant to the web. These five dimensions are:

  • Power Distance (PDI)
  • Collectivism vs. Individualism (IDV)
  • Feminity vs. Masculinity (MAS)
  • Uncertainty avoidance (UAI)
  • Long- vs. Short-term orientation (LTO)

Another anthropologist called Edward T. Hall created a dimension which is also very important for the web:

  • High Context vs. Low Context Cultures.

Power Distance, which is the first of the dimensions relevant to the web, refers to the extent in which less powerful persons approve unconsistent arrangements of power within a culture. High PDI countries like Malaysia, Guatemala and Mexico tend to have deep hierarchies in organizations. Relationships between superiors and subordinates are tighter than in low PDI countries. In Cultures with less PDI, subordinates are more likely to speak out their opinions and participate in managerial decisions. In these countries, like Austria, Israel and New Zealand, people usually have greater equality in relationships.

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Relating to the second dimension, individualistic societies, for example USA and Australia, value personal achievement, privacy and diversity of opinion while collectivistic ones like Panama and Ecuador emphasize the benefits of working in social groups, group harmony and experience of older and wise persons.

individualism.gif Click to enlarge

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Cultures with high masculinity point out traditional masculine roles and obtain traditional differences between gender roles, whereas feminine cultures tend to dispend gender differences and to stress mutual cooperation and family support. Masculine cultures, such as Japan, Italy and USA, value challenge, while feminine cultures, e.g. Norway, Sweden and Denmark, rather value quality of life.

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Uncertainty avoidance measures the degree to which people stay away from uncertain situations. High UAI cultures like Belgium, Greece and Portugal are seen as very expressive. They tend to have more formal rules and require structurized organizations. Low UAI cultures, e.g. the U.K., Singapore and Hong Kong, incline to be more relaxed and prefer informal business arrangements instead of formal ones.

uncertainty.gif Click to enlarge

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The fifth dimension, Long- vs. Short-term orientation, is not explaint in this place because it is not as much relevant for the web.

In low context cultures people prefer when things are completely spelled out and made explicit.For this reasonthere is considerable addiction on what is actually said or written. A high context culture is one in which peopleassume a great part of common knowledge and views, so that less has to be spelled out fully and much more is communicated in indirect ways. For this reason, high context cultures are more influencable by pictures and entertainment than low context cultures and are more likely to inform theirselves by watching TV than reading a newspaper. On the other hand, low context cultures tend more to written text, like it is in a newspaper and are not so much attracted by pictures or animations.

what_is_it.jpg Culturability: What is it and who defined it?

Wendy Barber and Albert Badre introduced a term to accentuate the importance of the relationship between culture and usability in the World Wide Web design. Although the internet is considered as “World Wide” and “Global”, there is still restriction due to the design and cultural limitation. Usability as well as learnability, allows efficiency and satisfactory to take on a larger meaning when designing for an international market. The issue today is that culture and usability can no longer remain separate in the design industry for the Web. For instance, how pictorial information is presented and organized for scanning on a display can be related to the script direction of the user’s first language. This results to the importance of having the homepages “User Friendly” and “Usability” on a cultural context because it will allow the target audience to be more comfortable while using the web.

Cultural markers are design elements and functions that are prevalent and possibly preferred within a particular culture. Colors, spatial organization, fonts, shapes, icons and metaphors, geography language, flags, sounds and motion could be such cultural markers and affect directly the way a user interacts with the site. For Example: To promote services to French investors through a website, the bank might be advised to avoid using the color green which some French may associate with criminality. But the bank could use green to attract Egyptian and Middle Eastern investors, as green has a positive connotation for them.

The look of websites in different cultures

Today the internet is the most popular communication platform in the world and its design or the quality of the websites is of high importance for the cultural acceptability. In this case a culturally well designed website should communicate the right message at the right place with the right design in the right manner and in the right time depending on the culture of the target audience. Imagine your favorite website: Could there be something in its navigation, interaction or appearance which confuses or even insults and alienates another user? How can this website be understood in New York, Paris, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Tokyo or Cape Town? As mentioned above Hofstede’s dimensions of cultures have a certain influence on the look of a website and this influence should be considered when creating a new website. Below is an example of one of the four dimensions.

Power distance

Power Distance for instance may influence the following aspects of the web design:

  • Cultures with a high PD feel more comfortable with a website which emphasizes the skills of high ranking individuals within a company and provides a greater hierarchical arrangement between different divisions and positions within the website. Take for example the website of the Universiti Utara in Malaysia which has been in Hofstedes Analysis the country with the highest PD Index:

Figure 2. High power distance: Malaysian Unversity Web site,

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  • People from cultures with a low PD prefer sites that show common individuals of both genders. They would also tend to devaluate hierarchical systems between individuals within the same company. For example the website from the Ichthus Hogeschool in the Netherlands which has had a low PD Index in the analysis

Figure 3. Low power distance: Dutch Educational Website

:holland.jpg Click to enlarge

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Differences between the two websites: The website of the Universiti Utara in Malaysia provides a strong axial symmetry with the official seal of the university in its center and it shows monumental buildings in which peoples play a small role. The Dutch one creates a more inviting ambiente by a greater emphasis on students, an asymmetric layout and photos of both genders. As result it accentuate the power of students as equals.

Comparison between websites of high and low context cultures


If you compare the websites of low context and high context cultures there are some really big differences to mention. As low context cultures feel more comfortable with written text, you can find much less pictures and animations than in websites from high context cultures. A good example for this is the global company Mc Donalds which offers different websites for different countries:

Figure 4. Stills of animations of bowing men on introductory page and bowing woman on contact page from the Japanese site


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In Japan, which is an high context culture, the McDonald’s website shows how animation in the form of short videos can be an alternative to communication through text and motionless pictures and how this could create the effect that the visitor is virtually greeted by a personal representative of the company (Figure 4).

Promotion of values:

High context cultures tend more to look at images which promote values that are characteristic for collectivist societies whereas images which promote characertistic values of individualistic societies are preferred by low context ones. In this case Mc Donaldas is also a good example with its Indian (HC) and Swiss (LC) sites:

Figure 5. MacDonalds Indian website and Swiss website (early 2003)


Both Pictures taken from

Linear vs. parallel navigation on the website:

People from HC cultures like to have many sidebars and menus and opening of new browser windows for each new page which you can see on the linear navigation on the websites. Websites of LC cultures provide a parallel navigation system with few sidebars and menus and constant opening in same browser windows. The collection of the Scandinavian sites (LC) shows an example of parallel navigation, the Asian sites (HC) show examples for linear navigation:

Figure 6. Collection of Scandinavian sites (clockwise from top left: Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden),

scandinavian.jpg Click to enlarge

Figure 7. Collection of Asian sites (clockwise from top left: Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia),

asian.jpg Click to enlarge

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What should a CEO know to avoid misunderstandings?

By 2002, 32% of the internet users were of non-English speaking origin. And this figure is rising. Therefore, misunderstandings are bound to happen.


The different colours tells a different story to the countries and cultures. It is always important to have a clear understanding of your target audience before acting on it. Misunderstandings or disastrous consequences could arise if you choose the wrong color for your logo or the background of the website. The table below shows the different meanings of red, blue, green, yellow and white in some countries.

Table 1. Examples of cultural associations of color (From Russo & Boor, 1993), taken from

color_table.gif Click to enlarge


Translating a website to another language is not as simple as it may appear. It is important to analyse the language and the target audience. Using the wrong language for the wrong reader will lead to missunderstandings of the website or the company. For example, if you want to create an arabic website you have to consider the different dialects of the arabic countries. If the target audience consists of all Arabic speakers you have to use Modern Standard Arabic.



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The picture above is an example of a misunderstood translation in the China Airport. The right word would be “Foreigners Registration”.

In Muslim cultures, showing women in high positions or in bikini for advestisement could for example cause trouble because of the low position of women in their religion. Also symbols can mean different things in different cultures. For example the showing of animals in logos can cause embarassement. In this case you must consider that Middle Eastern people associate pigs with uncleanity and that cows are holy in India.


When building up the navigation system of your webpage make sure that it is the right for your target group. In some languages people read from right to left and otherwise or from the top to the bottom of a site. If you consider this it will be much easier for the target audience to feel comfortable when using your website.


In conclusion, it is important to know that culture effects everything in our daily life even the design of a company`s website. If a company takes part in the globalization the understanding of different cultures and the term usuability in this context could make the difference between success and failure.

Lisa Hartmann, Nadine Gauernack, Ekaterina Bolsun


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