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5 February 2024 - 7 minutes

Cultural Context in Web Development: Designing for Global Audiences

Keeping your specific audience in mind while designing is key.

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You want to launch a product or website so you simply put all the necessary information onto the page and you’re ready, right? While this will technically create a website for you that serves its purpose, creating a successful web page requires a bit more thought and effort, especially when it comes to global companies with reach across different regions and cultures. 

Similarly to how you use buyer personas and user personas to create products with a specific user and their needs in mind, your web designs need to be specific to your audience. Why? People want to feel seen and heard and studies show that users react most positively to personalized experiences; if you personalize the user experience so that it reflects the culture of each user, you’ll be giving the users exactly what they want.

Designing for global audiences in web development doesn’t just include providing translation options; there are a lot of considerations from one culture to another and in this article, we’re going to break down everything you need to know about cultural context in web development. Let’s dive right in. 

What is Cultural Context? 

Before we can discuss cultural context in web development, it’s essential to have a clear understanding of what cultural context is. To put it simply, it’s understanding that everyone’s specific background and environment in which they were raised affects their behavior and habits. And although there are quite a few elements of cultural context that are worth studying, let’s focus on two main areas and their subsets that make up culture: nonmaterial (or symbolic) culture and material culture. 

Nonmaterial culture 

Nonmaterial culture can also be called symbolic because its elements aren’t physical; they are usually engrained deep in the culture and have been passed down for generations and generations:

  • Symbols: whether material objects or not, in culture, symbols stand for something else and can include aspects like gestures, greetings, or objects like national flags. Shaking hands in one culture may transmit respect and in others can be seen as disrespectful. 

  • Language: usually one of the first thoughts when it comes to cultural difference, language is an absolutely essential part of intercultural communication and the first step towards understanding a different culture. 

  • Norms: both formal and informal, norms shape the kinds of behaviors that are acceptable in certain social situations and greatly depend on someone’s culture and how they were raised.

  • Rituals: rituals can take many forms, such as graduation celebrations or marriage ceremonies to celebrate advancing through life’s stages; these depend heavily on culture and surroundings.  

  • Values: going a bit deeper than traditional good vs. bad, values help shape how members of a certain culture interact with others. 

Material culture 

While elements of nonmaterial culture are usually associated with being the defining elements of culture, there are also quite a few elements of material culture that are essential to understanding the value of cultural context in web development–material culture

  • Technology: we don’t just mean the latest smartphone or device here; we’re referring to the rapid advancement of technology throughout history. Key inventions such as the discovery of oil and gas, in addition to computers, have connected different cultures, allowing for shared experiences across various ones. 

  • Tools: the way that cultures and societies use tools to accomplish tasks or bond with each other helps us understand their values and their way of life. 

  • Art: as a visual representation of culture, art is one of the best ways to actually see what’s important to a culture and the value they place in certain areas.

Having a clear understanding of cultural context when it comes to designing and developing a website is essential; the aforementioned elements of nonmaterial and material culture are especially key to successfully reaching diverse markets. 

Now that you understand exactly what cultural context is, let’s get right into the good stuff: how to design for global audiences. 

Designing for Global Audiences 

The first step for designing for global audiences is establishing if there’s even a need for different designs! While you should aim for diverse and accessible designs in all your work, sometimes you might be tasked with an assignment with very little reach and for a very specific audience. In this case, you won’t need to worry too much about keeping various audiences in mind; however, learning the basics of including cultural context in design is always a good idea. 

If you know that you’ll be reaching global audiences, then the very basics are your first step: offering language options, different currencies, visuals that accurately reflect the region, and diverse sign-in options are a great place to start. 

The next step is diving a bit deeper into the cultural differences you’re facing; to do so, we recommend viewing it from this viewpoint: your local audience vs. the new area for which you’re designing. Sometimes cultural differences are clear, but in case they’re not for you or you want to make sure you’re covering all your bases, take a look at some of these helpful theories when it comes to identifying potential variations. 

Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions 

Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede outlined six different key elements of cultural differences that help better define differences in the ways that cultures think, which is a crucial part of designing effective and high-quality websites. There are quite a few interesting points here, but we’re going to focus on two: indulgence vs. restraint and individualism vs. collectivism:

  • Indulgence vs. restraint: understanding the willingness of a culture to indulge their wants over their needs is key in choosing how you’ll market or display your product or service.

  • Individualism vs. collectivism: some cultures are more individualistic and focused on the wants and needs of the individual; other more collective cultures are concerned with community-based decisions and your design will need to reflect this. 

Hall’s cultural context model 

Another important distinction to keep in mind is that of low and high context communication cultures. Some cultures prioritize and prefer information that’s direct and explicit, without any form of confusion; others want to receive their information through more colorful and interesting, context-driven content that really captures their attention. 

This will, of course, be a generalization on behalf of the culture and it’s important to cater to both preferences in your design, while favoring the one that’s stronger in the culture for which you’re designing. 

Tips for Adapting Designs for Cultural Differences 

As you can see from our quick explanations above, there are quite a few things to keep in mind when working on cross-cultural designs; to better help you get ready to start the design process, we’ve highlighted some crucial aspects of designing for worldwide audiences.

Figure out what’s important to your audience

You chose to market to this specific region and you know why, but you need to ensure you’re communicating that to your audience in a way that resonates with them. For example, if you know from your studies that a culture places lots of value on testimonies and proof from previous users, make sure to include reviews in a prominent place on your site. 

Similarly, if your audience tends to respond better to personalized content, make sure you prioritize that in your design process. 

Display outcomes in the proper way 

Depending on the value that the culture in question places on individual perspectives vs. collective outcomes, you could choose to prioritize data that shows how users used your product or service to benefit the community or, on the other hand, focus on the individual outcomes. 

Because people will naturally be drawn to the things that are attractive to them, paying special attention to this individual/collective difference can transform your results. 

Make sure your design fits their resources 

Some designs can be quite complicated and require a high-speed internet connection to function well or some knowledge of navigating websites to know when to pull, hover, drag, or perform other mouse operations. If you’re targeting a demographic with little to no internet skills or an area with low speed internet or few personal devices in homes, you might need to reconsider your design plan to ensure that it’s functional for your specific audience

It’s also important to consider that some cultures prefer expressly stated information with little to no design or fun; others want their website experience to be engaging and include lots of visuals. By studying the culture, you’ll be able to find the right balance.

Skilled web developers are in high demand and the fields in which you could work are endless: everybody needs a good website. But prioritizing your cultural understanding of the group with which you are working will help you create well-functioning and respectful websites that are highly effective. 

If you’re interested in becoming a web developer, look no further: Ironhack offers intensive and effective bootcamps in web development so that you can learn everything you need to know to land your first tech job in just a few months. Choose from in-person or remote courses, in addition to any of our worldwide campuses, to kickstart your tech career today. 

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