ARTICLE: Jacob Hansen

A primer on how to design your EdTech product for cross-cultural users

When you identify that you have cross-cultural product users or you want to expand to other regions, design complexity ensues. Your EdTech product’s UX design choices are important; everything from color to copywriting directly impacts how your users experience your product. Each design element either helps meet your users’ needs — or prevents them from being met. Supporting users in other parts of the world requires special considerations, both in language and culture. You’ll want to make your product inclusive and comfortable to use, just like you do for those in your own community. Scaling your product in this direction requires a lot more than Google Translate, and your product team may not anticipate all the work required. 

The danger? All your hard-won UX gains can begin to dissolve during the translation process. 

Ideally, users who speak other languages shouldn’t be able to detect that your product was originally designed for another country and culture. Sticking to a few basic principles will help you maintain UX integrity and meet the needs of users near and far. 

Consistent UX Patterns Will Make Your Product Universally Usable

Consistent UX design needs to be both intuitive and inclusive for all users. In order to develop consistent UX patterns, you should conduct user research, early and oftenand adhere to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Conduct Research to Gain Insight About Users’ Mental Models

Knowing whether or not your design is enjoyable for cross-cultural users requires constant research about their mental models — how people reason, sort, and simplify information.

Mental models are shaped in part by common, everyday digital experiences, like online gaming and shopping. They’re also shaped by individual experiences and culture. One-on-one interviews can be particularly powerful as you expand into international markets. Be intentional about selecting diverse groups of users to interview; that way, you can reveal any misconceptions/assumptions and adjust accordingly.

Always Follow General Web Accessibility Guidelines 

All web content must meet WCAG accessibility guidelines. That means your product’s copy must consistently be:

  • Perceivable: Information must be presented in ways perceived by the senses.
  • Operable: User interface (UI) must be navigable.
  • Understandable: Users must be able to comprehend the information.
  • Robust: Content must work consistently across browsers. 

Upholding these four general principles for speakers of other languages will be a different and more difficult task than one in your native tongue. Case in point: Western users navigate from left to right since that is how we write and read. People who speak Arabic navigate in the opposite direction. You would need to mirror your design so it’s inclusive for both orientations in this instance.

Don’t Just Translate UX Copy: Localize It

If you rely on an automatic translation service, it simply turns text from one language into another. This kind of translation prioritizes spelling rules and correct grammar, which is usually not the way people communicate in any culture. Users are easily turned off when translation is awkward and unnatural. 

Localization, on the other hand, transforms the entire message into another language. Spelling and grammar rules can be bent to fit context. When your product’s copy is localized (and thus authentic to how users actually communicate), cross-cultural users will feel like it was designed for them

Localized copy will:

  • Demonstrate contextual understanding. Translators who localize your copy need to understand its context. You may need to provide briefs.
  • Avoid using jargon, slang, and idioms. Take care to avoid words with double meanings, and keep language simple and clear.
  • Use gender-neutral pronouns. Pronouns are confusing in translation. So stay neutral and avoid them if possible.
  • Bear in mind space limitations. You don’t want an overflow on text buttons and may need to provide character limits to translators.

Your product’s copy should be conversational. As you choose how to localize your copy (by human or computer), you should always have it checked by someone native to the language.

And don’t forget: Other cultures use different ways of expressing dates, times, and measurements.

Use Appropriate Font Styles, Imagery, and Iconography to Facilitate Understanding 

Part of excellent translation is using the right font styles; use the wrong font and you’ll have a host of fit issues. There are three broad font classifications that contain a wide range of characters: Western, Arabic, and CJK (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean). These classifications impact UX design in terms of:

  • Character width. For example, Japanese letters take up more horizontal space.
  • Character height. Thai characters take up more vertical space.
  • Character compactness. English and Chinese are compact; translations will almost certainly be longer in length. 
  • Character conciseness. For example, Japanese and Chinese will use one or two characters to convey what several words do in English. 

Ideally, the font you choose can be used across cultures to maintain your product’s look and feel. Apple is a great example. Their devices all use their San Francisco font, which supports different weights, sizes, styles, and languages. No matter your language, it’s clear you’re using an Apple product.

Imagery and iconography are also vital elements of any product page. Both are great ways for users to understand and use your product without having to solely rely on copy. However, when you’re undertaking cross-cultural UX design , you’ll have to stay vigilant about how images and icons might be interpreted. Bear in mind that:

  • Mental models are at play with imagery and icons; common imagery like 👍 or ✌️ can be offensive gestures in some cultures. 
  • Illustrations of people should be inclusive (show a variety of cultures, skin tones). Skip Corporate Memphis — at first glance, it looks inclusive. The truth is that its generic illustrations can actually be alienating to users. Plus, it’s everywhere.
  • Colors can carry symbolic meaning, so be sure to research that relationship.

Multiple Languages, One Goal

Expanding your product in multiple places or for multiple languages is exciting. But it’s also the ultimate accessibility challenge for UX design. 

Will you continue to create user experiences that support both universal and unique needs?

  • Photo of Jacob Hansen
    Jacob Hansen

    In the role of UX Design Lead at Openfield, Jacob’s collaborative approach to helping our clients plan and execute upon key product roadmap priorities is an asset to all those around him. His responsibilities include mentorship and guidance to ensure Openfield staff grow and uphold our standards for excellence. Jacob is a prolific character illustrator, a passion that blends his love of design, fine art, gaming and cartooning in both traditional and digital media. He is a storyteller who is inspired by both film and its history. He’s also a huge fan of Disney theme parks for the visitor experiences they deliver. Additionally, Jacob enjoys running road races, kayaking, gaming and learning on guitar and banjo.

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