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Intra- and Inter-Cultural Usability in Computer-Supported Collaboration

Ravi Vatrapu and Dan Suthers

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 5, Issue 4, August 2010, pp. 172 - 197

Article Contents


Usability, accessibility, and universal design have been three of the central concepts in the design of person-environment systems in general and human-computer interaction in particular (Iwarsson & Ståhl, 2003). Ron Mace (who coined the term universal design) said, “Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design”1.Based on this definition, in an increasingly multicultural world, universal design should encompass not only accessibility but also cultural usability. This would mean paying close and careful attention to cross-cultural variations in the design, development, deployment, and evaluation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Such a broadening of the scope of the concept of universal design and ICT would require an examination of mono-cultural design and evaluation assumptions in the research and practice of usability. Towards this end, this paper presents an empirical evaluation of intra- and inter- cultural usability in computer-supported collaboration.

Cultural Usability

Cultural aspects of usability have been a topic of study in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI). Early research focused on localization and internationalization of user interfaces with respect to languages; colors; and conventions of data, time, and currency (Fernandes, 1995; Khaslavsky, 1998; Russo & Boor, 1993). Subsequent research investigated cultural influences on usability evaluation methods and usability processes. For example, cultural differences were found in the usability assessment methods of focus groups (Beu, Honold, & Yuan, 2000), think-aloud (Clemmensen, Hertzum, Hornbæk, Shi, & Yammiyavar, 2009; Yeo, 2001), questionnaires(Day & Evers, 1999), and structured interviews (Vatrapu & Pérez-Quiñones, 2006). Cultural differences with respect to usability processes were found in the understanding of metaphors and interface design (Day & Evers, 1999; Evers, 1998) and non-verbal cues (Yammiyavar, Clemmensen, & Kumar, 2008; Yammiyavar & Goel, 2006). Moreover, culture was found to affect web design (Marcus & Gould, 2000), objective and subjective measures of usability (Herman, 1996), and subjective perceptions and preferences in mobile devices (Wallace & Yu, 2009). Emerging findings also show that the understanding of the concept of usability and its associated constructs are culturally relative (Frandsen-Thorlacius, Hornbæk, Hertzum, & Clemmensen, 2009; Hertzum et al., 2007).

Culture, Collaboration, and Usability

Existing research in cultural usability has largely focused on aesthetic issues, methodological aspects, and practitioner concerns of stand-alone desktop applications and websites. Currently, there is little research on the cultural usability of computer-supported collaboration environments where members of different and similar cultures not only interact with the technology but also interact with each other through the technology. Given the social web (web 2.0) phenomenon that includes the participatory turn of the Internet, social sharing of media, cloud computing, and web services, there is a need to investigate the extent to which culture affects usability in socio-technical systems. In this paper, we present a usability analysis of an experimental study of intra- and inter- cultural computer-supported collaboration of Chinese and American participants.

Computer-Supported Intercultural Collaboration

Computer-supported intercultural collaboration (CSIC) is an emerging field of study centrally concerned with the iterative design, development, and evaluation of technologies that enhance and enrich effective intercultural communication and collaboration (Vatrapu & Suthers, 2009b). There are two interrelated aspects of interaction design in developing CSIC systems: (a) interacting with computers and (b) interacting with other persons using computers. Both these aspects of interaction can be influenced strongly by culture, given the strong empirical evidence documenting cultural differences in cognition(Nisbett & Norenzayan, 2002), communication (Hall, 1977), behavior (House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta, 2004), and interacting with computers (Vatrapu & Suthers, 2007). In line with the research program articulated in (Vatrapu, 2007), the research project discussed here originally focused on the influence of culture on (a) how participants appropriate affordances (Vatrapu, 2008; Vatrapu & Suthers, 2009a) and (b) how participants relate to each other during and after computer-supported collaborative interaction (Vatrapu, 2008; Vatrapu & Suthers, 2009b). This paper focuses on usability aspects of the research project described in (Vatrapu, 2007). The analytical aim of this paper is to investigate subjective and objective aspects of cultural usability in computer-supported collaboration with conceptual representations. Before discussing the methodological aspects of the research project, the key definitions of socio-technical affordance, appropriation of affordance, and technological intersubjectivity are provided in the following sections.

Definition of Socio-Technical Affordance

In computer-supported collaboration, each actor is both a user of the system as well as a resource for the other users. Technology affordances (Gaver, 1991; Suthers, 2006) are action-taking possibilities and meaning-making opportunities in a user-technology system with reference to the actor. Similarly, social affordances (Bradner, 2001; Kreijns & Kirschner, 2001) are action-taking possibilities and meaning-making opportunities in a social system with reference to the competencies and capabilities of the social actor. In socio-technical systems that facilitate collaboration, technology affordances, and social affordances amalgamate into socio-technical affordances (Vatrapu, 2007, 2009b). For an outline of a theory of socio-technical interactions, see (Vatrapu, 2009b). Drawing upon foundational work in ecological psychology on the formal definition of affordances (Stoffregen, 2003; Turvey, 1992), the following definition is offered for socio-technical affordance.

Let W = (T, S, O) be a socio-technical system (e.g., person-collaborating-with-another-person system) constituted by technology T (e.g., collaboration software), self-actor S, (e.g., artifact creator), and other-actor O (e.g., artifact editor). Let p be a property of T, q be a property of S, and r be a property of O. Let β be a relation between p, q and r, p/q/r and β defines a higher order property (i.e., a property of the socio-technical system). Then β is said to be a socio-technical affordance with respect to W if and only if:

W = (T, S, O) possesses β

None of T, S, O, (T, S), (T, O), or (S, O) possess β

The formal definition of socio-technical affordance provided above reflects the duality of individuals’ perception with respect to the technology as well as other persons. The duality is essential and is present right in the middle of the tuple (T, S, O). Self-actor S needs technology T to interact with the other-actor O and vice-versa. Technology T should have the capabilities to support the interactional needs and dynamics of the actors S and O. That is, T should be able to support (by conscious or unconscious design) the interactional (communication and informational) needs and necessities of S and O. Moreover, the self-actor S needs to have the social as well as technical competencies and O needs to be in the intersubjective realm. Then and only then does an affordance qua affordance comes into being as an action-taking possibility and a meaning-making opportunity waiting for creative, generative, transformative, reformative, or simply repetitive appropriation. It is this appropriation of affordance that manifests as external action (see below).

The formal definition informed the design of an experimental study of computer-supported intra- and inter-cultural collaboration to be discussed shortly. In brief, the experimental design consisted of a systematic variation of two of the three elements—self (S) and other (O) with the technology (T) remaining invariant.

Definition of Appropriation of Affordances

Interactions in socio-technical environments are a dynamic interplay between ecological information as embodied in artifacts and individual actions grounded in cultural schemas. The essential mediation of all interaction is the central insight of socio-cultural theories of the mind (Wertsch, 1985, 1998). The conceptualization of interaction as being mutually “accountable” (observable and reportable) is the critical insight of ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967). Following these two schools of thought, interactions in socio-technical systems are conceptualized as accountable appropriation of socio-technical affordances. Based on Stoffregen’s (2003) discussion of behavior, appropriation is defined as “what happens at the conjunction of complementary affordances and intentions or goals” (p.125).

Research into social aspects of HCI (Reeves & Nass, 1996) has shown that even computer-literate users tend to use social rules and display social behavior in routine interactions with computers. Social interaction is grounded strongly in culture as every person carries within patterns of thinking, feeling, behaving, and potential interacting. Thus, participants in computer-supported collaboration make culturally appropriate and socially sensitive choices and decisions in their actual appropriation of affordances. On these terms, the concept of appropriation employed here is similar to the notion of appropriation in adaptive structuration theory (DeSanctis & Poole, 1994; Orlikowski, 1992) inspired by Giddens (1986). Appropriation in adaptive structuration theory refers to the utilization of structural features of the system. Appropriation of affordances in our theory of socio-technical interactions refers to the intentional utilization of action-taking possibilities and meaning-making opportunities in a culturally-sensitive and context-dependent way. See (Vatrapu & Suthers, 2009a) for a report of how “representational guidance” (Suthers, Vatrapu, Medina, Joseph, & Dwyer, 2008) informed appropriation of affordances analysis of the study data.

Technological Intersubjectivity

Intersubjectivity is the fabric of our social lives and social becoming (Crossley, 1996). Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and the Internet continue to transform our social relations with others and objects in fundamental ways. Our interactions with others and objects are increasingly informed by the operational logic of technology, hence technological intersubjectivity. Technological intersubjectivity is the production, projection, and ultimately the performance of intersubjectivity in socio-technical systems. Our psychological perception of and phenomenal relations with social others are being increasingly transformed by the advances in information and communication technologies and social software. For example, technology lets us assign distinct ring tones, images, or priorities to our significant others. Human beings are not only functional communicators but also hermeneutic actors. In technological intersubjectivity, technological mediation can sometimes (but not necessarily always) disappear like in Clarke’s third law of technology (1962).

Definition of Technological Intersubjectivity

Technological intersubjectivity (TI) refers to a technology supported interactional relationship between two or more actors. TI emerges from a dynamic interplay between the technological relationship of actors with artifacts and their social relationship with other actors.

TI is an emergent resulting from psychological-phenomenological nexus of the electronic self–other social relationship. Psychological intersubjectivity refers to a functional association between two or more human communicators. Phenomenological intersubjectivity refers to an empathetic social relationship between two or more human actors.

From a functional perspective, psychological intersubjectivity doesn’t require two or more persons to have the same or similar subjective experience. Put differently, having a collective phenomenal experience is not a necessary condition for psychological intersubjectivity. In psychological intersubjectivity, the other human being is always an object of our attention and an object in our awareness. We observe the other person for communicative cues and informational structures relevant to the ongoing interaction. Unlike in phenomenological intersubjectivity there is no requirement for an emphatic relationship with the other person, and indeed intersubjectivity can be antagonistic (Matusov, 1996). However, in the emergent technological case, there is a dynamic interplay between these psychological and phenomenological aspects. In technological intersubjectivity, information processing entailed by computational support can enhance and enrich the communicative possibilities and communion potentials of two or more human beings. Socio-technical systems and online communities have potentials for both psychological and phenomenological intersubjective experiences without the requirement that interacting persons be co-present in the same place and interact at the same time. With reference to cultural usability, even though prior empirical research has shown cross-cultural differences in traditional face-to-face intersubjectivity, the cultural variation in the structures and functions of technological intersubjectivity have received little empirical attention (see Vatrapu & Suthers, 2009b for a report of the TI aspects of the experimental study).


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