A one-size-fits-all approach to product development is bound to fail
"Cross-cultural design is all about developing culturally
neutral products, but sometimes even everyday services
can pose unexpected problems to users," says Sari Kujala.
Over the past few years, we have come to understand how culturally heterogeneous our digitalized global village really is. Penetrating new markets for Western technology requires in-depth knowledge about the target country and its culture.
For example, in Finland mobile phone developers and lift manufacturers take usability as well as cultural differences into consideration when designing their products. Interest towards cross-cultural design in other fields has also grown in step with the financial resources of developing countries.
When Professor Sari Kujala, who is an expert in usability, began to specialize in user-centred design in the 1990s, the cultural aspects of product development were still largely ignored. It is still often considered sufficient if the colour, language and symbols of a mobile phone correspond to the conventions of the target country.
"Now there is already some research data on the subject. We need information on users' values and habits to ensure usability and positive user experiences across cultural boundaries", says Kujala.
TUT a pioneer in cross-cultural design
TUT is the only university in Finland that offers education on cross-cultural design. Several ongoing research projects at the University focus on, for example, R&D in the field of mechanical engineering and on the evaluation of user experiences and design processes.
Technology is never unambiguously good or bad. Cross-cultural design is all about developing culturally neutral products that can be further localized to give them a domestic touch.
"Our challenge is to develop cost-efficient methods that provide easily comparable information on cultural differences that can be applied even in small companies. We are also keen to develop solutions for the remote collection of user feedback, because feedback at the prototype stage is invaluable," adds Kujala.
Consumers want novelties but not at any price
Western consumers are not what they used to be. In the 1990s people expected information technology to be reliable and to increase their efficiency at work. Nowadays they are seeking positive user experiences and novelties.
"But we don't want complicated technology that will become obsolete in a few years", says Professor Gilbert Cockton who is one of the world's leading researchers in human-centred technology and value-centred design. He was one of the keynote speakers at a seminar on the challenges of cross-cultural design that was arranged at TUT in autumn 2009.
One example of the problems we face with digital technology is the combination of a TV, DVD player and digital TV adapter. In order for the devices to work together, they are connected to each other with an assortment of cables, plugs and adapters.
"And taking a new mobile phone or a laptop into use can be a real nuisance. There ought to be a way to make the transfer of data and applications between devices easier than it is now", says Cockton.
"Consumers find it annoying if they can't understand why a device is not working properly. In the 60s and 70s household appliances could still be fixed at home. But if you buy a computer now, you don't even know what you're buying", describes Cockton.
According to Cockton, a well-designed product meets two essential criteria. Firstly, it needs to be suitable for its purpose and secondly, the buyer needs to believe the product is worth its price.