Four Boxes of Rice: How Cultural Empathy Drives Good Interaction Design

I ordered Indian food today. Well, for me…just food. When I opened the sizable brown paper bag, I was shocked that with every entree, I had an equal quantity of rice. So, four entrees, four rice boxes. World. Rocked.

Why did the amount of rice rock my world? Because in India, that’s how much rice is eaten in proportion to the “sabji” and “dal” (in western translation-entrees).

What other cultures fail to recognize is that rice is technically the “entree” in Indian cuisine. The mentality is that you mix items like veggies, lentils, meat, etc. into rice rather than combine rice into those items. Why? Maybe because originally, these foods were consumed by hand and liquids are slightly harder to grasp (IMHO).

However, in Southern California, I would be lucky to find half that amount of rice with those number of entrees. Somehow, somewhere, the heart of my cuisine was compromised due to the sporadic blending of cultures and dining expectations.


So how does my dining experience tie into interaction design? There is a thin but powerful string that binds it-culturally empathetic design.

On a side note, did you ever notice how food is such an essential human experience that we rarely think of it as an interactive experience? Needless to say, it is high up there on the list of fundamental interactive experiences and yet, most of us prefer to experience it with our eyes glued to our new Netflix binge. But I Digress…

Want examples of culturally empathetic (or not so much) designs? Glad you asked.

  1.  KFC is providing a vegetarian menu in India. KFC was not welcomed in India with open arms because of how it fundamentally challenged religious beliefs in the country. However, it has managed to stay because of its incredible upheaval of services and products offered. The above vegetarian effort is another way it is trying to understand its user’s needs.
  2. Chevy Nova kept its name in Spanish speaking countries, to its horror. “Many acts of cross-cultural marketing have failed, such as the marketing 101 tale of the Chevrolet Nova, whose sales tanked in Spanish speaking countries because “No va,” means “doesn’t go” in Spanish.” -Transfluent
  3. Coke used Korean bloggers, especially “mom bloggers” to penetrate the South Korean market once they realized the following: “About 43% of South Korea’s population maintains an online profile or blog site, according to Tomi Ahonen and Jim O’ Reilly’s book Digital Korea, while 9 out of 10 twenty-something Koreans log onto social-networking sites daily.” -Adage

Just like the best Indian meals need to be proportioned with rice in mind, the best design practices need to be proportioned with cultural empathy in mind.
We are increasingly creating digital experiences for the world, often with only the perspectives afforded by our limited scopes. The short-sightedness, due to our limited scopes, can rid us of considerable time and resources. It can also greatly affect our credibility and reputation. Read about IBM’s scope-driven major fail here.
Furthermore, designing experiences for the world is becoming more and more about customization to its user’s needs, and conforming to its user’s mental and cultural models, rather than trying to change the user’s mental and cultural models.

So how do you create culturally empathetic experiences?

  1. Your best-case strategy is to find a sizable number of cultural natives and have them walk you through their perception of the experience you’ve crafted.
  2. Your second strategy is to get some remote participants through your social stream or through professional platforms (like MTurk etc.) to review for cultural red-flags, sensitivities, etc. This method does rely on your ability to ask some remarkably specific questions to assure yourself that you are getting genuine, actionable feedback.
  3. Your worst-case strategy is personally combing your content piece-by-piece and comparing it with relevant cultural material out there. For example, if you are creating a lotion for the Indian population, find out the cultural implications of the word “brightening.” Similarly, if you are creating a lotion for French people, scope how the word “natural” resonates with them.

The combination of the three strategies above would provide you a multi-dimensional approach to cultural empathy.

The digital world expands our visibility of the real world every day, but it doesn’t necessarily present a clear vision of what is happening, especially when it comes to local cultures within which people interact every day. Most of our digital content consists of echoes, duplicated content possessing only a shell of the content’s truth. Think of it as a world where everything we experience is filtered through the same filter. Everything appears similar, even when it is not.
To create great design means creating authenticity. Authenticity can be generated by tapping into the unique cultural and societal context experienced by people every day. Great design can only result from being inclusive of cultural context rather than creating a “homogeneous” design that assumes too much.

How do you know that you’ve created a culturally empathetic design?

  1. When cultural natives commend you on your design sensitivity. The first thing I did upon receiving the boxes of rice? Leave feedback saying, “These people know Indian cuisine.”

  2. When cultural natives frequently use your design. If they like it, they will use it. ‘Nuf said.

  3. When cultural natives promote your design. If someone is your design’s mouthpiece, you are doing something right.

  4. If your cultural empathy in your design is on point, the interactions will feel natural in the context of your user’s culture. Another way to gauge your design’s effectiveness against others that frequent your market space with similar target user. For example, Alibaba.com is very different from Amazon.com and Amazon.in is very different from Amazon.ca.




Comments Below:


Have you applied the cultural empathy to your design thinking? Is there an even better way to apply the cultural empathy that I didn’t cover? I’d love to know! Comments below are waiting for your thoughts…

CREDITS: Although I’ve created or captured all graohics for this article, the stock images I’ve used are courtesy of Pixelbay