The Laws of Localization — for Founders

5 models every founder needs to know before building a global product

What is Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is the interdisciplinary study of how and why people interact with technology. It involves behavioral psychology, user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design, language and engineering.

And it’s the most important tool you’ve never heard of.

Here are 5 models every founder needs to know before building a global product:

How we feel

Geert Hofstede is thought of as social psychologist, but he was a management researcher first. His largest research project was conducted within IBM in the 60s and 70s, comparing value differences between segments of the workforce. The study included over 100,000 employees across 50 countries and 3 regions.

From this, he established his theory of Cultural Dimensions. Originally measured across just 4 dimensions, the theory was later expanded upon by a team of Chinese researchers as well as Bulgarian linguist Michael Minkov – who basically cold-emailed Hofstede with his own findings from the World Values Survey.

“[Culture is] the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another."

Geert Hofstede, 1991

There’s a great tool for comparing the results of Hofstede’s work across countries – and it should be everyone’s first step when thinking about product design and localization. Maybe the most important metric is the the uncertainty avoidance index: use it to understand how risk-averse your target demographic is before deciding how much to sink into free trials and money-back guareentes.

How we think

Culture doesn’t just affect how we feel – it changes how we think. Also based on the World Values Survey, political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel created a scatter plot to compare the motivations of people from different cultures, measured across four traits: secular vs traditional, and survival vs self-expression.

The Inglehart–Welzel Map is important whenever you think about audience. Understanding what motivates your customers is the key to getting your foot in the door – it’s your ‘in’. And understanding which cultures share similar motivators can help to mimimize the amount of localization you need to do, too.

How we read

This isn’t just about whether you read left-to-right or not. It’s about how languages engage us – length and density of texts, the kind of expressions used, the ways we interpret tone from punctuation and grammar. Unfortunately, there’s no handy chart for this; it’s all about research.

Another type of ‘reading’ we might overlook is interpreting facial expressions. It’s why facial coding tech like Affectiva is being used by Coca-Cola and Unilever to understand how people read facial expressions, particularly in relation to cultural background. So if your marketing material or digital product includes people, it’s helpful to consider how different cultures might interpret (or misinterpret) the same expression.

“Cultural distinctions could lead to missed cues or misinterpreted signals about emotions during cross-cultural communications.”

Dr Rachael Jack, 2011

This comparison shows how different a localized site can look in 2 languages, that goes beyond translation.

How we see

Clean or cluttered? That’s one of the biggest questions when it comes to design, and if you’re from the US you’re probably screaming “clean!”

But that preference isn’t universal.

“Our first website simulated what Amazon did, very clean using the navigation bars to search and so on, but we found that our customers didn’t like it …Our consumers like a page [to be] very crowded, busy, with lots of links.”

Yu Gang, chairman of Chinese grocery store Yihaodian

People from different cultural backgrounds interpet a dense or crowded user interface as either overwhelming or informative. A simple UI might come across as modern or vague.

Check out the difference between Amazon and Taobao, a Chinese online shopping platform:

How we act

Richard Lewis is a social theorist who specializes in cross-cultural communication. He spent time in 135 countries before writing his book, When Cultures Collide, outlining the Lewis Model.  The model shows how our behavior is influenced by culture by breaking them down into 3 types: linear-active, multi-active and reactive.

The categories are defined by shared dominant behavioral traits, including talkativeness, body language, punctuality, work ethic, volatility, compassion, tactility and sociability. More importantly for us, these traits also include commercial behaviors: how and why we make purchases; our attitudes towards money; and how materialistic we are.

This can not only help you to decide where to sell your product but how to market it. For a German audience, the Lewis Model would encourage you to keep things factual and logical; for a Russian audience, use emotive language and facilitate impulse buys.

It can feel like the way we use the internet is universal — that translating the text on your webpage is enough to reach an infinite audience of new consumers. But localization is just as important in the digital age as it was in the analog one. With these models, you’re one step closer to achieving a truly global product.

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