Purpose: The chronicle of a global approach to information communication design (ICD) does not always translate when applied to cultures in countries around the world. In this study, I wanted to know if the designers of Souq.com relied solely on the universal principles of ICD to build a uniquely Arabized and successful site. Equally, I wanted to discover what other dimensions are in play when it comes to designing content for target users.
Method: I reviewed the literature and developed a framework based on key indicators of ICD. I then analyzed the layout and Web content of Souq.com by examining interface and content, focusing on the homepage.
Results: The principles of ICD, while foundational, require additional knowledge in order to meet the needs of local users and to build a sense of ownership of those principles. The process of designing for local users can benefit from insider knowledge and singular interpretation of a people’s culture, language, and traditions.
Conclusion: ICD is invaluable for the basic framework it offers. However, its principles are in themselves insufficient when it comes to designing not globally but locally.
Key words: information and communication design, technical intercultural communication, cultural sensitivity, nomos
- Expand applications of information communication design (ICD) based upon sensitive and multiple culture perspectives
- Understand how to leverage multiple user perspectives to create an effective, culturally sensitive, and locally attuned artifact
- Gain an understanding of nomos (ways in which culture is revealed by naming or labeling), as it can guide practices of cultivating a sensitive user experience
- Enhance understanding and uses of personas to create more effective materials for international audiences
For some technical communicators, information and communication design (ICD), often defined as the art of crafting specific messages to achieve desired goals among target audiences, is seen as an effective way to create materials for international audiences (Harrison, 2014). In essence, ICD attempts to apply theory to the practice of design (Harrison, 2014) while creating novel analytical products such as interfaces, networks, and navigation systems. As such, ICD practices have much to offer technical communicators due to ICD’s focus on examining user-interface design in order to understand the relationship between audiences, technologies, and design processes. Current uses of ICD, however, are limited in terms of how effectively they can be used to design materials for international contexts. As a result, technical communicators need to re-think approaches to ICD in order to use ICD more effectively when creating materials for users from other cultures.
This paper examines how the ICD approach can be modified to facilitate the process of creating materials for international users. To examine this issue, the paper presents an analysis of the UAE-based website Souq.com and reviews how the site represents a modified or enhanced approach to using ICD in global contexts. The examination of this topic is guided by the following overarching research question: What are the strategies for intercultural technical communication that Souq.com has adapted and effectively extended to design its user interface?
The objective of the related analysis presented here is to reveal how technical communicators can modify the ICD approach to create more effective materials that meet the needs of different international audiences.
To address these ideas, this paper begins with an overview that contextualizes this particular study within the promise and perils of internationalizing communication design. Next, I present a review of the theoretical framework on culture, examining attendant challenges related to larger concepts of culture and how they influence localization. The related discussion of these perspectives and their implications for intercultural technical communication leads to an analysis of Souq.com, the object of study discussed here. This particular study focuses specifically on the homepage of Souq.com, as Nielsen (2013) has deemed this page the “most valuable real estate in the world” (para 1). As the first point of contact with the user, the homepage not only gives users information about the products, it provides navigation tools that help users explore the site.
Through such an examination of the Souq.com homepage, this paper reveals how technical communicators can use a modified approach to communication design as a tool for communicating more effectively in international contexts. It concludes with a summary of the lessons learned and the practical implications for internationalizing communication design.
A Review of Central Concepts in Culture and Interface Design
Culture is an important aspect to consider in user interface design, which is the physical point of contact for the provider and users. As Cyr (2008) found, the quality of a user interface affects customer loyalty. Research showing that different cultures perceive visual forms of information such as signage, instructions, and color, differently (e.g., Hembrooke, Gay, Granka, Feusner, & Newman, 2004; Kim, 2013) has led to more culturally focused approaches to designing content (Cyr, Head, and Latios, 2010). Often, these approaches center on using Hofstede’s (2011) ideas of cultural dimensions (e.g., power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures) to guide the process of designing interfaces for international audiences (see, for example Würtz, 2006; Khashman & Large, 2012). In fact, so pervasive are Hofstede’s ideas that they seem to have created a foundation for much of the research and design work done in intercultural and technical communication (Merkin, 2006; Schafer, 2009). Hofstede’s ideas, however, closely associate cultures with nation states and create the misperception that all the individuals in a given country hold the same cultural expectations associated with communication.
Culture and perceptions of user expectations
The problem becomes the notion of culture itself, which is fraught with layers of meaning. Does “culture” refer to a people, a nation, or a country (see Leidner & Kayworth 2006)? What about the different affiliations that members of a local community may subscribe to, identify with, and/or use to separate themselves from the larger community?
While some individuals laud Hofstede’s model for generating cultural knowledge, others—such as Mushtaha and De Troyer (2012)—argue these ideas cannot account for other (digital) cultural factors. These factors include a users’ evolving understanding of the Web and the ease with which individuals interact with Web content over time. Rather, Mushtaha and De Troyer argue that continual interaction with Web-based content—particularly content created by other cultures—gives rise to digital cultures with norms of discourse different from ones typically associated with strictly national cultures, i.e., applicable to an entire nation. In fact, because modern online culture is embedded in the communication process, the Internet is able to accommodate multiple cultures independent of geographic location (Castells, 2011). Thus, the practice of creating online materials for international audiences must account for both:
- The digital culture acquired from the Web
- The social culture inherent in the traditions and identities of the culture(s) in question
The central focus to consider is that not all members of the same national—or even regional—culture represent a unified perspective on communication preferences and expectations—particularly in relation to design. For example, Cyr, Head, and Larios (2010) found that color can prompt certain physiological and psychological reactions among users. Interestingly, Madden, Hewitt, and Roth (2000) found color is not as culture-specific as anecdotal claims have it. Rather, the particular meaning associated with a specific color might be “regional, or unique to a given culture” (p. 102). Thus, while an understanding of culture and color is central to effective international design, it might be that no unified cultural perception of a given color exists. Such association can be key to effective website design—especially if user perception of the effectiveness of the interface is closely associated with the color. Cyr (2008) found that color appeal led to trust, which led to “eloyalty” and, eventually, user satisfaction—all essential factors to succeeding in the global online marketplace of today. This factor is important to interface design in global contexts because it is vital to the success of acquiring and retaining patronage in online transactions.
Culture and perspectives of user behavior
User behavior is another feature that technical communicators often focus on in the design of communication. Such behavior encompasses everything from reading patterns to preferences and performance expectations associated with the user interface. For example, Brumberger (2014) found that high-context cultures rely on implicit meanings inherent within contexts and perceived in relationships (i.e., use the setting in which information is presented to determine what the message is). Thus, “what individuals attend to when looking at visual material appears to be linked to their reliance on context” (p. 103). Users in low-context cultures, on the other hand, pair their preference for clarity with explicitness and their preference for aesthetics with ambiguity—in sum, say what you mean (p. 100). These factors influence design decisions when creating materials—particularly online materials—for individuals in other cultures.
At the same time, such design must also meet user expectations associated with how an interface should be used and, likewise, how that interface should be designed to facilitate that use. To address such factors, Getto and St.Amant (2014) have argued for expanding the concept of developing personas (i.e., archetype or profiles of users) to represent the needs of a whole range of real users that can occur within a given national culture. They advocate developing personas not for an overall cultural group (e.g., the French), but rather to extend persona creation to identify and understand different kinds of users within that greater culture (e.g., teenagers living in urban areas in southern France). Getto and St.Amant concluded that design based on such expanded cultural personas would better meet the needs of the range of users within a given nation.
In terms of extending these ideas to the design of online media, Usunier and Roulin (2010) examined the communication style of content and design on websites created by members of different cultures. They hypothesized that companies that serve specific cultural communities located in designated places (as opposed to one design for the entire region or nation) designed content specific to those local contexts (as opposed to a greater national one). Usunier and Roulin found such sites were designed based not on national-cultural attributes, but on the cultural “frame of reference and the local knowledge found in the in-group” (p. 190). Their finding re-enforced the idea that, even among people of a shared culture, certain segments of a culture (i.e., in-groups) actually set the standard for what is forward thinking and can markedly influence design expectations in different areas. Thus, effectively designing for such contexts—particularly in terms of online media—becomes a matter of knowing how specific groups of individuals in a given culture use technologies. For this reason, ICD, which focuses on identifying and understanding such interactions, has been seen as a mechanism that can address this topic. While the ICD approach can lead to more successful designs for international users, it still has limitations, as revealed in the review of the literature here. These limitations need to be considered and addressed in the interest of expanding ICD’s reach to facilitate effective design for international audiences.
Re-Thinking ICD in International Contexts
Information and communication design (ICD) focuses on helping users make more efficient and effective decisions when using a technology (e.g., an interface). Through what Kostelnick (1995) characterizes as “the overt as well as the hidden aspects, the rational and the irrational, the aesthetic and the pragmatic,” ICD enhances the value of products by enabling users to process their functional and visual aesthetics (p. 182). Central to this approach is recognizing and accounting for user needs and expectations—as well as contexts of use—during the product design and development processes. So powerful are these factors that ICD approaches to design are often considered universal in nature and are seen as an important method for communicating effectively with greater global audiences (Newell & Gregor, 2000; Marcus, 2012). There are, however, numerous contradictions to this perspective.
Universal ICD limitations
Consider this: Google currently controls roughly 83% of the global search market (Bejarano, 2013); however, its reach does not extend to every country. One such country is South Korea. The Economist (2009), for example, has documented the struggles Google has faced in South Korea where “Google’s celebrated bare-bones style” (Sang-Hun, 2007, para 23) that relies on algorithms has failed to gain a following. South Koreans have chosen Naver.com for its culture-rich content over Google (Sang-Hun, 2007).
Google’s failure to appeal to South Koreans despite its minimalist approach (favored by Westerners) is demonstrative of a universal approach to design—an approach in which interfaces are often characterized as “highly simplified abstract generic human forms that carry no suggestions of race or gender” (Brumberger, 2014, p. 92). Algorithms and abstraction as universal representations have, in other words, stripped content of meaning and images of their relationship to reality, respectively, implying that ICD has to be “culturally focused” (Kostelnick, 1995, p. 93).
By contrast, Naver.com, a less globally known search engine local to South Korea, is more popular with Internet users in that nation. Sang-Hun (2007) attributes Naver’s success in South Korea to its ability to encourage a “South Korean inclination to help one another on the Web” (para, 4), while Lee, Kim, and Jeong (2010) credit its popularity to “localized information and interface” (p. 9). Moreover, users in South Korea are said to “prefer portal sites that resemble department stores, filled with eye-catching animation and multiple features” (Sang-Hun, 2007, para. 22). Granted, some of Google’s shortcomings have been attributed to its shortage of “Korean-language data-to-trawl to satisfy South Korean customers” (Lee, as cited in Sung-Hun, 2007). Still given that South Koreans rank Naver above Google gives rise to speculation that Naver’s overall ICD approach including localization and cultural adaptation is at the heart of its appeal to South Koreans. This contrast is a study in ICD, suggesting the need for a more adapted approach that recognizes the interconnection ICD has with cultural and local inclinations.
In the Middle East, a similar interplay might explain the success of Souq.com, which, as Scott (2015) reports, has successfully penetrated Arab markets. Souq.com is an online marketing site that specifically targets users from Arab countries. Headquartered in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Souq.com’s user base is estimated to have risen by 170% between 2014 and 2015 to include some 130 millions users as of December 2014 (Amos, 2014).
Souq.com’s rapid growth coincides with the following developments:
- Its evolution from “auction site” to “marketplace” (CrunchBase) selling over 200,000 products with a network of 75,000 traders (ArabianBusiness)
- Internet penetration in the region estimated between 50% to 75% (United Nations Broadband Commission)
- Mobile devices (e.g., cell phones) that offer instant Internet access and have “been a huge driver of growth in 2014 approximating 45% of sales (Mouchawar, 2015)
Based on these factors, Souq.com can serve as an example of how ICD principles can be expanded to better address the expectations of different groups of users both around the world and within the same culture.
An Overview of souq.com
Souq.com takes its name from souq—a noun that means “open-air marketplace” in Arabic (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. See also Carter, Dunston, & Thomas, 2008). Souq also generally refers to the transactions and interactions that occur in an open-air marketplace, such as bargaining for commodities between buyers and sellers. By positioning themselves as sellers in a digital/virtual sort of open-air market, the proprietors of Souq.com effectively invite buyers to come bargain with them online. This invitation to bargain represents the first step in leveraging the site designer’s common knowledge with the cultural expectations of Arab users to co-create a shared sense of meaning. It is said that bargaining is inherent to Arab culture (Taylor & Carraher, 2014).
Souq.com’s approach to design through adaptation, localization, and strategies in intercultural technical communication has resulted in a uniquely Arabized ecommerce interface that includes culture-specific features such as the name souq, religious symbols like the minaret, and promotional tactics, such as “White Friday,” the company’s counterpart to Black Friday—a day of shopping and special offers. As Souq.com founder and CEO Ronaldo Mouchawar put it, the biggest challenge was to “Arabize millions of products, product descriptions, [and] build a proper catalogue index” (Amos, 2014, para. 19). What he describes here is, in essence, customizing and, in some ways, branding based on inter-culture and localization, a strategic approach to designing technical communication. Thus, Souq.com represents an application of ICD principles of understanding and meeting the expectations of users in combination with an understanding of the varying expectations of different groups of users within a given culture.
For these reasons, an analysis of Souq.com’s website can provide important and interesting insights in to how technical communicators might merge ICD approaches with an understanding of group variations within a culture to create more effective online materials (and interfaces) for a wider range of international audiences. This analysis is based on the premise that the limitations of ICD can be enhanced with two emerging modalities: inter-culture and localization.
Method of Analysis
The purpose of the analysis presented here was to determine how ICD approaches could be merged with an understanding of local cultures to create more effective online design for different international audiences. To examine this issue, I sought to answer the overarching research question: What are the strategies Souq.com has used to expand and adapt conventional ICD approaches in order to better address the interface design expectations of different groups of users within the same culture? To begin the process of addressing this question, I first identified the variables (below) I would use to conduct an analysis of the homepage.
Focus of analysis
A review of the literature indicates that successful ICD processes related to designing for international contexts involve an understanding of the role of users in combination with an understanding of both localization and intercultural technical communication theory. The key is for users of the ICD approach to correctly interpret culturally appropriate knowledge associated with the setting in which something is used. Next, they need to understand how the related users create mental models of what constitutes “appropriate use of an interface” in that context.
To examine how such factors come into play with the design of the Souq.com website, I focused my analysis of the homepage by identifying the following issues that were seen as key to successful international design in the literature on the topic. The following three items are the most prevalent items that emerged from this review.
- ICD: The applicability of basic principles of information and communication design to localization (Marcus, 2012; Snitker, 2010; Swarts, 2012). For example, these include design elements such as symbols and site features like page layout and visual design.
- Inter-culture: The significance of (general) digital-cultural versus (specific) social-cultural elements in localization (Usunier & Roulin, 2010; Castells, 2011; Mushtaha & De Troyer, 2012). For example, digital users expect interfaces that are networked, interactive, and immersive, and offer seamless and intuitive navigation on multiple devices.
- Localization: Cultural preferences and how they shape localization approaches to design (Cyr, 2008; Cyr, Head, & Larios, 2010; Scott, 2010). For example, language and content, product or service names, time zones, and currency.
Each factor became a variable I looked for when analyzing how effectively Souq.com created online displays and interfaces for different groups of users within that culture.
Process of analysis
Nielsen’s (1995) heuristics have been widely accepted in the analysis of business and commercial websites. Similarly, Pauwels’ (2012) multimodal framework is suitable for analyzing websites and encompasses “looking at rather immediately manifest features . . . to more in-depth interpretations of the constituting elements and their intricate relations” (Pauwels, 2012, p.251). These manifest features include
- language, of local users;
- layout, of elements and contextual structure;
- navigation, to help users find their way;
- symbols and imagery;
- branding, including identity; and
- content, an interactive focal point for users and designers.
These features became the primary areas I focused on in my analysis of the Souq.com homepage when reviewing the site in terms of factors of ICD, localization, and inter-culture. The analysis was undertaken at different stages in 2015 (in the period ranging from March 2015 to late July 2015). I selected this particular period to conduct my analysis because it coincided with the time of writing this article.
In presenting the results of my analysis based on the process described here and in lieu of screen captures from the Souq.com website (due to legal constraints), I use detailed descriptions of the website’s elements on the homepage that best exemplify the features of my analysis.
Results of Analysis
After reviewing the Souq.com home page in terms of the factors noted here, I found the following patterns or trends in design.
As noted earlier, ICD operates through a communication process that involves a “negotiation of beliefs and values” (Kelly, 2014, p. 213), so that in online communities, users exercise some agency as “dynamic participants in the argument” (Tyler, 1995, p. 105). To accommodate these basic ICD principles, Souq.com creates an affective user experience by using “natural mapping” (Norman, 2013, p. 23)—or the process of using “physical analogies and cultural standards” (p. 23) that lend immediacy to users’ understanding. For example, an Arabic reader’s eye will naturally follow a right to left reading pattern; hence, the most important information is placed in the right hand corner. That sense of natural mapping also applies to its naming—souq—and prominently placed Arabic calligraphy. Through this approach, Souq.com is able to better tailor the site to the cultural expectations of these particular users by presenting it as a natural extension of an open-air market common in that culture. In an open-air market, trading is the norm, and Souq.com intimates that possibility by creating a digital context that mirrors the cultural experiences and expectations of those users.
One way in which Souq.com’s homepage mirrors such expectations is through the use of the rapid display of a sequence of images that create the illusion of movement. Such motion makes the site appear more interactive in nature (i.e., it is dynamic vs. static) and makes the interface easier to use by providing context to help the user navigate reliably. These contexts begin with parent categories, or menus that incorporate drop-down sub-menus that then lead to specific products such as computers, laptops, tablets, and other products. As such, this dynamic menu feature of the site represents an effective execution of ICD principles because it streamlines navigation by helping users focus their actions. It also makes finding products easy by limiting the paths users can search to find items.
Language use on the Souq.com homepage also represents an effective application of ICD principles in global contexts. A bilingual site, Souq.com presents information in both Arabic and English, yet weaves language and content together so that they appear seamless. For example, the homepage presents a simple user interface that contains Arabic text and a relatively simple visual design.
Furthermore, Souq.com’s design speaks the users’ language with words and concepts familiar in Arabic culture. The page navigation is linear, as seen in some features where users are directed down a path that culminates in a specific product. These features emphasize hierarchical structure by displaying the primary navigation starting point on the homepage. Such design might show order of importance by placing certain items before—or above—others. As Zaharna (1995) explains, graphically clustered, related information and repetition are common rhetorical devices in Arabic culture where they are considered positive.
The interface offers the look and feel of a spatially analogous marketplace augmented by cultural analogies such as
- text flow and direction, in Arabic calligraphy, in vegetal and geometric patterns with visually appealing patterns;
- male and female personas of individuals dressed in fashionable attire, perhaps to welcome both male and female customers; and
- choice of colors and tones such as greens and sky blue that resonate with this culture.
What is striking, from an ICD perspective, is the depiction of personas on that page. Souq.com presents both male and female personas on equal footing. The female persona is presented in a skintight, brightly colored dress. At first glance, her dress and posture appear inconsistent with what many Western viewers might consider an appropriate depiction of women in Arabic culture. Equally interesting is the proximity between male and female personas in the image, particularly in light of the fact that neither of them is conservatively dressed (at least in terms of what many Western audiences might expect). The two figures are literally leaning against one another with the woman’s back pressed against that of her male counterpart. At a time when the meaning of Arabic culture is so fraught (as austere and puritanical), such images do not conform to outsiders’ expectations of what it means to be male and female in that world.
The image, however, represents a set of attributes that personify a composite of a segment of people in this market versus attempting to create a “universal” or “monolithic” depiction that attempts to address the expectations of an overall cultural group. It captures that tension between the austere and the opulent in meaningful ways, demonstrating that designing with these personas shows how ICD, in combination with an in-depth knowledge of the various audiences within a given culture, can be used to create online materials that better address the expectations of different groups within an overall culture.
In addition to the images used on the homepage, the visual design featuring simple menus with illuminating content, color combination, and traditional Arabic patterns (i.e., decorative paintings, clothing, and jewelry that convey a sense of opulence and texture) resonates with this category of users. It appeals to Arabic people’s love of extravagance and manifestations of wealth (Gannon & Pillai, 2015). This approach to design allows Souq.com to more effectively meet the needs of users through visuals that shape the content through vivid imagery, as seen in the products, and verbosity, as represented by description of these products. Such elements address expectations of abundance that are considered highly important across much of Middle Eastern and North African culture (Zaharna, 1995). As such, these features represent an effective application of ICD principles because they help users understand the intended meaning and they predispose users to accept the message.
On the Souq.com homepage, repetition is applied liberally to different aspects of the site, as seen in the examples of colors, textures, and patterns. Within this particular cultural context, such design features help reinforce the message of consistency. As such, these features represent an effective but expanded application of ICD principles by tapping into the cultural, aesthetic, and even perceptual sensibilities of a people. Thus, the homepage’s simple, user-interface design appears to be goal-oriented [i.e., it helps users attain the goal of trust with images prominently displayed to direct the path of male users (as represented by male personas, products) and female users (female personas and respective products) in accordance with the norms of certain audiences within a particular, larger culture]. In this way, accessing information matches the needs of specific groups of users within a culture versus attempting to create an interface that treats all members of a greater culture as a uniform whole.
As noted earlier, the term “inter-culture” refers to the significance of (general) digital-cultural versus (specific) social-cultural elements in localization. In terms of website design, analyzing culturally specific design patterns (notably typography, layout and cinematographic images) and decoding them can provide us with a window into the way inter-culture is accommodated effectively in online media. Analyzing the Souq.com homepage during the holy month of Ramadan (generally in June and July) offered an effective example of how digital and social-cultural elements can converge to create effective online materials for certain cultural audiences. [The efficacy of these examples are based on the idea that cultural markers; such as language, symbols, and their design; increase a site’s usability and promote user satisfaction and trustworthiness (Fogg et al, 2002)].
The notable characteristics on the homepage are consistent with the expectations of a digital-cultural community. Recognizable brand names, along with text linking to detailed information, are consistent with what Web users on an e-commerce site have (generally) come to expect (Bernard, 2003). While the homepage depicted internationally recognized products such as flat screen TVs, Apple Watch, and kitchen appliances, it did so with Arabic aesthetics. These included bi-directional reading, calligraphic text, culturally preferred colors (green against a blue background), orthographic patterns requiring visual processing, and explicit references to Ramadan, rendering the content uniquely Arabic. These digital and social-cultural images were hybrids that assimilate elements of Internet and local Arab culture. The designed Arabic text juxtaposed with products shows attention to cultural sensitivity, while the white space helps users segregate features on the page to eliminate crowding.
Incorporating elements that imply a social-cultural twist on Souq.com infuse the digital with a distinctly Arabic identity as if to defy homogenization/universality. They do so by capitalizing on rituals related to the season of Ramadan such as fasting and breaking the fast (a custom known as Iftar). Iftar signifies not just breaking the fast but also renewal.
The scant text is augmented by visual design in the form of images, signs, symbols, and metaphors that appeal to users’ logic and emotions and lend credibility to the site as Würtz (2005) has shown. This scant use of text is an element of proxemics in which space as a “specialized elaboration of culture” is prized in Arab cultures (Gannon & Pillai, 2015, p. 66). Proxemics (i.e., the use of space, both physical and personal) speaks here to Arab cultures’ desire for expansiveness and open spaces. The non-verbal elements in these images are sites of interaction that rely on connotation and association to convey meaning rooted in shared values. Such meanings are bound up in cultural imperatives and agreed upon norms.
Souq.com recognizes that many if its customers are Arab but also Muslim. So designs that address Muslim factors can appeal to this category of users in the Middle East. Consider Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, a time considered particularly holy in the Muslim faith. Ramadan is a spiritual and celebratory period during which practicing Muslims fast from dusk to dawn. During this period, residents in Muslim countries live a more leisurely existence given the rigors of maintaining a fast [in countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, the governments enforce a policy of employees working only six hours per day to accommodate the rituals of Ramadan (ArabianBusiness, 2015)]. The month of Ramadan culminates in celebrations that mark the end of the fast on a day known as Eid al-Fitr. During this period, retailers ratchet up their marketing just like they do between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the US. And so Souq.com leverages this knowledge of Ramadan to intertwine meaning and context, instantly creating identification with the users. By using terms that signify insider knowledge, such as “blessed Ramadan” and “Iftar deals” (i.e., the meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast after sunset), Souq.com creates a sense of shared attributes.
Souq.com capitalizes on the immediacy of the season and the tacit implication that the season culminates in celebratory extravagance for which consumers need to prepare. Souq.com thus forms association between itself, the season, and the need for prospective customers to celebrate.
This use of topical knowledge of the spirit of Ramadan reflects Miller’s (1979) observation that effective communication takes into account the “concepts, values, traditions, and style, which permit identification with the community” (p. 617). Souq.com does this by designing an interface that appeals to Arabization aesthetics. Shabout (2015) notes that this fusion of Islam and Arabic culture arises from the “tendency among Arabs to view their cultures and subcultures as a coherent entity—the Arab culture” (p. xiv).
While ICD principles discuss the role of language in relation to translation, they do not address the relationship between language and culture. For example, Whorf (1956) offers that culture and language are not separable and that culture, through language, influences people’s thinking (see also Kramsch, 1993). Souq.com, however, capitalizes on this understanding of language and culture through the site navigation scheme, its selection of metaphors, and visual appearance.
These language-focused navigation schemes begin with the navigation bar located at the top right on the homepage (unlike top left in the West) to conform to the reading direction of Arabic language, which is from right to left. Souq.com identifies the focal element on the right-hand side of the website where users’ eyes will be drawn first and then strategically creates context surrounding that focal point to maximize tracking the direction of the readers’ eyes (Nisbett, 2003; Röse, 2005). The metaphors are embedded in the Arabic language with words, phrases, and concepts familiar to these users. Take Iftar, for example, the meal eaten at sunset during Ramadan. Souq.com heralds Iftar prominently on the website by advertising sales, and promoting products associated with the season like dates, beads, and incense and creating an festive ambience as if to mitigate the effects of an all-day fast. The inherent message appears to be a pep talk intended to encourage those fasting that the time to break the fast is at hand and, it could also be a time to celebrate with a purchase. Reference to Iftar conveys familiarity. It communicates acquiescence, attracts attention, and actively engages the traditions of its patrons.
The Islamic religious tone of the site allows Souq.com to connect with users at a visceral level. Luxurious goods—such as Apple watches, Bulgari watches, perfume, and beauty products—under the banner of Amazing Ramadan Offers—suggest that one can be luxurious and religious. The juxtaposition between font sizes offers visual cues and generates a pensive Ramadan mood that interpellates (i.e., targets pre-defined individuals to act as intended) users in relation to the site’s offerings. The blue color of the homepage signifies a safe, secure environment, and with it, a sense of social presence rooted in a shared language that motivates users’ positive associations with, and perhaps a sense of ownership of, the site. Both the tone and the language are pivotal to engendering trust and validating Arabic users’ presence on the site and their interaction with its interface. Evoking the language and rituals of Ramadan on the homepage communicates to users a sense of shared understanding. The result is an interface that recognizes social-cultural traits that fit within the larger schema of digital-cultural parameters that suit Arabic users.
Inter-culture as an element of design highlights the important, and even unexpected, ways that intercultural considerations influence the design of international websites. It expands and improves the use of ICD when creating materials for international audiences by requiring designers to recognize and convey them through their local websites’ inter-culture norms.
Cultural preferences and how they shape localization approaches to Souq.com’s design are steeped in genre, which Miller (1984) has argued embodies what is rational to the genre’s culture. Genres, Miller offers, are defined by, among other things, recurrence of social actions, for they serve as “keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community” (p. 165). By incorporating “knowledge of the aesthetics, economics, politics, [and] religious beliefs” (p.159) of the Arabic community it serves, Souq.com demonstrates effective localization. Such knowledge, which is a result of cultural understanding, goes beyond ICD features and principles.
Take, for example, the way Souq.com uses an internationally recognized icon like the VISA card, which it localizes through a promotional offer. For a maximum of 100 SAR, a buyer could obtain a 10% discount for using a VISA card. That’s not all, however. Localization of the VISA card recognizes that a global brand can benefit from some culture-specific customization. Thus, Souq.com creatively incorporates local vocabulary markers such as subdued colors, honoring Ramadan, and watermarks showing images of the distinctive architectural feature of minarets (symbols of Islamic civilization) above the skyline of a major Middle Eastern city, all of which become visual cues/focal points for a Muslim community.
By incorporating these markers, Souq.com embeds a lot of meaning and detail in the interface so that users can read into both the context (Ramadan) and the object (VISA) to enter into a transaction steeped in cultural knowledge (Zaharna, 1995). This context involves cognitive and emotional responses in which users develop a relationship with the message and its source. And it ultimately has a bearing on its interpretation.
Souq.com also recognizes the communication nature of Arab cultures as being more ambiguous and indirect than their Western counterparts. Thus, unlike Amazon’s more direct approach of personalizing products based on users’ browsing/shopping history, Souq.com seeks to evoke an affective response from its users by designing more for “emotional resonance” (Zaharna, 1995, p. 243), a strategy that helps promote social relationship. Souq.com’s emotional resonance is created in the interface aesthetics that incorporate beauty and various luxuries (e.g., designer fragrances, handbags, and expensive watches) and traditional cues, personas and religious icons.
One reason for this resonance may be because beyond the utility of the website, perceived beauty elicits high emotional response among users (Cyr, 2013). Moreover, being tuned into the seasons throughout the year resonates a lot with users as it demonstrates sensitivity to their needs. For example, July was heavy on Ramadan, but that season has now passed. And with that passing, Souq.com has unveiled more germane products such as baby products and designer wear. Such resonance in time builds and leads to e-loyalty, a much sought-after quality in online marketing (Cyr, Hassanein, Head, & Ivanov, 2007).
One of the overt moves Souq.com made was to re-brand and re-name the concept of Black Friday, a celebrated shopping holiday in the United States but which has no resonance in the Middle East. In the Arab world, Friday is a day of prayer. Like Sundays in the Western world, Friday is a day off on which people gather to worship. As Souq.com put it, “surely . . . Our Friday is WHITE” (http://uae.souq.com/ae-en/white-friday/c/). White, from a cultural perspective, is better by association with a day of prayer when worshipers dress in white. White is a symbol of purity and peace. That symbolism engenders identification with and shows sensitivity to Arab users. Such branding is characteristic of the way information salience shifts with intent and with consideration of the times. For example, when Souq.com evolved from an auction site to a retail portal and marketplace for third-party sellers, it expanded both its product and user base substantively (Attwood, 2014).
Summary of findings
The analysis of the Souq.com website as presented here reveals how ICD can be enhanced by, among other aspects,
- branding, and
- the communication patterns of local cultures.
Genre knowledge goes a step beyond utilitarian models of design to serve a social purpose indicative of conventional norms within a given community of users. ICD needs to recognize genre knowledge and to reflect it in the communication patterns of the target culture. Where a culture is more ambiguous, the content ought to show sensitivity to that ambiguity. When it comes to branding, that knowledge (of genre and communication patterns) leads to decisions regarding product promotions, placement, and marketing. And ICD, enhanced with this knowledge, can appeal to the affect of users through aesthetics and related decorative motifs, for example.
Consider language as being central to a people’s culture. Using language as a starting place, ICD can first and foremost assure that the website is accessible in the language of intended users. For example, for the estimated six billion Arabic speakers in the world, there is currently only 3% Arabic content (Africa-ME, 2015). This gap likely applies to many more languages and it can begin to be addressed by ICD in target countries by investing in developing content in those local languages. Moreover, language as a starting place can shape the design and layout, page orientation, placement, and navigation tools. Additionally, symbols of the local currency speak to discerning users who begin to view the content through their prism. This integration of cultural communication patterns can also find its way into branding, which Souq.com has accomplished by increasing Arabic content, localizing promotions, and even catering to the limited availability of credit card holders by making it possible for online purchases to be paid for by cash on delivery. Lately, Souq.com has expanded purchasing options by offering pre-paid cards that can be procured and used online (Africa-ME, 2015).
What can exploring “Arabization” through the lens of Souq.com teach us about inter-culture and localization? How do these findings enhance ICD approaches to make them better address the needs of audiences from different cultures? Existing ICD schemas (i.e., models of how members of a culture organize information) are a good starting place, organizationally and functionally. However, as Souq.com’s success in meeting the needs of over 100 million users in the Arab world demonstrates, more is required (Amos, 2014).
Take the name Souq.com; it teleports the idea that the site owners are working from the same Arabized ideals—validated and recognized by this primary audience. Rhetoricians would categorize this strategy as nomos—which speaks to the norms and culture of a people (Farrell, 1995, p. 52). Culture establishes the expectations to which people are socialized, and those expectations then become norms that moderate their aspirations and mediate expectations. Because nomos speaks to socially (and digitally) derived customs and conventions agreed upon by a people, understanding of nomos, as relative to the context, to a culture, and the situations under which people engage in transactions, enhances ICD. Moreover, because nomos also means “name,” the idea of naming, labeling, and other epistemological pursuits can be incorporated in the branding and localization efforts.
The name Souq also expresses elements of insider knowledge and excludes the linguistically unaware. It conveys a sense of nationalism by distinguishing Arabic speakers who intuit the meaning of the word. As noted, souq is an Arabic word for marketplace. A “souq” does for Arab culture what the “mall” does for American culture. The meaning and symbolism in both retail environments, in a way, serve as extensions of the cultures and lifestyles of the people. Both malls and souqs represent places of convergence for personal fulfillment and national identity. From the analytical framework in which nomos works to intuit language as both a communicative and social tool that makes branding possible, the souq’s function is not simply to convey information, but to build community and to, in the long run, build customer loyalty.
The personas’ significant distinction is that they are recognizably Arabic. Because they reflect the expectations the target culture has for certain kinds of individuals, the use of such personas on the Souq.com site taps into the implicit thinking patterns of how users actualize their experiences, leading to trust and acceptance. Moreover, there is an equal representation of gender as evidenced by the presence of both male and female personas on the Souq.com home page—a design feature that bridges the male-female cultural dimension. Assuming homogeneity in nation cultures rather than focusing on subcultures, as the West is wont to, would handicap design approaches to this category of users by, for example, assuming conservative clothing or even inequality in gender. Singh and Pereira (2005) examine this issue of cultural customization as a means of not just design but of branding. Branding, with its emphasis on a “customized and dynamic marketing strategy” (p.3) seems to be key for Souq.com’s success.
Home page interface design
The Souq.com homepage interface shows simple menus and fewer links that then open up to long scrolling pages as the main method of navigation. This preference for scrolling over clicking works by introducing products seamlessly and endlessly. It might also reflect the essence of souqs—Arab markets—as sellers’ markets (rather than buyers’ markets) where availability of products is emphasized over urging consumers to purchase (like Amazon does) (Al-Olayan & Karande, 2000, p. 71). This kind of design leads to users discovering products without the pressure of committing to purchase items—a factor that gives users control of the purchasing process.
In opting for this approach, Souq.com deploys a design strategy in user experience in which individuals are unknowingly guided through a predetermined narrative that implies an endless possibility of goods and services characteristic of a souq—an open-air marketplace. Given the smartphone-driven nature of its users (Nagraj, 2014), scrolling is a mobile and touch-phone friendly feature that gives Souq.com the impression of never-ending media feeds akin to those found on many social networking sites. Known as parallax scrolling, this successful strategy by Souq.com lies not in basic ICD and individual communication artifacts but in the “ecologies of text that comprise all the artifacts,” as Spinuzzi (2012, p. 10) would argue. And it is emblematic of inter-culture as described earlier, a quality appreciated by digital cultural users.
Context is important to effective design, and ICD, in turn, should strive to embed context around the focal area to carefully add details that enhance meaning. Contextual awareness is generated not just by information but also by environmental and social aspects (Albers, 2009; Schriver, 2007). Context also encompasses history (Snitker, 2010). Thus, while technical communication aims to capture user information, usability alone cannot offer needed insights into users’ relationship with products. This limitation is due to the fact that usability is not always representative of the real-life scenario. Moreover, usability is largely qualitative. Context can help close these gaps by bringing the context and the experience together. The theoretical construct of user experience design should assure that users are not added after the fact but are integral to the design process from the outset.
Even with the cultural dimensions derived from Hofstede’s (2001) and Hall’s (1990) models, as well as from principles of ICD, it is important to recognize the limitations offered by each through examining the dynamic between the global (universal) and the local. Further, there is a need to recognize the limitations afforded by the word culture, which is often conflated with nation-states, regions, and even religions. Because these are not interchangeable concepts, ICD needs to recognize other dimensions when it comes to designing for human beings. These dimensions include subgroups, social status, exposure to the Internet, and knowledge accrued from interacting with Web tools and with other Web users. By seeing the homepage through the cultural and local users’ perspectives, Souq.com has complicated the universal principles of ICD by interpreting Arabesque and local cultural forms to project a distinct yet familiar interface for its intended users.
This paper examined Souq.com, the largest e-commerce website in the UAE, and a site that represents an example of effective user interface design that has successfully attracted and retained the loyalty of customers across the region. The findings presented in this paper indicate that ICD alone is insufficient for meeting design expectations when it comes to creating online materials for international audiences—particularly for specific audiences in certain cultures or international contexts. Rather, ICD needs to be enhanced by integrating the use of inter-culture and localization into overall design approaches.
Within inter-culture, a culturally sensitive approach comprehends culture as socially constructed and even evanescent. As such, an inter-culture approach recognizes that there are no fixed cultures per se in this digital era, as cultures form and reform according to the contexts in which people find themselves. This is because while culture is particular to situations and unique to settings, it can also be temporal and interactive in nature. Thus, to create materials for international audiences, designers must account for both the digital-culture acquired from the Web and the social-culture inherent in the traditions and identities of the culture(s) in question.
Furthermore, localization can be achieved through natural mapping to help anticipate user behavior and the implicit meanings inherent within contexts and perceived relationships in which decisions are made. Localization can be achieved through pairing cultural, aesthetic, and even perceptual sensibilities of a people in designing a navigation scheme that seamlessly reflects user expectations.
For ICD to invent communication applicable to local situations, elements (words, shapes) and structures (genres) have to generate “relevant and meaningful ambient information” (McNely, 2012, p. 27) that is contextualized and situated. Until relatively recently, designing user interfaces for international audiences has been approached as an add-on process where the existing design is modified so that the visible aspects of the interface appear local.
In the context of global communication, where technology makes such adaptation possible, that approach, while convenient, does not translate into successful communication design. As this paper shows, effective communication design requires participatory engagement with individuals in local cultures and nations from the ground up (Longo, 1998; Sun, 2006; Scott, 2010). Such recognition will result in user interfaces that exemplify a sensitive approach to internationalizing ICD. Future research is needed to enable practitioners to understand how cultural knowledge can be translated into customized and dynamic design strategies in local contexts.
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About the Author
Josephine Walwema is an Assistant Professor at Oakland University whose teaching and research interests include technical and business communication, intercultural and global rhetorics, the rhetoric of science, and information design. She explores both the theories and the practice of these disciplines by presenting at conferences, writing and reviewing journal articles, and translating emerging concepts in the classes she teaches. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manuscript received 15 April 2015, revised 22 October 2015; accepted 30 November 2015.