Global Market, Global Emotion, Global Design? - 9 August 2007
by Marco van Hout
Read this article in Chinese (translated by Kyle Chen, proofread by Christina Li)
In the current discussion of where design is going and what matters, there is an emphasis on the user and his or her (emotional) experience. It is a hot topic in books, blogs and the minds of industrial designers and interaction designers, worldwide. The importance of a focus on (emotional) experiences in addition to a merely technological or functional focus is being stressed by professionals with many different cultural backgrounds.
As Levitt (1983) suggested in the Eighties, the world has become a global market place, or a ‘global village’, where each and every consumer shares similar values, lifestyles and desires for product quality and modernity. Does this also imply that there is something like a common ‘emotional experience’? In my opinion, the answer to this question is two-fold. First of all, people share basic emotional reactions and basic human needs. This makes us all part of the same species, so to speak. However, different culturally specific contexts can make a person from Asia evaluate the same stimulus differently from a European person. But, does this count for all products and designs?
A study by Morris and Pai (1997) measured the difference in experience of pleasure, arousal and dominance (PAD) with advertisements between Taiwanese and American subjects. The results indicated that there were no significant overall differences in emotional responses to the ads. Nevertheless, they conclude by saying that culture indeed has some influence on the emotional response to some commercials. This supports the assumption that there are cultural factors influencing the emotional experience. I will try to explain below how I think differences in emotional experience between cultures occur.
People share a set of general needs. Hassenzahl (2004) distinguishes between needs for manipulation (goal-achievement), stimulation (personal growth, an increase of knowledge and skills), identification (self-expression, interaction with relevant others) and evocation (self-maintenance, memories). Needs that are fulfilled create positive emotions, whereas needs that are not fulfilled promote negative emotions. As we all share these needs, it is likely to assume that they are similar for people from different cultural backgrounds. However, if we all share these needs, how different are they weighted between cultures to explain the differences we notice in product experience? The answer lies in the context or particular usage situation of the product.
Emotions happen in context, and it makes sense to state that cultural differences can create pretty different contextual settings. Let’s take something simple as having dinner at home – and, I will be generalizing here: In many western cultures, having dinner is just something you do before you start your evening filled with activities such as sports, theatre, etc. In many eastern cultures, having dinner is the event of the evening and you invite your family and friends to join you. In that sense, if you were to design something to support the experience of having dinner, this understanding of context differences is very important, and you would probably come up with very different designs for each culture.
A product that has been specifically designed for a certain culture is the ‘ilkone’ mobile phone (see figure 1). This phone was particularly designed for Muslims and it has features that have been tailored to meet the needs of Muslims. For example, the phone has an Islamic calendar, the complete Holy Quran text with English translation (approved by Al-Azhar), a prayer alarm and automatic Qibla direction from anywhere in the world, etc., etc. Even though the phone is not very visually appealing (according to current standards), it was a big hit in Islamic countries. In countries where Islam is not an important religion, the phone will most likely not do so well. Why would Muslims buy an ugly phone? Because they give more meaning to their religion, which this phone is a representation of. People give more importance to the fulfilment of certain needs (e.g. practicing your religion well, or manipulation) compared to others (e.g. owning a beautiful phone, or identification), based on the meaning each specific need has for them.
Meaning affects design in two different ways. First of all, there is the targeted meaning that the designer initially wants to convey. Then, there is the interpreted meaning that is assigned to the product by the person using it. Obviously, the best situation occurs when the two types of meaning correspond with each other. This is often not the case, mainly because of the context in which the product is used. This can be influenced by both the personal background of the person and the culturally specific context.
To understand the intended or targeted meaning of a product, the user needs to share the context in which it is rooted (Bourges-Waldegg & Scrivener, 1998). I will give a short illustration of this.
In July of this year, I was in Seoul to give a presentation for 600 design professionals, most of them were South Korean natives. In this presentation I showed two provocative designs for a urinal. I have shown the same designs in presentations that I have given in Europe and the difference in reaction was quite remarkable. The first design, the ‘Sexy Urinal’ (figure 2a) has a history of provoking extreme emotions. Some years ago, people protested outside of JFK Airport in New York to have them removed from the public toilets. This design always provokes both laughs and shocks in my presentations. The people who laugh see the fun in the design and the people who are shocked usually find the sexual undertone offensive (just like the protesters at JFK). Right after that I show the ‘Nun Urinal’ (figure 2b) to top it, which provokes soft chuckles of shame, laughter, even screams of outrage. When I showed these designs in South Korea, the ‘Sexy Urinal’ provoked pretty similar reactions compared to Europe. However, by the time I showed the ‘Nun Urinal’, you could hear a pin drop in the room… nothing. My joke ‘Do you know where this photo was taken? Correct, in the Vatican’ didn’t help either. Even though it is always a winner in Europe (trust me!). The interpreter (who was simultaneously translating my presentation) even asked me what I meant or wanted to say. I had to quickly move on to the next slide to save the presentation!
Figure 2a: the sexy urinal
Figure 2b: Nun Urinal
So, what happened? The ‘Sexy Urinal’ provoked both positive and negative emotions in both Europe and Korea, mainly because the meaning of the provocative ‘sexual’ design was understood equally in both cultures. In this case, the audiences most likely shared the same culturally specific context (red lips are sexy). Because the ‘Nun Urinal’ referred to Catholicism, (most of) the Korean audience missed the meaning of this representation of a nun. They responded neutrally and didn’t share the same context in which the meaning of the design rooted (Catholic background).
Colour and meaning
Another important element that influences the meaning that is addressed to a product’s design, is color. Successful design requires an awareness of how and why colors communicate meaning. Color conveys meanings in two primary ways - natural associations and psychological symbolism. Occurrences of colors in nature are universal and timeless. For example, the fact that green is the color of vegetation can be considered a universal and timeless association. Color may generate another level of meaning in the mind. This symbolism arises from cultural and contemporary contexts. As such, it is not universal and may be unrelated to its natural associations. An example is red. On the one hand it is the color of blood or fire (nature), on the other hand it is the color of a typical wedding dress in Taiwan (happiness and prosperity).
Color associations can be derived from different types of sources, like political colors (e.g. flags, political parties, royalty), cultural colors (e.g. traditions, celebrations, currency) or religious colors.
Processing of information
Besides meaning, it is very important how the product is observed and the information of what is seen is processed. Recent research (Medical News Today, May 2007), which analyzed the eye movements of East Asians and Westerners viewing identical images, found that Westerners were more attentive to central, or dominant, objects, while East Asians paid more attention to the background, or scene.
East Asians are more likely to pay attention to the context and relationships in a picture than are Westerners, who more often notice physical features or groupings of similar subjects. Westerners were more attentive to central, or dominant, objects, while East Asians paid more attention to the background, or scene.
Needs, meaning, information processing and emotion
When you take into account the effects of needs, addressed meaning to the product and the way the information is processed, can you explain the differences in emotional experiences between cultures? And what do designers do with such information?
I gave it a try and surfed to the website of Durex (the largest manufacturer of condoms, worldwide), which is a sensitive product in terms of emotional experience (think of shame, joy, etc.). The website has a global version and you can choose local websites for your specific country. I tried to see a difference between countries from the west and countries from the east (see figure 3a and 3b). The western version (Dutch) places the products as a central focal point and there are large references to pleasure, stimulation and even sensation. The eastern version (Chinese) is much less explicit visually, it almost hides all the representations referring to sex (except a small comic-like illustration on the bottom right, of a couple in bed) and it talks more about general sexual well-being. There is probably a clear difference in the meaning that is addressed to these Durex products between east and west, which is illustrated by the design of the websites. Another interesting point is the fact that the western version mostly focuses on the products (that is what it is about for them). Remember the central focus on dominant objects in the processing? The eastern version uses general representations to illustrate what is behind the menu items.
Figure 3a: Durex website for The Netherlands
Figure 3b: Durex website for China
To conclude, I can state that in spite of the globalizing market, it is almost impossible to talk about a ‘global experience’. This only occurs when context is shared, which is an ongoing process on the Internet, but not as much in the ‘real’ world yet. Therefore, it still makes sense for designers to study cultural differences. Even more so when it comes to emotions… every smile is definitely unique in the world :-)
Bourges-Waldegg, P. & Scrivener, S. A. R., (1998). Meaning, the central issue in cross-cultural
HCI design. Interacting with Computers, 9, 287}309.
Hassenzahl, M., (2004). Emotions can be quite ephemeral. We cannot design them. Interactions, 11, pp. 46 – 8.
Levitt, T. (1983). The globalization of markets. Harvard Business Review, 61(3). 92-102.
Morris, J. D., & Pai, F., (1997). Where east meets west: A design for measuring and interpreting emotional response to standardized advertisements across cultures. In Fit for the Global Future (pp. 183-205). Esomar, Lisbon, Portugal.
Marco van Hout (The Netherlands) holds a master degree in Communication Sciences, specializing in the emotional experience of (interactive) products, brands and services.
Marco is a founding partner of Monito Design & Internet, a company that specializes in innovative solutions for Internet applications. He is an experience design “evangelist” and offers workshops, training and consultancy to companies and organizations who want to learn what impact their designs, products or services have on consumers’ experiences and how they can use this knowledge to improve those experiences. He is an often invited speaker on the topic of design and emotion on seminars, conferences and congresses.
Marco is also an active member of the Design & Emotion Society where he supports the board as a Public Relations Officer.
Furthermore, he is editor of the internationally renowned website “design & emotion” where he publishes interviews with leading design professionals from some of the most respected brands and writes about the emotional impact of design, brands and services.
Find out more at www.marcovanhout.nl
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