Applying and testing an approach to design for culturally diverse user groups

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  • Applying and testing an approach to design forculturally diverse user groups

    P. Bourges-Waldegga,*, S.A.R. Scrivenerb

    aResearch and Advanced Studies Centre, MexicobCoventry University, Coventry, UK

    Received 16 July 1998; received in revised form 21 December 1999; accepted 29 January 2000


    This paper intends to illustrate how user interface designers can apply the Meaning in Mediated

    Action (MIMA) approach (P. Bourges-Waldegg, A.R. Scrivener, Meaning; the central issue is cross-

    cultural HCI design, Interacting with Computers, 9 (3) (1998) 287310, special issue on Shared

    Values and Shared Interfaces) to design for culturally diverse user groups. After outlining its

    theoretical foundation, we describe how the MIMA stagesobservation, evaluation, analysis and

    designwere carried out to redesign a WWW system. Finally, we assess the efcacy of this

    approach by comparing the results of the evaluation of the original and the redesigned interfaces.

    q 2000 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

    Keywords: Culture; Interface design; Representation; Meaning; Context

    1. Introduction

    With developments in communication and computer technologies, a number of new

    possibilities have arisen for the interaction between people worldwide. For example,

    geographically dispersed individuals and groups can now work together through the

    computer, can communicate in new ways, and can interact in many other transactions,

    from playing a computer game, to exchanging knowledge, or trading with a range of

    products and services. However, for the interface designer, the use of shared computer

    systems, such as GroupWare, Computer-Supported Co-operative Work (CSCW), Compu-

    ter-Supported Communication (CSC), and the Internet presents a great challenge, parti-

    cularly in how one deals with cultural factors in design, as geographically dispersed user

    P. Bourges-Waldegg, S.A.R. Scrivener / Interacting with Computers 13 (2000) 111126 111

    Interacting with Computers 13 (2000) 111126

    0953-5438/00/$ - see front matter q 2000 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

    PII: S0953-5438(00)00029-1

    * Corresponding author. Centro de Investigacion y de Estudios Avanzados, Rincon Colonial de Calacoaya,

    Atizapan Endomex 53996, Mexico. Tel.: 1 52-5-397-7182.

    E-mail address: (P. Bourges-Waldegg).

  • groups will often be culturally diverse. Traditional approaches, such as internationalisa-

    tion and localisationhere called culturalisation [1]cannot be used effectively in the

    case of systems shared by culturally diverse users because they are based on recognising

    the differences that exist between cultures in order to produce specic versions adapted to

    the needs of a given target culture. Instead, an approach is needed, capable of dealing

    directly with culturally heterogeneous user groups, and capable of integrating cultural

    diversity, rather than diversifying the user groups into target cultures, because the exis-

    tence of several target culture adaptations can complicate useruser interaction instead

    of facilitating it. Moreover, since the purposes of a shared-system include those of inter-

    action and communication, it can be assumed that the culturally diverse user is prepared to

    interact with other users who speak different languages, or with interfaces which utilise

    other languages.

    According to Bourges-Waldegg and Scrivener [2], culturally determined usability

    problems have a common origin in understanding the intended meaning of the representa-

    tions used in the system (including those involved in the user's interaction with the task,

    the environment, the tool and other users1). They (ibid.) argue that the cultural differences

    affecting usability and design are mainly representational, and that a culturally determined

    usability problem can be characterised as the user's difculty in understanding that repre-

    sentation R means M in context C (adapted from Ref. [3]). In order to understand that

    representation R means M, knowledge of the context in which that meaning is rooted is

    needed. That is mainly because the meaning of a representation is determined by its

    context of use, i.e. where and how the representation is used, what are the surrounding

    or associated representations and meanings, etc. Interface elements affected by culture,

    such as colour, words, numbers and sound [4], appear to be problematic largely because

    they are representations and their meanings can be understood differently by culturally

    diverse people when they do not share the knowledge of the context in which they are


    Hence, culturally heterogeneous user groups are particularly difcult to deal with, as

    their members may not share the knowledge of the contexts in which the intended mean-

    ings of representations are rooted, and this can produce difculties in understanding,

    during system interaction. However, it is important to recognise that culturally diverse

    users may also share the knowledge of some of these contexts independently of the culture

    they pertain to. In other words, a person does not necessarily need to belong to a specic

    culture to share a context. For example, the meanings of the Italian words pizza,

    mozzarella and pepperoni are cross-cultural because they are based on a shared

    context determined by the worldwide advertisements of pizza brands. Shared contexts

    occur because neither people nor cultures are isolated entities ignorant or blind to the

    `different other'. Although a culture can be dened as a specic group of people sharing a

    distinctive set of values, symbols, rituals, heroes, etc., cultures are, to different degrees, the

    result of their interactions with other cultures [5].

    Thus, from a design point of view, we argue that the problem for user interface

    designers primarily is one of how to communicate the functionality of the system to the

    members of a culturally heterogeneous user group when representations can be culturally

    P. Bourges-Waldegg, S.A.R. Scrivener / Interacting with Computers 13 (2000) 111126112

    1 User-user, user-tool, user-task and user-environment interaction based on the HCI model proposed by [10].

  • relative and therefore misunderstood. To tackle this problem the designer needs to pose

    two basic questions: (1) Will the users understand that representation (R) means (M) in the

    context of the interface (C)? (2) Will a culturally heterogeneous user group share the

    context (C) in which that meaning is rooted? Representation is dened as any aspect

    of the system conveying or intended to convey meaning, meaning is what the repre-

    sentation conveys, and context refers to how and where a representation is used, and to

    the representations surrounding it.

    In this way, if for example, the designer is working on a tourist information WebSite and

    needs to communicate the existence of a link to a restaurants database, then, she/he needs


    1. Ask whether the users will understand that the representation chosen to communicate

    this function, say a fork-and-knife icon (R) means restaurant (M) in the context of the

    webpage interface (C).

    2. Determine if the culturally diverse members of the user group share the knowledge of

    the context (C)say, international airport signalingin which the fork-and-knife icon

    (R) is based.

    The rst point will serve to establish whether a representation is cross-culturally under-

    standable in the interface context. The second point will help to determine if the culturally

    diverse users share the context from which the icon and its meaning were taken and

    therefore could understand other representations and meanings rooted in the same context.

    If the answer in each case is yes, then the culturally diverse users will probably understand

    the metaphora link to a restaurant databaseas well as other representations rooted in

    that context, despite the fact that some may eat using chopsticks.

    This interpretation of the interface design problem reveals where the designer of shared-

    systems should concentrate, in order to tackle culturally determined usability issues:

    1. on evaluating whether the culturally diverse users understand that representation (R)

    means (M) in context (C);

    2. on determining whether the culturally diverse users share the context (C) in which the

    meaning of a representation is rooted;

    3. on designing or redesigning representations from identied shared contexts.

    We called the approach proposed above `Meaning in Mediated Action', MIMA [2]. The

    MIMA approach consists of four cyclic steps: observation, evaluation, analysis, and

    design. In the following pages we will describe these stages and how they were applied

    to redesign the interfaces of a WWW system consisting of a browser (Netscape English

    version 2.0) and a WebSite (the Nemeton). We selected Netscape's browser for evalua-

    tion because although it is widely used and shared we expected culturally determined

    usability problems to occur. This expectation was based partly on the fact that Netscape

    was originally designed to suit a culturally specic user group, and on the results of other

    cross-cultural evaluations of interactive systems [6]. We chose the Nemeton WebSite

    (comprising a series of pages about a pop-music band called The Shamen) because we

    considered that although it dealt with a t