4 usability take-aways from international testing

Many companies do their usability testing with users that are located around their researchers or headquarters. This is often a requirement: Usability studies are often carried out in face-to-face settings, labs are sometimes in-house and well equipped and a face-to-face meeting offers possibilities that remote testing simply doesn’t have. Also, remote testing can be tricky because of countless technical problems (every time you think you fixed it all, something new comes up). This means that companies with international target markets don’t always test with all their markets. 

However, I want to highlight here how valuable it can be to test with users of all your target nations! I was surprised to find numerous differences even with the pure usability of a site. Thus, culture is one of the key variables for testing usability!

Comparing it to desk research in this field, a lot of the international testing findings relate to findings in academic research (an example for this would be Salvendy’s Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics, 2012). However, the first take-away learning is that there are many things you cannot anticipate before you see the actual users try it out. You may be surprised how one and the same website can create very different feedback and problems if you give it to users from different countries.

Here is a short list of things that differ across cultures and may thus impact your website test:

  • Preferred devices
  • Habits
  • (Web) standards
  • Cultural differences and resulting preferences
  • Languages

The next four points will be specific examples of how these differences impact usability and other web design choices.

1. Different device usage and habits: Not all German users will see what's below the fold.

Of course, you will know that the distribution of Mac/PC or iPhone/Android varies strongly between countries (the first time I personally had to deal with a Mac in a professional context was after moving from Germany to the UK). However, there are other things that may influence the usage of a website apart from browser-specific technical implications:

One typical usability problem is connected to different screen sizes: If the fold of a website happens to be located at a place that visually suggests that this might be the end of the website (for example if it sits below the hero image but you cannot see the next element yet), users are less likely to scroll in order to find out if there is more below the fold. In my international research projects, this mostly happened in Germany. It turns out that in Germany, small laptops with equally small screen sizes (e.g. 8.9 inches) and resolutions (e.g. 1024 x 600) are not uncommon. I personally used a similar device when I was still studying in Germany during my time in the UK, I have never seen anything comparable. (I don’t have stats but I assume smaller devices are more common in Germany.)

What adds further to this problem is the fact that German participants are also the ones who are least likely to scroll. Many just click through menus or follow links. As mentioned, for some this makes sense as it may look as if the page ends at the fold anyway, but there are others that don't scroll either. Sometimes, even after having been prompted to scroll down, they stopped scrolling at some point of their choosing and were surprised later that there was still more below. There seem to be two types of users: Some will scroll and some will just not.

This habit could be connected to standards in German web pages of course: I assume that German webpages are on average shorter aka require less scrolling than UK pages (sorry, I am not aware of statistics to back this up but it matches my personal experiences).

2. Different (web) standards: URLs matter mostly to American or UK users.

There are lots of differences in web standards that differ strongly from country to country. I can strongly recommend collecting some screenshots of the leaders of your industry in each country, they will give you good insights in standards and things that need changing (see also point 4). For example, style and colours of Chinese and US websites differ strongly.

With regard to the URL, another interesting phenomenon exists: In the UK and US (and to some degree China as well), the URL is a relevant identifier for the page of website. In the US it is common to have different URL endings depending on the field you operate in (e.g .com / .edu / .gov), in Germany, there is almost always just one ending (.de). If you want, for marketing purposes, appear international, you sometimes find German addresses that end with .com as well, but basically all German websites end with .de; Government, universities and shopping sites alike. Thus, for Germans, the URL is merely a tool to open a site, while for US and UK people it also provides information about the site’s source and its credibility.

3. Different cultures and resulting preferences: German users like to double-check.

A good place to start research into a foreign culture is Hofstede’s cultural dimensions website. But it will also help you to interpret your findings correctly. In general, it is worth noting that UK and US score pretty comparable on all dimensions while Germany and China differ strongly on some dimensions. Thus, if you're developing a site in the US or UK for the respective other country, results may be much more in line with your expectations than if you test in countries that differ more strongly, such as Germany or China. They may be producing more surprising findings.

As can be found on Hofstede’s website, Germany scores much higher regarding “Uncertainty Avoidance” than UK (65 vs. 35 on a scale up to 100). This means they want to be prepared for everything, they want to insure everything (my personal experience agrees) and they want to make sure, e.g. by relying on experts. Thus, it is not surprising that lots of German users get very excited if they find objective references or links or point out when they feel like something is too subjective/not backed up with data. 

4. Different languages: Chinese users need images.

While there are well-known problems caused by translation. For example, German words are famous for their length, which causes issues in UIs. A funny example can be found at Facebook, where “Likes” is translated as “Gefällt mir-Angaben”. However, even more significant are differences such as using a sign language, which works completely different than western languages. I learned Japanese for two years, so this actually helped me to understand some of the findings. However, it was very interesting to see Chinese users valuing every single image on the page. Many users started the page (where there is a hero image of course) and scrolled down, skipping the texts, until they found the next image. They expect images to explain the ideas of a text and they also use them to navigate the page, e.g. the in-page search of a site can get found more quickly when a magnifying glass is added next to the word “search”.

If you look at Chinese websites, they have lots of images and symbols – I know that in sign languages, you cannot read words you don’t know. Imagine that – we only have 26 characters and you can read every single word there is. Chinese people need thousands of signs to read a newspaper. It’s incredibly hard and thus many people with a sign language as their mother tongue wish they spoke their own languages better. I assume that reading (and typing) just takes longer and is harder than it would be in another language system, which means that visual cues gain importance as a matter of communication. Thus, images on Chinese websites should be more frequent and should actually match the content as opposed to merely being decoration.