Universal design: are cultural and individual differences really so important in design? back

Ever heard a phrase “Something that is not moving is hard to perceive”? Thought of animated banners? No, these are highlights from an article on universal human principles in design by Paul Hekkert (one of the authors of the must-read Product Experience book).

In his article Paul argues that designers – like all people – are mostly focusing on what is changing (compared to before) or what is different (e.g. between people). There is a noticeable inclination to look at trends in peoples’ values and behaviour (such as “people are increasingly concerned with health issues”) and to emphasize cultural differences between people (like “Germans tap beer differently than the Dutch”). And no surprise to that. Human visual system has evolved to perceive things that are in motion and is very sensitive to contrast, while things that are not moving or commonalities between objects are much harder to perceive. “Similarity is the shadow of difference” Paul Hekkert quotes M.Ridley.

When thinking of design research, interviews and observations for mapping peoples’ everyday experiences come into mind. These efforts bring insights into some people’s daily routines, in a particular cultural and social context, at some point in time. “Because everybody likes to hear they are different from “us”, anthropologists dwell on the differences” author quotes D.E. Brown. However, to understand people in a more profound and fundamental way, one should understand human nature manifesting itself in universal principles; principles all people, in all cultures, through all ages have in common.

Thus, questioning the profoundness of differences, Paul refers to a memory game developed by Sara Emami. Middle Eastern and Dutch cultures should be very different, right? But look at the striking similarities between imagery from Duch and Middle East cultures – in this memory game usually two identical cards are used, however to exhibit cross-cultural similarities instead of identical cards Sara Emami in each pair chose one image from Duch and one from Middle Eest cultures. And the game is still playable:
Cross-cultural Memory Game

Developing argument for human universals, the author presents a random list of some universal traits for people of all cultures:

  1. look for adventure, diversity and kicks,
  2. are more likely to help attractive people and less likely to ask good-looking people for help ,
  3. have etiquette and moral sentiments,
  4. use figurative language such as metaphors,
  5. get bored over time,
  6. infer the mental states and intentions of others,
  7. need authority,
  8. impose meaning on the world,
  9. tend to overestimate the objectivity of their thought,
  10. rarely know the causes of their own behaviour,
  11. engage in magic, poetry, and pretend play,
  12. are prone to learn and explain the unknown,
  13. are able to recognize pictorial representations without previous training

These constants and commonalities in peoples’ behaviour, thinking and feeling can be powerful drivers for product development and need to be understood first before designers start to look at and design for cultural and individual differences.

And in order to understand why particular evolved psychological mechanisms have come into being, we need to go back to our ancestors, the hunter-gatherers. The functional architecture of the mind is formed as a result of problems our ancestors had to solve under the conditions of their environment, not by the kind of problems modern humans are dealing with today.

Faced with adaptive problems – to survive, to protect themselves, cooperating with others, looking for food, finding shelter, avoiding predators, protecting children, etc. – the hunter-gatherers have acquired specialised mechanisms to solve these problems through a process of adaptation or natural selection. These mechanisms vary from specific sensory systems and neural programs for language acquisition, to traits for emotional communication, stranger anxiety, kin recognition, incest avoidance, mate preference, , sibling rivalry, etc.

However, if the (natural, economical, political, societal, environmental) circumstances are different or change, so will the way these principles are manifested, leading to variants at a group level (society/culture) and maybe even at an individual level (see figure below).

But what does all of this have to do with user experience? Time for an example. Author and his colleagues found that people aesthetically prefer objects of maximum novelty or originality while maintaining an optimal level of familiarity or typicality. In other words, people like new-look of products as long as they are otherwise in an acceptable range or novelty and this is a universal trend. This is so called MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) principle:

“The evolutionary logic behind this universal principle is that exposing oneself to the new both, enhances fitness and facilitates learning, but on the other hand, staying close to the familiar also has survival value, by decreasing the risk of jumping into life-threatening adventure. Striking optimal balance between novelty and familiarity does seem to be the most effective strategy from a hunter-gatherer point of view. Yet, what is novel to one may be very familiar to someone on the other side of the mountain (and vice versa). One’s subjective assessment of stimulus novelty or familiarity depends on context (e.g. frequency of appearance) and background (e.g. previous experiences) variables. Thus, people differ to large extents on what objects they see as novel or typical for a particular product category. As a result, predictable differences in aesthetic preference arise at a group (culture, expertise, etc.) or individual level.”

The question remains how much this MAYA principle applies to other aspects of user experience beyond aesthetics… In our research assignments at Idea Code we tend to run into people who seem to be somewhat “imprinted” with images of products they happened to use first and no matter how incremental the novelty is, it most often tends to get a negative feedback from users…

For a discussion of universality of emotional response and full selection of links, here is the link to the original article.

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