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The Effect of Culture on Usability: Comparing the Perceptions and Performance of Taiwanese and North American MP3 Player Users

Steve Wallace and Hsiao-Cheng Yu

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 4, Issue 3, May 2009, pp. 136-146

Article Contents


Taiwan is a major producer of consumer electronic products, most of which are sold overseas. However, to succeed in the international market Taiwanese companies must realize the importance of good design. Designing for usability is clearly one way to sharpen Taiwan's competitive edge. Mayhew and Mantei (1994) describe improvements in usability resulting in increased sales, decreased training costs, and less need for after-sales support. But is making a product usable in a local market the same as designing for usability in a global market? Can it be presumed that an electronic product that is usable in the Taiwanese market is equally usable in other major markets such as the North American market? To answer this question, this article attempts to analyze how the culture of users from North America and Taiwan affects the usability of a new touch-screen MP3 player produced by the Taiwanese company ErgoTech.

The definition of usability has evolved over the last two decades. Earlier definitions of usability have usually focused on performance-related criteria such as ease of use and effectiveness (Shackel, 1991), but more recently the concept of usability has been expanded to include a subjective aspect, user satisfaction. It is now an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard defined in terms of product effectiveness, efficiency, and user satisfaction (ISO, 1998). A literature survey by Hornbaek (2006) of 180 usability articles suggests that the ISO definition is commonly accepted, and that there is also a distinction made in the literature between perceptions of usability and actual usability. Based on this distinction we can therefore define usability as a construct comprising a user's perceptions of product effectiveness, efficiency, and user satisfaction, combined with the actual effectiveness and efficiency of the product. To measure and compare the usability of a product across two cultures, it is these factors that must be measured and compared.

Research on Web site and software usability has helped describe much about the relationship between culture and usability, or "culturability" as it is described by Barber and Badre (1998). It has been shown that Web sites vary across cultures based on culturally-specific characteristics, or cultural markers (Singh, 2003) initially described by Hofstede (1984), and that users' preference for a Web site is affected by the cultural features of a Web site (Badre, 2000). Users from different cultural backgrounds are likely to use a Web site for different purposes (O'Keefe et al., 2000). In addition, the use of translation in a multilingual Web site (even when done expertly) affects user satisfaction (Nantel & Glaser, 2008), as does the use of culturally familiar or unfamiliar icons (Shen, Woolley, & Prior, 2006) in software applications. In a more comprehensive study of usability and culture Evers and Day (1997) found culture to be an important factor regarding the interrelationships of perceptions of efficiency, effectiveness, satisfaction, and user behavior when using a software application. In short, culture is likely to influence many elements affecting the usability of a product.

However, while many studies identify the effect culture has on many important aspects of usability, it cannot be certain that any single aspect of usability is correlated with the overall usability of a product (Frokjaer, Hertzum, & Hornbæk, 2000). It is important therefore, when studying the effect of culture on usability, to consider the usability of a product as a whole. In this study this is done by identifying the effect of culture on the elements Hornbaek (2006) found as commonly considered factors in usability: perceptions of efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction, as well as performance-based measures of efficiency and effectiveness.

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