With China emerging as the next great economic powerhouse –not to mention its population of 1.3 billion potential customers – it makes sense that if you’re building a website right now, you’ll want to make sure it appeals to a web user from an Eastern cultural background.
Sure, I know what you’re thinking – really, how much difference can there be between what Mike Lilly and Li Ming want from a website? Well there’s a huge difference. A vast amount of research has gone into analyzing the ways in which different cultures communicate and how this can be applied to online communication, with one of the seminal texts being the work of theorist Edward Hall, particularly his 1990 publication Understanding Cultural Difference. Hall posits that cultures can be defined in one of two categories, as Low Context or High Context. A Low Context culture, which broadly encompasses most Western countries, is one in which meaning is communicated mostly through the content of the message – there is less expectation of a shared cultural understanding and therefore communication is explicit and unmistakeable – think of Germany and the Scandinavian countries as prime examples of Low Context cultures.
A High Context culture, on the other hand, is one in which communication is governed by a set of unwritten but formal rules, taking into the account the social status of the speakers, the context in which they are communicating and the subject at hand. Meaning will often be expressed more through body language, gesture and unspoken assumptions than through what is literally said. The rules of society play a dominant role in communication in High Context cultures (you might say the medium is the message, even), while in Low Context cultures it’s what you actually say that carries the majority of meaning.
You may be thinking that this is all well and good for academics in ivy covered halls to sit around thinking up fancy theories, but how can you actually prove it applies to real life? Funnily enough, psychology professors Denise Park of the University of Illinois and Michael W. Chee of the SingHealth Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory in Singapore must have been thinking the same thing. They published research in 2007 proving that your cultural background really does have an effect on the way your brain processes visual stimuli.
Using cognitive tests and Magnetic Resonance Imaging to scan the brain activity of 37 Americans and 37 Asian subjects, they found that the older members of each test group processed information in distinct ways – when shown identical pictures, the Asian subjects paid more attention to the background or context of the image, while the Western subjects focused on the dominant object. These findings would seem to support Hall’s Low Context and High Context theory – namely, that the subjects from the High Context culture looked for meaning in the context of the given image, while those from the Low Context culture looked to the image’s focus point.
All well and good, but how does all this esoteric theory apply to designing a website? Essentially, designers immersed in a Low Context culture will tend to focus on the vital information at hand and how it can be most clearly framed and expressed, at the expense of providing context to the message. Viewers from a High Context culture will want to read about the company, its business motto, its history, its place in society and its relationship to themselves, while viewers from a Low Context culture will want to just get to the point and find out what they’re being offered and whether it’s of value to them. Take, for instance, the design differences between the local sites for a global company such as Sony – the Sony UK site has all the information you could need right there on the front page, with a focus on the products on sale, while the Sony China front page gives a large chunk of space to news about the company, providing cultural context to the viewer.
Additionally, viewers from High Context cultures are more likely to look to the visual cues for meaning and to fill in the missing context – at its simplest point, this means not being afraid of using plenty of imagery, multimedia and animation when designing a website for a High Context audience. While the generally accepted opinion in Low Context cultures is that it’s unprofessional for a web site’s pages to be diverse in their layout, design and colour schemes, in High Context cultures this is often expected and approved of.
Taking these different expectations into account when designing the information architecture for your site is crucial to ensuring you can communicate effectively across cultural divides, especially if you’re looking to expand into the Chinese market – 1.3 billion new customers is nothing to be scoffed at.
About the author
Christian Arno is founder and Managing Director of global translation company Lingo24, website localization specialists. With clients in over sixty countries and operations spanning four continents, Lingo24 achieved a turnover of $6m USD in 2009.