62.4, November 2015

App Abroad and Mundane Encounters: Challenging How National Cultural Identity Heuristics Are Used in Information Design

By Benjamin Lauren


Purpose: The goal of this article is two-fold:

  • It argues technical communicators can challenge current models and/or approaches of how to design materials for international audiences.
  • It explains how technical communicators might consider using a technique offered by a mobile application called App Abroad to document commonplace cultural interactions to support reflection from users from different cultures.

Methods: The article draws from technical communication theory and practice to explain a bottom-up method of designing effective materials for international audiences.

Results: By creating opportunities to document cultural encounters through media that can convey the complexity of face-to-face communication, readers learn to seek a more bottom-up approach to understanding culture.

Conclusion: Because culture is not static but constantly transforming, technical communicators must challenge traditional models that seek to address culture from the perspective of a single, national cultural identity. Rather, a more “bottom-up” (that is, not predetermined) understanding of cultural communication practices is needed to help technical communicators create more effective materials for international users. A bottom-up understanding of culture can support improved intercultural technical communication outcomes.

Keywords: international, culture, identity, applications, heuristics

Practitioner’s Takeaway

Practitioners will learn of

  • New, user-centered models and methods for creating materials for participants from other cultures.
  • The problems associated with using more traditional or conventional models of and approaches to national cultural identity when designing effective materials for users from other cultures.
  • New methods of using technology to individually and collectively learn about the specific users – or groups of users – within a larger, national culture.
  • The use of bottom-up encounters as a method for learning about the expectations and conditions of use encountered by individuals in other cultures when they use different materials and technologies.


Theory-based models of intercultural communication, often referred to in the research literature as “cultural identity heuristics,” are used by technical communicators to guide the design of effective texts and interfaces. The heuristic approach can be traced to Hall’s (1976) high-context/low-context communication model and Hofstede’s (1984) cultural dimensions. Hunsinger (2006), however, challenges technical communicators to question traditional heuristic approaches because they fail to distinguish among the preferences of individual users within a larger cultural group. This limitation, in turn, affects how well technical communicators can create materials that meet the needs and expectations of users in different regions of the world.

This article examines how a mobile application under development, App Abroad, challenges heuristic approaches and works from the bottom-up to develop cultural competence – or an understanding of the expectations and preferences of individuals from other cultures. The article extends previous work by Rice and Lauren (2013), which closely examined how an earlier conception of the app could facilitate transactional dialogue between users of study abroad and exchange programs to create gains in intercultural competence. This article extends this previous work by explaining how the latest iteration of App Abroad works to build cultural competence through a process of beginning with a model (that is, heuristic) of how individuals from other cultures communicate. Features of App Abroad then challenge such models through on-location encounters with individuals from an unfamiliar culture (that is, a culture whose social rules, communication practices, beliefs, and norms are new for users). In reviewing the latest iteration of this technology, the article explains App Abroad as a reflection tool technical communicators can use to assemble a more bottom-up view of the communication practices of unfamiliar cultures. Additionally, the article will address how study and working abroad experiences provide an important context for learning how App Abroad can help facilitate gains in cultural competence, and for this reason, the article will discuss specific examples of how App Abroad can be used in such contexts.

The goal of this article is two-fold:

  • It argues technical communicators can challenge current models and/or approaches of how to design materials for international audiences.
  • It explains how technical communicators might consider using methods offered by a mobile application called App Abroad to individually and collectively learn about the specific users – or groups of users – within a larger, national culture.

In addressing these two objectives, this article seeks to answer the overarching research questions of

  • How can technical communicators and technical communication students move beyond traditional models of culture and communication/cultural identity heuristics and improve cultural understanding of users?
  • How can technical communicators working in international contexts adopt bottom-up, user-centric approaches in their work?

The article begins with a review of the literature on cultural identity heuristics to explain why such models can be problematic and beneficial when designing materials for audiences from other cultures. The article then discusses how study abroad programs can serve as valuable sites for collecting new information and support gains in cultural competence through immersion and reflection. (In so doing, the author will also note how the results of such interactions can contribute to technical communication practices.) Next, to apply these ideas to a specific case, the article will describe how App Abroad functions to explore the gap between individuals and their national culture by examining what Patricia Sullivan (2014) calls “mundane encounters” with culture. The article then concludes with a discussion of how technical communicators working in international contexts can draw from these ideas and improve communication outcomes. By considering how interactive technologies such as App Abroad function to support gains in cultural competence, the article helps readers understand how to seek similar encounters with those who identify with different cultures. The article also provides technical communicators with a method for exploring the gap between individual users and the greater culture with which that person associates.

An Overview of Heuristics

Heuristics are a set of guidelines or strategies used to efficiently evaluate information, systems, data, and so on, and many information designers use them as a starting point to guide the development of different technical communication projects. They are created by subject-matter experts, usually through a great deal of research that points to generalizable trends about users, use, or design. The benefit of employing a heuristic approach is they can be useful guidelines for non-experts as a starting point for technical communication projects across cultures. Cultural identity heuristics, for example, can help technical communicators design complex information for unfamiliar cultures by guiding choices about graphics, typographical elements, and color scheme. Using cultural identity heuristics affords technical communicators the ability to more efficiently refine information design over time. In this way, heuristics are best utilized as a guideline for design rather than a rule.

In the field of technical communication, heuristics are often used to determine the usability of Web sites and user interfaces (Nielsen, 1995), designing materials for audiences from other cultures (Hofstede, 1984), and guiding the process of designing visuals for different audiences (Williams, 2014). For example, visual designers in a software company can use Williams’ (2014) contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity design heuristics to evaluate the existing visual elements of a user interface. Similarly, these same designers can draw from both Nielsen’s (1995) usability heuristics and Hofstede’s (1984) national cultural identity model to help further evaluate the interface for specific audiences. These heuristic evaluations can then be compared to user experience data collected through Web analytics, usability testing, and other relevant sources of information. In such contexts, heuristics are perhaps best employed as one tool in a variety of development methods that involve users. They can also be useful sources of information and insights in situations where research cannot or will not be conducted. However, when used as the only method of evaluating information design, heuristic approaches have the potential to create as many problems as they aim to solve by glossing over nuance (for example, failing to account for aspects such as regional differences in color preferences or language practices).

Cultural Identity Heuristics

Heuristic models have been developed to support theories and mechanisms for understanding different cultural values and beliefs. For example, Edward T. Hall (1976) asks, “So how does one go about learning the underlying structure of culture?” (p. 92), and answers by explaining the importance of consistency in observing “cultural systems and subsystems” like the military, marriage, workplaces, and so on (p. 92). To observe these systems requires understanding Hall’s high-context and low-context continuum. “A high-context (HC) communication or message is one in which most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. A low-context (LC) is just the opposite; i.e., the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code” (Hall, 1976, p. 79).

The advantage of Hall’s (1976) context approach (that is, heuristic) is technical communicators can work to interpret how a culture communicates by using a high-low-context continuum to map a communication patterns and expectations across institutions, groups, teams, and individuals. Yet, Hall’s model provides generalities that can too easily become cultural stereotypes, making it convenient to marginalize people (for example, everyone in German culture is high context) instead of seeing them as individuals. In this approach, a person’s culture reduces their behavior and needs to a nonspecific generality – that of an overall group – that could likely work against increasing cultural competence and providing valuable customer experiences. Additionally, scholars like Cardon (2008) and Kittler, Rygl, and Mackinnon (2011) have critiqued the high-low-context approach conceptually for lack of empirical evidence and rigor in how it was developed. Such critiques are careful to recognize the general usefulness of the theory, but they also argue that more empirical research is required to test the broad application of the concept, and this especially true when shaping effective intercultural technical communication.

Popular approaches of designing effective intercultural technical communication also rely on categorizations and concepts that can be used as a heuristic, such as the dimensions of cultures model first forwarded by Hofstede (1984) and recently revised by Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010). Here, the authors describe a mechanism for understanding cultural differences as dimensions of cultures. “A dimension is an aspect of a culture that can be measured relative to other cultures” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. 31). This particular body of work identifies four dimensions of culture: power distance; collectivism versus individualism; femininity versus masculinity; and uncertainty avoidance. Similar to Hall’s (1976) work, each dimension can be traced across a continuum that represents each culture numerically so difference is highlighted and “they become points in a diagram” (p. 31). Further, “A dimension groups together a number of phenomena in a society that were empirically found to occur in combination, regardless of whether there seems to be a logical necessity for their going together” (p. 31). Unlike Hall’s (1976) work, the dimensions of cultures heuristic has rich empirical support that has been developed over the years (for example, Hofstede, 1980; Hofstede, 1983; Hofstede & Bond, 1984; Hofstede, 2001). In the 2010 revision of Hofstede’s Cultures and Organizations, for example, the authors work to directly address the profiling of individuals by comparing them with national culture scores, ultimately arguing, “National culture scores are not about individuals, but about national societies” (p. 40). In other words, the dimensions of culture approach was not meant to evaluate the relationship between a person’s culture and their national cultural identity. Instead, the authors firmly assert that the relationship between a person and their national cultural identity is not absolute. Yet even with such caveats, such approaches to culture can still prove problematic – particularly in terms of addressing the needs and expectations of individual users.

Problems Presented by Heuristics

For reasons such as those mentioned above, Peter Hunsinger (2006) challenges technical communicators to question heuristic approaches because they often leave complexities between a person and their national cultural identity unexplored. Specifically, Hunsinger (2006, p. 33) cites researchers who claim the heuristic approach can pigeonhole individuals as members of a strict profile (Weiss, 1998), misrepresent the cultural identity of individuals by calling too much attention to stereotypical differences (Munshee & McKie, 2001), and under-represent others’ perspectives through limited research or data (Beamer, 2000). Additionally, Hunsinger (2008) argues a heuristic approach “encourages cultural identity to be represented as effectively autonomous, independent of economic, political, and historical contexts” (p. 38) and turns to Appadurai’s (1996) work to theorize the hybridization of cultural identity as not static but a flexible and ongoing synchronous exchange of imagined and understood realities. Thus, heuristic models are, at best, a starting point for understanding culture and communication, and they cannot be used as definitive methods for understanding such factors.

The key is to understand the relationship of the individual to his or her culture. Technical communicators, for example, must recognize that the relationship between a person and their national cultural identity is not static and undergoes constant transformation. To understand these transformations, technical communicators might focus on what Holliday (2013) calls “small culture formation,” which is “the formation of cultural behavior and reality at the small level of everyday interpersonal interaction, which relates to whatever is going on at the time” (p. 9). Turning attention to small encounters gives technical communicators an opportunity to challenge national cultural identity heuristics that “work from the top down” (mapping greater cultural factors onto the individual) instead of “working from the bottom up” (recognizing how the preferences of the individual might affect the greater national culture) (Holliday, 2013, p. 163).

User experience research provides a bottom-up approach to understanding the needs and behaviors of a person’s encounters with information and how they assemble an experience around it. For example, participatory design, a “process that enables different participants to engage in designing [a] product” (Robertson & Simonson, 2013, p. 8), is one such method many technical communicators may have experience with. When using participatory methods, technical communicators create opportunities to design with users rather than relying on heuristics to guide product development. For example, a technical communicator might run usability tests as part of an iterative design process. While some cultures may find participatory methods work against their own values and beliefs, the method can be useful when used in appropriate circumstances and environments, such as during a corporate rebranding project, when rolling out new features of a product, or even for customer submitted errors in product documentation.

User experience methods like participatory design provide most value when implemented throughout product development, even though organizational constraints and applications can make the work more top-down instead of bottom-up. For instance, while still widely considered useful by user experience researchers, personas can become problematic if they are not frequently updated to represent changes in user preferences, needs, and behavior. Thinking of personas as static is as problematic as adopting national cultural identity heuristics as representative of all people; that is, the needs and behavior of users continuously change in unpredictable ways. Technical communicators must therefore be prepared to recognize and respond to these ongoing shifts in ways that add value for users. It appears this is why Patricia Sullivan (2014) argues technical communication as a field must work forwards instead of backwards to understand users, explaining, “we need to find ways to encounter, listen, and learn” (p. 5). As a result, alternative approaches to designing information for international users have been offered.

Benefits of Heuristics

Marina Lin (2012) describes one such approach of encountering users through a creative application of mind mapping during usability testing. Lin explains that mind mapping can be employed as a nonlinear method of capturing the user experience during usability sessions. She also describes how visual cues are used to compare data across several usability tests and looks for visual similarities and differences. The approach she notes seems to have interesting applications for those users whose cultural context makes them less amendable to participatory methods. This is because she describes how researchers can work to capture the user experience individually and collectively. As she explains, “Another way to analyze mind-map data is to create one master mind-map to represent all of the participants. A single note-taker can use software tools to merge branches from individual mind-maps into one view, or this can be done by hand” (Lin, 2012, par. 13). Technical communicators can adopt Lin’s (2012) approach by critically examining where users of a product align and diverge with national cultural identity heuristics or examining attitudes toward technology in general. In some ways Lin’s ideas resemble the goals of collecting information on specific users in a culture, but she stops short of representing everyday cultural encounters through user-captured media.

Even so, cultural attitudes toward computing technology vary as shown in research by Vatrapu and Suthers (2007). The authors cite work by Lee (2004), which explains how users from Japan, Korea, and U.S. interact with Web differently. Ultimately, the authors argue, “Social interaction is strongly grounded in culture as every person carries within himself/herself patterns of thinking, feeling, behaving and potential interacting” (Vatrapu and Suthers, 2007, p. 268). These patterns make diverging from national cultural identity heuristic models when developing intercultural communication an increasingly complex, but necessary process.

These factors do not necessarily mean that the ideas of prior scholars in culture and communication cannot be useful to understanding such contexts. Some researchers, for example, have effectively applied Hofstede’s (1984) heuristics to show trends in interface design in intercultural communication. A case in point: Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (2000) provide detailed examples of how Hofstede’s (1984) heuristics can materialize in user interface design in different countries around the world. The white paper they wrote concludes that “These trends and tendencies should not be treated as defective or used to create negative stereotypes but recognized as different patterns of values and thought” (p. 21). The paper also calls for the development of new tools that demonstrate versions of Web sites localized to different patterns of thinking and acting.

These uses of modified versions of more traditional intercultural heuristics have also been noted by Reinecke and Bernstein (2012). In their own work on culture and design, the two describe a system that is culturally adaptive called MOCCA, which is an online software platform that allows users to generate to-do lists. The initial goal for the system is to use algorithms to identify the cultural background of a user. Next, one can use this information to create a version of a Web site that draws from the cultural identity heuristics provided by Hofstede (1984). The challenge thus becomes finding a heuristic – or an approach to heuristics that acknowledges, and ideally addresses, both the individual and the culture in which that person lives and works.

Given such technological affordances and our increasingly globalized workplaces and societies, there is more need than ever to employ national cultural identity heuristics, but also, more need to refine how they are used to support communication. The challenges many study abroad programs face, in some ways, run parallel to the issues technical communicators confront when working to design effective intercultural communication. That is, like study and work abroad programs, technical communicators must work to build a bottom-up understanding of culture when designing information experiences for people, even when drawing from national cultural identity heuristics. For this reason, an understanding of the study-abroad context, and the challenges of using technologies in such contexts, can help inform how technical communicators approach the idea of using heuristics to communicate in global contexts.

Challenge Of Working And Studying Abroad

Working in the unfamiliar environment of another culture – a situation that often results in “culture shock” – can make it challenging to navigate these new cultural experiences and create gains in cultural competence. Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010) explain the effects of culture shock, when a person’s values are confronted by the value systems of another culture. “This experience usually leads to feelings of distress, of helplessness, and of hostility toward the new environment” (p. 384). These reactions must be replaced with empathy, which is derived when a person is acculturated to their environment, “when the visitor has slowly learned to function under the new conditions, has adopted some of the local values, finds increased self-confidence, and becomes integrated to a new social network” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, pp. 384-385). It takes time for a person to become acculturated to an unfamiliar environment.

Bennett (2004) provides a model for understanding such situations. Bennett suggests that there are stages of development that people move through as they work from an ethnocentric mindset (that is, using your own cultural context to evaluate others’ beliefs and practices) to an ethnorelative one (that is, being able to understand others’ beliefs and practices as culturally rooted). In the model, people don’t begin to empathize with a culture until they adapt to it. “Adaptation to cultural difference is the state in which the experience of another culture yields perception and behavior appropriate to that culture” (Bennett, 2004, p. 7). In the short periods of time most people can devote to living, studying, or working in an unfamiliar culture, adaptation is difficult to achieve without ongoing immersion before, during, and after an experience.

Comparably, study abroad programs work to promote gains in cultural competence by immersing students in an unfamiliar culture. Duration of time abroad immersed in a culture influences the lasting effects of competencies gained. Dwyer (2004) conducts an inquiry into the duration of study abroad programs and concludes that while shorter programs of up to six weeks can provide significant student growth, “clearly the greatest gains across all outcome categories are made by full-year students”(p. 161). Vande Berg, Connor-Linton, and Paige (2009) similarly find that the greatest gains in intercultural development were related to duration. Immersion is important because it permits people to pass through stages of cultural understanding that begin with denial and end with integration (Bennett, 2004). These stages help people adopt a more empathetic mindset that seeks to understand a culture from the bottom-up rather than the top-down.

A prime challenge for study abroad programs and international organizations is the ability for people to arrange an extended time abroad to be immersed in an unfamiliar culture. People today lead rich, complex lives. College classrooms produce more students with children and/or other family obligations, who work full or part-time, and who take on extra research projects and other extra-curricular activities. At work peers are similarly busy. As a result, many people find it increasingly difficult to arrange the time to study or to work abroad.

Sending an employee overseas to immerse them in an unfamiliar culture for a period of time is both expensive and not practical. For those that are able to take the time to go abroad, they face the challenge of making sense of the experience in ways that will productively translate to the workplace. For example, Gardner, Gross, and Steglitz (2008) explain that students are notorious for compartmentalizing their study abroad experiences, and must learn to demonstrate how their experience is relevant to future employers. One way to construct this value is through making meaning of everyday encounters with different cultural practices. “Cultural practices can be defined as ways of doing something which relate to particular cultural environments and may therefore be unfamiliar to newcomers. They concern everyday activities where there are choices about eating, washing, clothing, communicating, timing, surroundings, being together, and so on” (Holliday, 2013, p. 6). However, without a flexible tool to capture these cultural practices, participants must rely on what they remember of various encounters, and memory can be enormously biased and unreliable.

For technical communicators designing information for international audiences, immersion in unfamiliar cultures can help create more effective user-centered communication. Immersion, however, does not need to be limited to a single experience or encounter with another culture. Digital tools, like App Abroad, can be used to help document and create immersive experiences in ways that facilitate ongoing engagement with culture through user-captured media. Using such digital tools can support competencies that lead to an ethnorelative mindset, which assists in understanding culture from the bottom-up and can support improved outcomes for intercultural technical communication.

What Is App Abroad?

One major problem with learning from immersive experiences in other cultures is what we can remember when considering how to work effectively in different cultural contexts. The limits of our memory, unfortunately, affect how we later conceive of cultures when trying to plan strategies for interacting with the members of a culture or designing information for individuals in that culture. The reliance on memory to recall cultural encounters is the problem App Abroad attempts to address.

App Abroad is a mobile application for people interested in learning about other cultures and cultural contexts. The app presents one possible way of documenting everyday encounters with an unfamiliar culture through user-captured videos, photos, sounds, text, and creates opportunities to assemble juxtapositions of these collected artifacts. App Abroad positions users as students of culture as they document and discuss encounters with unfamiliar practices, values, and beliefs. It does this to facilitate gains in cultural competence by supporting bottom-up encounters with culture.

Facilitating a Bottom-up View of Culture

Pedagogically, the app treats national cultural identity heuristics similar to how user experience researchers deploy proto-personas in their work. “Whereas a classic persona is based on firsthand user research, a proto-persona is based on whatever insights you have, which can include secondhand research, or even the well-informed hunches of a team of people” (Buley, 2013, p. 132). In this situation, proto-personas can be seen as a type of heuristic, although Buley (2013) warns us they should not be mistaken for personas and researchers must “treat them as a hypothesis” (p. 135). Similar to proto-personas, national cultural identity heuristics can also be situated as hypotheticals or generalities that must be challenged through encountering cultural practices, especially the commonplace experiences of participating in unfamiliar environments. For example, perhaps there is cultural significance in the sound of a train as it passes just outside of town or seeing a mass of windmills as a train transports you to another city.

Instead of committing these encounters to memory, the app invites the user to collect them in different modalities, tag what was collected, and upload these artifacts to a feed where peers are also doing the same. For instance, a photo showing a mass of windmills near the coast of Ireland could potentially be tagged or annotated #FromIreland #ToCalifornia #ToMichigan #GreenEnergy #ItsAllAroundtheWorld. These tags can be used as a starting point for a conversation about the encounter. Users participate in these conversations by reviewing the artifacts in a real-time feed and then commenting on them, making connections between their individual and collective experiences, reactions, and ideas. This approach thus helps with an individual’s memories of another culture by stimulating recall of everyday encounters easily overlooked or forgotten.

Theory behind the Practice

Sharing media with peer groups is a common form of educating students about an individual’s cultural identity in intercultural communication pedagogy. Ware (2013) explains one such approach where students use media to exchange cultural information by sending each other videos, music, written letters, and photos as a way to share emotional ideas contextually. Complex ideas such as home, family, and spirituality can be represented in multiple modalities by participants, making abstract ideas more concrete, but in culturally revealing ways. While cultural attitudes, values, and beliefs might make Ware’s (2013) approach less effective for some, the research appears to suggest user-captured media can be seen as a “natural” (Kock, 2005) form of communicating complex ideas across cultures because media has the potential to effectively communicate abstract ideas.

In this case, the term “natural” is adopted from Kock’s (2005) article on media naturalness theory, which argues that human beings are biologically designed to be more effective communicators face-to-face. To support the argument, Kock provides five “elements” in support natural communication: colocation, synchronicity, facial expression, body language, and speech. Also, each of these elements exists on a scale of degree (p. 121). If a communication produces a high degree of each element, then it can be seen as more natural and therefore, more effective. Drawing from media naturalness theory, App Abroad suggests user-captured media can provide a natural encounter with culture. While this user-captured media certainly provides a particular view of culture that in some ways is limited to the user group, the media collected has the potential to document experiences and encounters in an immersive way that promotes bottom-up rather than top-down understanding.

Using the App to Reflect

Traditionally, after working or studying abroad, a person relies on their own photographs, videos, and/or journal entries as a way to stimulate recall of their experience. App Abroad supports recall as a collective and individual effort. Users capture their experience by recording sounds and taking videos, photographs, and notes. Users then upload this media to a feed and tag it as a way to create a discussion among peers about the cultural encounter. The goal of the dialogue is to support a bottom-up discussion about cultural beliefs, values, and practices, and to challenge national cultural identity heuristics. Later, once their experience has concluded, users can go back to the app to review its media stream as an interactive timeline of the experience. In this way, user-captured media has the potential to support cultural immersion even after a study or work abroad experience has ended. Technical communicators can take a similar approach, using immersive media to encounter cultures and to challenge the generalizations forwarded by national cultural identity heuristics.

An experience I recently had during a trip to London helps to further illustrate how App Abroad can be used to facilitate critical reflection on cultural identity heuristics. I recorded the sound of Big Ben on my smartphone. Later, when I recalled walking down the street and hearing Big Ben without listening to the recording, I most remembered how quiet the chime seemed. For some reason, I had expected Big Ben to sound much larger. When I played the audio file, I heard how much traffic there was on the street that night. The audio file captured the sound of squeaking automobile brakes. This information certainly qualifies as a mundane encounter with culture, but it also provides value for those studying culture in several ways. First, my memory of that moment and the audio recording of it offered rival interpretations of the experience. I remember Big Ben as quiet, but I didn’t remember the car brakes. Also, the audio recording captured the sound of talking, which reminded me that there were several people out walking that Saturday night. I had forgotten how I had looked to those people when crossing through St. James Park at dusk because I wasn’t certain it was safe. The audio recording stimulated recall of my experience that had been forgotten. Had I shared that experience with others, what might they have heard? How would my interpretation of the experience conflicted and agreed with their experience?

As well, much of my reaction to this recording of Big Ben could be further interrogated against my own national cultural identity. Americans are reported to be individualistic, which means they tend to favor the individual over the group (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010). Perhaps my reaction to Big Ben was more about meeting my own predetermined expectations of how the chime should sound? Maybe my reaction to the park at dusk was based on my concern for my own safety? Or, maybe my reaction was based on previous experiences in other large city parks at dusk? These rival explanations are important when encountering culture and working toward empathy. To create this sort of reflection, App Abroad works to stimulate recall in ways that challenges perceptions and viewpoints through user-captured media. By stimulating recall, the app functions as a memory system for cross-cultural encounters. Through tagging this user-captured media and sharing it for continued conversation, App Abroad creates opportunities for intervention, reflection, and discovery. Using tools like App Abroad to support constructive dialogue about cultural communication practices can lead to deeper understanding of cultural values, beliefs, and norms. Such dialogue can occur across a team of technical communicators to develop important rival explanations of user behavior and needs. Also, collectively reflecting with peers on everyday encounters with cultures is a way technical communicators can work to better understand how their own individual cultural identity influences the information they design.

App Abroad as a Memory System

People use memory systems to recall lists, directions, phone numbers, names, and so on. When someone recalls a password like Irdtb67t! for an online account, it has become common knowledge to use a memory system to remember it (for example, construct a phrase like ‘I ran down the block 67 times!’). Memory systems were taught to communicators in ancient Greece as a way to remember speeches in public settings, but contemporary computing devices have changed our application of memory systems. Phone numbers, addresses, and driving directions no longer require memorization because a phone can do this work instead. On the other hand, mobile phones can make recalling mundane details more challenging. As a result, mobile devices are often used to archive of all sorts of experiences through media in the form of photographs, videos, sounds, and written notes. It is not uncommon to see peers writing notes on a mobile device during a meeting just as it is not uncommon to find students designing communication or doing homework on the small screen of their smart phone. Today mobile devices are intimately involved in constructing and documenting experiences and collecting memories. Such factors are of importance to technical communicators working in interface design because the use of these tools can significantly vary by culture.

Mediating memories can lead to several accounts of an event depending on the amount of participants involved in creating the memory. In some cases collective memory can even lead to fiction, similar to how the presence of a researcher can impact the behavior of a research participant. “The anticipation of exteriorizing memory within media can also, of course, significantly impact the staging of the event being captured, molding it to the benefit of its status as a future source of recollection and to the potential detriment of its present status as real-time experience” (Pruchnic & Lacey, 2011, pp. 478-479). For this reason, the app encourages multiple viewpoints, similar to data points, to comment on and discuss cultural encounters.

Collective memory can give participants a focus and make recalling these cultural encounters more goal-oriented, because “what makes recent memories hang together is not that they are contiguous in time: it is rather that they are part of a totality of thoughts common to a group, the group of people with whom we have a relation at this moment” (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 52). In the case of App Abroad, the goal for recall and for reviewing user-captured media is to constantly challenge national cultural identity heuristics and to build a cultural awareness that is bottom-up. Another way the app facilitates dialogue about cultural encounters is through user-generated tags of media uploaded to the feed. These tags are used to create a taxonomy that can be interrogated and revised by users of the app throughout the duration of an experience. Such features can be of benefit to technical communicators who are trying to learn more about different cultural audiences because it shows memory is often socially constructed.


Users of the study abroad app are part of an emergent community, and tagging cultural encounters is an important feature of the app. Peter Morville (2005) discusses tagging on Del.icio.us and explains how tags are a “seed for emergent community” (p. 137). Emergent communities that are digital often seem to involve an emerging knowledge-base and value system, as well. Such values are transformed by entering discussions of what makes for effective intercultural technical communication in a workplace or classroom.

To support these discussions, the app encourages tagging user-captured media to create talking points. These talking points begin a conversation instead of ending one. Even so, there are important challenges to this approach. User-generated tagging is nonlinear, which also contains an important critique of the practice: tags can rapidly become haphazard and difficult to synthesize. On the other hand, creating a taxonomy for the app would be near impossible at the beginning of an immersion because predicting, even generally, experiences abroad and cultural encounters could be difficult. At the end of an experience, users can develop a more stable taxonomy as part of reflecting on and drawing meaning from it.

The process works similarly to how researchers make sense of a dataset by creating and defining codes, revising these codes as more data is interpreted, and then working to find trends that answer a set of questions that inspired the project in the first place. The user-generated tags are like starter codes that must be refined through collecting more everyday encounters with unfamiliar cultural practices. Later, the tags can be used to build a more critical understanding of culture. Through such features, tools such as App Abroad, when used in research contexts such as the study abroad setting, offer technical communicators the benefit of tracking gains in intercultural competence.


Technical communication research continues to assert the importance of effective listening practices in the workplace. The field has long understood and discussed the importance of active listening, where a person repeats and summarizes what they have heard during a conversation to signify engagement and build goodwill. Recent discussions of listening have extended these ideas a step further by training communicators to listen empathetically and openly as a skill.

The goal of empathetic listening is to look more deeply into the intent and mindset of a person. Indi Young (2015) explains, “It is all too easy to make assumptions about what the speaker means. You have your own life experience and point of view that constantly influence the way you make sense of things” (p. 52). To be more present during conversations, Young (2015) recommends asking probing questions to help determine a person’s reasoning, reactions to the conversation, and guiding principles or personal philosophies (pp. 55-56).

Empathetic listening is also closely related to rhetorical listening, which requires an element of self-reflection and discovery during conversation. “Rhetorical listening signifies a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture” (Ratcliffe, 2005, p. 17). The openness of rhetorical listening is useful for cross-cultural communication because “its purpose is to cultivate conscious identifications in ways that promote productive communication” (Ratcliffe, 2005, p. 25). As people use the study abroad app, they rhetorically listen to the cultural encounters documented with various media and also listen to their individual and collective reactions to these encounters. Their goal is to learn to practice rhetorical and empathetic listening as a way to develop a more bottom-up understanding of culture through analysis, self-reflection, and dialogue. For technical communicators, these approaches to listening are important because they are useful tools for supporting an ethnorelative mindset. They also can help enhance our understanding of culture and communication by listening to logic and viewpoints that diverge from our own.

Applications to Industry

To apply the ideas in this article to technical communication in industry contexts, individuals could consider the following strategies or practices, as they can help guide the design of effective communication products (for example, documentation or interfaces) for greater global audiences:

Suggested Practice 1: Find ways to encounter unfamiliar cultures through everyday, often overlooked experiences. Encountering unfamiliar cultures through everyday experiences affords technical communicators a viewpoint not frequently captured by national cultural identity heuristics, but one with excellent value. For instance, learning about sound levels in restaurants or even portion sizes of foods in other countries can help technical communicators understand context and more effectively design communication for the location where information will be accessed. When communicating information that could impact people’s safety, for example, having a strong sense of context can certainly prove useful. Earlier in the article, I explain how Patricia Sullivan (2014) advocates for mundane encounters with users as a way to work forward to understand users. Mundane encounters can carry more cultural relevance than sometimes expected.

Suggested Practice 2: Employ cultural identity heuristics as a starting point, then challenge them with as much data as you can find. While national cultural identity heuristics can sometimes prove to pigeonhole users, they also point to national trends that can be more deeply investigated and refined through investigation. Heuristics, like personas, should be revised on an ongoing basis. Hunsinger (2006) argues for a more fluid understanding of cultural identity, and while heuristics are a useful starting point for beginning to understand unfamiliar cultures, they can quickly become inaccurate if they are treated as static or absolute truths.

Suggested Practice 3: Practice a variety of listening techniques to emphasize a more bottom-up understanding of users. By listening empathetically and rhetorically, the technical communicator can work to understand personal beliefs, viewpoints, and ideas, and how these concepts influence user interaction with an interface or with information. Indi Young (2015) provides excellent strategies for implementing empathetic listening in the workplace and in user research. These practices can also help technical communicators reflect on their own cultural viewpoints and how they influence communication design as well.

Suggested Practice 4: Work to understand how your cultural values and beliefs influence your perception of others’. One of the main functions of App Abroad is to emphasize the importance of collective and individual reflection. Even though cultural values and beliefs about technology vary, technical communicators can critically analyze intercultural communication design by reflecting on the influence of their own cultural beliefs and values on their work. Look to your own practices, tendencies, and habits as evidence of your personal cultural identity and note how they deviate from heuristics that are meant to represent your national culture. Such small insights can lead to better communication outcomes.

Through small changes in daily behavior, individuals can enhance their cultural competence by raising their awareness of the kinds of factors to consider when creating materials for individuals from other cultures. While the steps here are by no means definitive, they are a starting point that can help technical communicators shift how they think about culture and communication in ways that could enhance how they conceive of users from other cultures.


In terms of addressing the gap between a person and their national cultural identity, technologies such as App Abroad position user-captured media as a natural way to help people closely analyze cultural encounters and practices from the bottom-up. That said, there is no single way to develop a neat heuristic for understanding the needs, behaviors, and values of a person or group of people. Documenting and reflecting on everyday, mundane encounters with a culture has the opportunity to help people take a more critical stance and challenge national cultural identity heuristics, particularly when these encounters are interrogated and discussed in ethical, goal-oriented ways. As technologies such as App Abroad are further developed and beta tested during study and work abroad experiences, individuals can work to refine the tagging system to emphasize immersion through collective recall, tagging, and listening through goal-oriented dialogue and reflection to facilitate gains in cultural competence.

With these ideas in mind, technical communicators must seize opportunities for discussing culture collectively to formulate rival interpretations of user behavior. To have these conversations, teams can exchange ideas about customers by accessing media that they believe contains important information about users’ cultural practices, and compare this data against national cultural identity heuristics. Additionally, technical communicators must continue to find methods of challenging national cultural identity heuristics when designing intercultural communication. To do so, technical communicators can similarly draw from commonplace encounters with different cultures, collect data from these encounters, continue to solicit feedback from users through research, and create a dialogue about cultural practices across a team. By developing a sense that culture and use is not static but constantly transforming, technical communicators can challenge traditional uses of national identity heuristics for a more bottom-up understanding of culture, and design more effective intercultural communication.


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About the Author

Benjamin Lauren is an Assistant Professor of Experience Architecture (XA) in the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures Department at Michigan State University, where he teaches in the professional writing program and XA major. He is also a Writing, Information, and Digital Experience (WIDE) Researcher. His research focuses on how people manage creative and collaborative activities in a variety of professional contexts. Other recent projects have addressed mobile application development, the environmental design of workplaces, agile and lean project management, and play-based training in the workplace. He is available at blauren@msu.edu.

Manuscript received: 10 August 2015; revised: 19 September 2015; accepted: 21 September 2015.