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Being back from vacation and all ready to go again, here is my input on the not so obvious elements that can have cultural influences on website design. The question is whether there are other elements than the ‘ovious’ ones such as language or reading direction which enhance or decrease the usability of a website based on a different culture. In this respect research attempted to show whether other elements that ‘define’ or are part of culture could possibly have an effect on the way users perceive and use websites. Research has tried to determine the elements that differentiate one culture from another. As a result many different cultural dimensions were identified such as Power Distance or High Uncertainty Avoidance vs. Low Uncertainty Avoidance. Geert Hofstede’s work on this topic is one of the well-known and well discussed research in this respect.

A very interesting approach was taken by Aaron Marcus and Associates. In their paper about Cultural Dimensions and Global Web Design they investigate in which way Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions might affect user-interface designs. One example they mention is that users from a culture which is characterized by trying to avoid uncertainty (High Uncertainty Avoidance) would probably prefer a website that has a simple design instead of lots of ambiguity.

All in all researchers don’t fully agree on this topic. The disagreement derives from the unsettled discussion about how to define culture in the first place. Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions are often criticized not to be accurate since they evolved out of a study that took place in a corporate environment and is therefore influence by a corporate culture.

However, I think applying cultural dimensions to web site design definately is an interesting approach that should be considered when dealing with the creation and design of websites.

When talking about what it is that I want to do I could not help but get the feeling that the importance of user experience seems to be something that has not been fully acknowledged as a field itself yet – especially in Calgary when you think of how few jobs are out there. The usability of a website sometimes even seems to be taken for granted. Usually the general assumption when it comes to creating websites seems to be that you only need a web designer who will ‘make your website look good’. But having a website that looks good does not necessarily mean that it is actually useable. And especially when you have an e-commerce website, isn’t it more important that your users easily know how to operate your website instead of becoming frustrated and then leaving it?

My favourite example when it comes to explaining to people what I would like to do and based on what I did during my studies is talking about cultural influences on website design. First of all, there are the obvious cultural elements that influence website design such as language, the direction of reading and colours. But there are also deeper elements that have an influence on the usability of a website. However, even the ‘obvious’ elements are sometimes still ignored and can have a deep impact on the usability of a website. I remember one example when the internet was just starting to be accessible to everybody that the E-mail icon on the desktops in Germany was represented as a rural (Northamerican) mailbox. Well, a lot of users in Germany had no idea what this icon was intended to be for since our mailboxes in Germany simply look different. Of course this had a huge impact on the usability. As we all know, later on the icon was changed to a more universal image – the envelope. Also, considering the fact that different cultures have different reading directions can have a huge impact on website design. Not only the text needs to be adapted to the target culture but the whole design of the website, too.

These examples always make sense to the people I talk to, however, I often receive the comment: “This makes absolute sense but I have never even thought about it!” Adapting a product to its target culture, also known as the process of localization, is not particularly new but it seems that when it comes to website design this process is still sometimes being overlooked. Not so much the very “obvious” elements such as language but when it comes to icons, for example, it is more likely to be overlooked. The reason why this is still prevailing might be connected to the fact that the World Wide Web (WWW) is a medium that is accessible by all kind of different cultures and it might be hard to determine the target users. But especially the fact that the WWW  is a multicultural medium for communication should increase the awareness of influences that culture can have on website design.

Next steps

In April I finally got equipped with my work visa and was ready to find a job. With the recession in full process and me being failry new to the market, the amount of advertised information architect positions in Calgary were rather few to almost none. The ones I did apply for soon initiated hiring stops which did not really bring my job search forward. Giving up to look for a job in the user experience/information architect area was not an option since this is really what I want to do. However, realizing that the user experience community in Calgary is really small turned my job search to be quite frustrating. In the meantime, in order to be out there in the job market at all, I accepted an administrative position with a Career Transition company. It ended up being the best that could have ever happened to me (from a job seeker’s point of view). Not only did I get to meet great people but I also learned so many valuable job search techniques that I had never considered before.

Decisions, decisions

While waiting for my work visa, there was not much I could do. In order to stay on topic I published a paper which was basically a short version of my master thesis. Also, I researched the possible target companies for my job search here in Calgary. But first of all I needed to figure out what the conventional name was for what I wanted to do. Questions over questions: What kind of job am I looking for? What is the English job description for what I want to do? IS THERE A JOB IN CALGARY IN THE AREA OF WHAT I WANT TO DO??? Since Calgary is a city that is very driven by the Oil & Gas industry I sure had a hard time finding something more specific than just “website designers”. Other than courses in user experience, international advertising or personalization I especially focused on cultural influences in website design during my studies. And my goal was and still is to find a job where I can apply my expertise in this field. Years ago I already heard of Critical Mass which is a digital marketing agency. This time when I checked their job board again I finally found a job description that totally suits what I want to do: Information Architecture.

The beginning

Ever been in the situation where you had to think about what kind of career path you want to pursue?

Well, in my case it was kind of like this but a little different. I had decided that I want to do my MA degree in International Information Management and did so. I had also decided that after I was done with my studies I would fully move to Canada (meaning that I would put an end of traveling between Germany and Canada about 4 times a year). And I also did so. Because I knew that I would be in Canada after my studies I even decided to compose my MA thesis in English. So there was my thesis: ” Social Software Component Integration: Collaborative Knowledge Development in E-Learning Environments for University teaching”. With all this being done there was one more thing I had to do…move to Canada. And so I did. In June 2008 I finally fully moved to Calgary and this is how it all started…