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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


This study shows that the cultural background of the user is a likely factor in determining the usability of a consumer electronic product, such as ErgoTech's MP3 player. Most aspects of usability identified by Hornbaek (2006) in his survey of usability literature are affected by the cultural background of participants, in particular, users' perception of effectiveness, efficiency, and levels of satisfaction. In addition, efficiency as measured by the number of errors is also clearly connected to culture.

However, in this study efficiency was measured by both the time taken and the number of mistakes made when performing a task. It is to be expected that as users make more mistakes they also require more time to complete tasks. However, this was not the case. North American users required similar amounts of time to their Taiwanese counterparts but made more errors within that time. One possible explanation for this could be a different problem-solving style. It was often observed during tests that, when faced with a problem using the MP3 player, North American users sometimes became more active or even clearly frustrated, which may have been the reason for the higher number of errors. The number of errors then correlated with low levels of user satisfaction and perceptions of efficiency among North American users. On the other hand, the lack of correlation between completion time and any other variable raises questions as to the usefulness of this variable as a measure of efficiency, a point also raised by Dillon (2001).

So, on the whole, culture affects usability, but how much does usability vary according to culture? So far this study has only considered whether a relationship exists between culture and the perceived and actual components of usability-efficiency, effectiveness, and user satisfaction. Given that there is a relationship, is it possible to also say how much culture affects usability as a whole? While it may be possible to give a total value for usability by combining the results for each component, the question is how much weight should be given to each component. This question is made more difficult because culture may also affect the weighting given to the components of usability. Research on Indonesian and Chinese users show higher importance placed on efficiency by Indonesians and more emphasis placed on effectiveness by the Chinese (Evers & Day, 1997). To arrive at a total measure of usability for each culture, more research is needed to compare the weightings different cultures have for each component of usability.

Why is culture such an important variable in usability? This study does not attempt to answer the "why" in culturability. For suggestions as to possible reasons, studies on software and Web site usability have implications. Nantel and Glaser (2008) argue that translated text reduces Web site usability, Shen et al. (2005) finds evidence that software interfaces using icons with a relevance to their own culture are more satisfying for users, and Badre (2000) finds the cultural content of Web sites affects preference for a Web site. How do these elements of a product affect overall usability for each culture? Much research has also been done on the overall effect of individual elements of consumer electronic product design, such as size, look and feel, etc. on usability (e.g., Han, Hwan Yun, Kwahk, & Hong, 2000). However, this has been done in a single culture. It would be useful to compare the effects such design elements have on usability across cultures.

The main implication for this study is for Taiwanese manufacturers who hope to sell their products in overseas markets such as the U.S.A and Canada. What may seem to be good usability design in one culture may not be perceived as such in others. As a solution to this problem, companies are already using co-design in recognition of the need for culturally-aware design. This is a design process that takes place in both the country of the manufacturer and the target market. For example, Vodaphone works with Chinese manufacturers to ensure the user interface is suitable for the European market (Williams, 2006). It would be interesting to identify the solutions such companies arrive at and to analyze their effectiveness in solving the problem of cultural differences and usability.

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