And so another World Usability day is upon us. 2015 marks the 10th anniversary of the day that seeks to draw attention to the notion of great customer experience and making the world more usable, functional, and intuitive. To put a finer point on it, lists the primary aspirations of the day as making products and services more accessible and easier to use.


This got me thinking about the importance of context, assumptions, and testing methods across the global stage. A key aspect of impartial testing and great usability design is the ability to suspend one’s own personal expectations, evaluating each experience uniquely, within its own specific context.


Preconceptions Are Dangerous


Although they wouldn’t say it directly, many UX and research professionals take a universal approach to testing, research, and development – regardless of region or geography.


You often see brands create a singular design, usually for the local market, and then export it to global markets, trying to shoe-horn an experience into a completely different culture. We lead with what we hope will work, rather than letting users prescribe the solution, hoping that it will be “close enough,” or not deviate so dramatically that it requires major rework. This is “efficient” and even expedient, but is it really the best way to design for global markets?


As an example, several years ago I worked with a Parisian cosmetics company that is a household name for beauty, glamour, and haute fashion. They were launching a web redesign with a major ecommerce component, which was developed by their Paris-based design agency. The design was stunning, and was very well received in Europe… yet they were puzzled as to why it was not performing well in the United States.


Our team dug into the details of the UI, did some heuristics, and reviewed the initial concepts with the agency and client to understand their approach and objectives. From there we ran initial usability testing to document the site reaction from the US market. In the end, we discovered that the primary issue was one of philosophy.


The French design was predicated on the idea that the cosmetic brand was the world’s absolute and unquestioned fashion authority, and their customers should simply get in line and say thank you for the beautifully designed product collection. Users were not allowed to explore color or style variations outside of prescribed looks, which were presented as the pinnacle of fashion.  The site took a staunch curatorial stance that said, “We know more about fashion than you do, so be quiet and take what we give you.  You’re welcome.”


This authoritative stance was not well received in the US. In usability tests, people were frustrated that they couldn’t combine colors and products in the ways they wanted. Self-expression and individuality were sublimated in favor of the brand’s ability to create specific looks and trends. In the end, while they often aligned with the brand’s design decisions, American women didn’t want forced curation, they wanted to be free spirits and arrive at the final conclusion for themselves.


What is Geographic Context?


Walt Disney may want us to think that “It’s a Small World After All,” with the implication that we share a common set of aspirations… that deep down, we all want the same things. With all deference to Abraham Maslow, the stuff on the outside also makes a big difference to how people access and use products and solutions.


The “stuff on the outside” is our environment, which shapes our context as far as what and how we interact with the world around us.  Given that most of the world lives and dies within the same general region, the specific parameters, attributes, and assumptions of a given geography can be deeply ingrained in how people see the world. It’s critical that usability designers understand these nuances and incorporate them in their approach to evaluating, documenting, and solving usability problems on a global scale.


Before you embark on a global usability projects, consider the following areas:


  • Government and social structure: How does the national and regional government impact users’ lifestyles? What constraints are in place, what challenges are created, and how deeply are these dynamics ingrained into the user’s psyche? In addition to laws and personal freedoms, consider parameters around healthcare, consumer advocacy, and public safety.
  • Technical Infrastructure: Consider the presence, diversity, and extent of technology options, as well as communications infrastructure. What devices and brands are prominent (if any), and which OS and software versions are most widely available? Keep in mind that screen size usually correlates to the degree of intimacy between users and their device. Smaller is always more personal. And don’t forget that the network and communications infrastructure will vary dramatically from region to region, and will most likely be much slower than what we’re used to here in the states.
  • Regional Characteristics: Think about the climate, size of geographic area, gender and social norms, literacy and educational standards. These aspects will dramatically shape how you go about collecting inputs and the accuracy of your results.
  • Economy: What can people afford, how accessible are various goods, and what do they cost?
  • Cultural and Artistic Heritage: What are the artistic traditions, mainstream culture conduits, and emotional outlets? This is especially important if you are creating something that relies on design aesthetics or notions of beauty and elegance.




Remember, even though your brand has core values that define what you stand for as a company, those values need to be expressed uniquely, within the context of a given geographic culture. The French cosmetic company needed to understand the unique mindset and context of their American customers, before reaching the conclusion that the brand really was the unquestioned authority.


This can be a fine line to walk, as brands need to retain the unique characteristics that make them special, even as they connects and align with customers across the globe. It’s not easy, and decisions should be thoughtful and deliberate. But it all starts with creating an accurate picture of what various regions and geographies expect and differ from each other.


Think about that the next time you start a globalization project… and have a great World Usability Day, wherever you are.


Daniel Giordan

Daniel Giordan

Partner CX & Interaction Design


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