At this year’s IA Summit, Ramya Mahalingam brings a new perspective on cultural relativism, and how it impacts the user experience. Read on to learn what cultural relativism is, why you should care, and how to get discounted tickets to see her speak about it at IA Summit!
In the summer of 2009, I traveled to the US to do a six-week long architecture program. I lived in Dubai at the time, and this program was my first time staying elsewhere for an extended period of time. I was equal parts excited and apprehensive. I had an opportunity to explore my passion for creating while under the guidance of an excellent set of professors! But I would also be entirely immersed in another culture. Would I be really different from everyone else? Would I be able to relate to anyone?
Within the first few hours of the program, we were grouped off into studio sections and were each assigned desks. I found myself sitting across from Tom from New Jersey, and Maleeka from New York City. Tom immediately introduced himself with a giant smile and reached out to shake my hand. Maleeka looked up from her phone, nodded, and looked back down.
I bonded with both Tom and Maleeka in different ways, answering Tom’s questions about what Dubai was like and sharing a mutual love for food with Maleeka. But while I built independent relationships with both of them, they didn’t connect with each other. In fact, they barely got along.
A few weeks later, the weirdness dissipated and they became friends. I overheard Maleeka telling Tom that she’d been suspicious of his excessive friendliness, and initially thought he was either creepy or out to get everyone else.
The irony of the situation was not lost on me. I, who came to this program from almost 7000 miles away, had been worried about being able to connect with other people. These two people, who lived within maybe a hundred miles of each other, hadn’t initially accepted each other because of a misunderstanding.
Several years later, I received a mockup of a series of onboarding screens from a visual designer I was working with. The copy on the first screen read “Hi! We’re excited to see you here!” It made me think back to Maleeka’s first impression of Tom. I wondered whether she would have found the app ‘creepy’.
Dealing with Cultural Relativism
It turns out that there’s actually a term for the thing I was apprehensive about—the same thing that first prevented Maleeka and Tom from relating to each other. Cultural relativism is the understanding that a person’s behaviors and activities should be interpreted in the context of their own culture.
What is culture? When one hears the word what typically comes to mind is the image of another country’s food, clothing, appearance of nationality, or other visible attributes that are different from one’s own. Historically, we have perceived culture as being geographically defined.
But perhaps there is a broader way to interpret the concept of culture. Anthropologist James Spradley defines culture as “the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behavior.” In a pre-globalized world, ‘acquired knowledge’ was limited to a fairly small geographic boundary. But more recently, channels for acquired knowledge have broadened.
Between 1967 and 1973, Geert Hofstede conducted research on the different national values of the global IBM workforce. This led to the development of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, which is a framework of six dimensions that have since been used to quantify and compare behaviors exhibited by people from different countries to better understand how to relate to them. The six dimensions are:
- Power distance index (PDI)
- Individualism vs. collectivism (IDV)
- Uncertainty avoidance index (UAI)
- Masculinity vs. femininity (MAS)
- Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation (LTO)
- Indulgence vs. restraint (IND)
While the attitudes and values of people are unarguably shaped by the geographies they live in, applying this theory on the national scale seems too broad to effectively understand the differences between people’s attitudes and values. When Hofstede’s framework is applied to a cross-section of people across a country, differences between smaller geographic boundaries tend to be overlooked. One ends up expecting Tom and Maleeka to have the same behaviors and values.
Cultural Relativism for Product Development
So what does any of this have to do with User Experience? To practice User Experience is to execute a cycle of researching how people use products and building products for people to use. To successfully understand how a person uses a product, or to build one that fulfills their needs, UX practitioners must understand how the context of the person’s culture shapes their needs and frames their behaviors.
While UX practitioners have historically been sensitive to cultural relativism on the national scale, we must start to recognize and understand how the same principle is shaping the attitudes and behaviors of societies at a much smaller scale.
Want to hear more? Register for IA Summit with the code UXBOOTH and get $50 off your ticket. Then attend, and go to Ramya’s talk on How Cultural Relativism Influences Design Decisions.