The Sociology of Interfaces
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed May 18 08:00:00 GMT 2005

Local culture plays a key role in determining mobile interfaces.

Why is it that Koreans and Japanese overwhelmingly insist on clear menu labels for mobile services, but fewer than half of Finnish people care? And why do 80 percent of Japanese and Finnish think that mobile search facilities are important, while only 30 percent of Koreans do?

The answer lies in cultural differences. To understand why this is true, it's important to understand what culture means in this context: Geert Hofstede, a professor emeritus at Maastricht University, said culture is "the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group from people from another."

Cultural Dimensions

In the 1970s, Hofstede conducted a wide-ranging study about cultural differences in over 50 countries. His 1981 book, "Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations," is considered a classic in the field of contemporary cultural anthropology. Hofstede, and another anthropologist Edward T. Hall, were pioneers in the establishment of "cultural dimensions," which define the characteristics and behaviors of large groups.

The work of Hofstede and Hall came into play in a recent study sponsored by by the Korea Research Foundation Grant and conducted by Boreum Choi, Inseong Lee and Jinwoo Kim of the Human Computer Interface Lab at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, and Yunsuk Jeon of the Economics and Management college at the University of Helsinki. They recently published the results of their study in a paper entitled "A Qualitative Cross-National Study of Cultural Influences on Mobile Data Service Design," and the findings are both fascinating and potentially quite useful to designers.

The researchers differentiated between three different cultures by rating them across four cultural dimensions: "uncertainty avoidance" (the amount of effort someone expends to maintain predictability and minimize risk), "individualism vs. collectivism" (the degree to which someone focuses on the welfare of the group at the expense of the individual), "context" (the amount of "background information" needed to feel confident that a message is fully understood and "time perception" ("monochronic" people prefer to perform one task at a time, while "polychronics" are multitaskers who focus more on relationships than sticking to a hard and fast to-do list).

Hofstede and Hall found that Koreans and Japanese, as groups, are uncertainty avoiders, but that Finns are more willing to take risks. They also found that Japanese and Finnish are more individualistic in their thinking, while Koreans, on the whole, are collectivists. Japanese and Koreans are "high context," Finns are "low context." All three cultures lean towards monochronism (France is an example of a polychronic culture).

Using these findings as a foundation, the HCI researchers produced 12 video clips. Three videos depicted people in Japan, Korea and Finland downloading ringtones (one video for each country), another three showed how they downloaded games, another three showed people reserving movie tickets and the final three showed how they read sports news. Eight study participants from each country watched all 12 videos and were interviewed about their impressions. They were asked to responds to questions such as "What do you think of the overall process of the Japanese mobile data services?" and "Is there anything about the Korean mobile data services you didn't like?"

From these interviews, the researchers identified 52 important attributes of mobile data services, such as loading speed, screen size and line spacing. The researchers then identified the cultural reasons why participants from the different countries rated certain data service attributes as being more important than others.

How They Scored

This study revealed a great deal about the cultural effects of mobile data services. In Korea, for instance, where people tend to think along collective, rather than individualistic lines, it's important for data services to have content ranking. Koreans like to see what the most popular ringtones are and and use that information as part of their decision-making process. But Japanese and Finnish are more interested in finding the music that they, as individuals, want to hear.

One thing that everyone agreed on, regardless of the country they were from, was that "minimal steps or keystrokes" to get something done on their phone was of supreme importance. If that's the only lesson an interface designer takes away from this study, it would make users all over the world a lot happier.

The researchers hope to conduct additional interviews with more people from the three countries, as well as other countries. It will be interesting to see how American and other European cultures view mobile data services.