The Power of Cultural Personas

Theodora Vaxevanou
4 min readSep 11, 2023

Understanding your users in their cultural context means understanding behavior.

Photo: Mexico City Metro (source:https://transitmap.net/mexico-icons/)

In today’s globalized world, as Arjun Appadurai describes in his theory of ‘non-places,’ physical and virtual spaces are continuously transforming. Airports, shopping malls, and digital platforms have become hubs where people from diverse cultural backgrounds meet and connect. These ‘non-places’ transcend the tangible boundaries of traditional cultural contexts and provide us UX people with new opportunities.

As users move fluidly between physical and digital non-places, they bring with them their unique perceptions, behaviors, and mental expectations. Whether you’re designing for an app that connects freelancers at an international hub or a digital marketplace accessed by users worldwide, cultural dimensions are not detained by geographical borders.

In the field of UX design, understanding your users is paramount to crafting intuitive and satisfying experiences. However, not all users see the world through the same lenses. Users are people who naturally come from diverse cultural backgrounds, each with its unique values and behaviors. With that in mind, are traditional user personas enough to comprehend our users?

Let’s dive into an example that illustrates perfectly the pitfalls of failing to encompass the cultural dimension when crafting personas.

Imagine you’re designing a mobile app intended for a global audience, and you want to incorporate a hand gesture icon to represent a “stop” or “halt” action. In most Western cultures, an open palm facing outward to represent this meaning matches the mental models of users.

However, here’s where cultural relativism plays a key role. In Greece and some other Mediterranean cultures, displaying an open palm with fingers extended is considered offensive, similar to giving someone the middle finger in Western cultures. In Greece we call this gesture “moutza” and recently a fine of €100 has been imposed if a driver makes an offensive gesture or engages in inappropriate behavior. As you understand, using that gesture in your app may not be a great idea, to put it lightly.

Understanding Cultural Personas:

Cultural personas are basically a more elaborated version of traditional UX personas. Their most important asset is that they delve deeper into users’ cultural context, helping us create more inclusive and effective user experiences.

The framework we will utilize for this is Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory.

Hofstede’s theory identifies five critical dimensions:

  1. Power Distance: How society views power and hierarchy.
  2. Individualism vs. Collectivism: The balance between individual and group interests.
  3. Masculinity vs. Femininity: The emphasis on traditionally perceived masculine or feminine traits.
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance: The tolerance for ambiguity and change.
  5. Long-Term vs. Short-Term Orientation: Society’s perspective on time and tradition.

Application in UX Design:

Understanding these dimensions is crucial for tailoring intuitive and inclusive user experiences. For instance, in individualistic cultures, autonomy and self-expression are key, so you might want to focus more on customization and provide as much freedom for self-expression as possible to your users.

Companies such as Airbnb and Netflix have effectively incorporated cultural dimensions into their UX design strategies, exemplified by Airbnb’s localized experiences and Netflix’s personalized content recommendations. However, in our increasingly interconnected world, characterized by migration, multilingualism, and engagement across multiple and diverse cultural spaces online, further research is imperative to navigate the evolving complexities of user experiences.

Suppose you are a Greek immigrant or expat living in the Netherlands (like me!), and you primarily use your Netflix account to watch Greek-language films and series to stay connected with your cultural roots. However, because your current location is in the Netherlands, Netflix’s content recommendation algorithms prioritize Dutch and English content. Dat is jammer, toch (that is a bummer, right)?

Why Cultural Personas?

By considering cultural dimensions, you can improve user engagement, expand your market reach, and reduce the risk of cultural insensitivity or confusion points which can be very costly in your designs.

Practical Steps:

  1. Research: Conduct thorough research on your target audience’s cultural context. If you have time/budget restrictions consider being more flexible by selecting a few (5 or more)participants to conduct a contextual inquiry session and/or in-depth interviews.
  2. Persona Creation: Incorporate cultural dimensions into your personas (e.g. Zoe appreciates recommendations for TV shows and movies that blend Spanish and American culture or have multilingual subtitles.)
  3. Design Iteration: Continuously test and iterate your designs based on user feedback

Tip: Contextual inquiry is a great method to uncover any mismatched mental models that derive from cultural differences.

Conclusion

Cultural personas are not a one-size-fits-all solution, but they’re a powerful tool for creating user-centric designs that resonate with diverse audiences in today’s complex world. By considering cultural dimensions and contexts, you can craft more meaningful and powerful user experiences. Let’s not forget that culture is what we do and therefore is essential when conducting behavioural research in UX Design.By embracing the cultural dimension in your UX design journey — you follow a path to greater inclusivity and success.

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Theodora Vaxevanou

UX Designer and Social Anthropologist based in the Netherlands