The Universality of UX: Using Local Knowledge

In 2016, the Canadian government recovered the wreck of HMS Terror, a ship that made three separate expeditions to the Arctic circle, the last of which – when the Franklin Expedition tried to force the Northwest Passage – ended in the ship being lost with all hands in 1845 along with the HMS Erebus.

After a 200 year hunt for the lost ships, and the acquisition of a remote-controlled submersible by the Canadian Parks Service in 2014, there would have been little hope, given the sheer size of the water that needed to be searched, if it hadn’t been for the assistance of the local Inuit people, who had passed down story of the ships for generations.

Tragically, if the British had listened to the Inuit people back in 1845, it is quite likely that the crews of the Terror and Erebus might have been rescued before their supplies ran out and the cannibalism started. In much the same way, about 5 years after the loss of the Terror, Sir Richard Burton was studying malaria and casually dismissed the Somali people’s claims that it was spread by mosquitos. It only took the British another 50 years to finally prove and accept what the locals had known for centuries.

We’ve realized that the intricacies of culture and shared history can completely disrupt what we might think of as the usual patterns of behavior

History is populated by people who thought they knew better, completely ignoring local knowledge and setting their goals back as a result. At Sutherland Labs we strive to understand the culture and behaviour of the countries we run research in. One of the ways we have been able to do this is by working with the UX Alliance. Comprized of 25 partner companies and 55 facilities worldwide, the UXA gives us access to local knowledge from around the globe.

Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo, Japan

Over the years we’ve realized that the intricacies of culture and shared history can completely disrupt what we might think of as the usual patterns of behavior. For instance, whilst conducting research in East Asia we found that certain cultures were reluctant to criticize, which meant we had to entirely rethink our approach to the research. Conversely, we found that Japanese respondents had very different expectations of customer service and would therefore judge poor service particularly harshly. Proving that if you aren’t aware of the way culture shapes responses, you won’t be able to interpret the data correctly.

And when it comes to design, even the simplest symbols can lose all meaning the moment you step away from the culture where they were created. For example in Asia, most of the population have been introduced to the Internet for the first time via the mobile phone, rather than computers (as Europe/N America) which means they have a very different take on design conventions as a result of not using a mouse.

Ladakh, India

Ladakh, India

The fundamentals of UX are important to any research, but it is important to remember those rules can change depending upon where you are. Understanding the culture and local norms of the real people living in an area is vital to delivering the best end-to-end experiences for our clients and can often make the difference between a product’s success or failure.

Director of UX Design

Sutherland Labs
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