Challenges for Intercultural User Testing
Anna Karen Schmitz, Thomas Mandl and Christa Womser-Hacker
Information Science
University of Hildesheim, Germany
Keywords: Intercultural Usability, Web Design.
Abstract: Measuring the performance of a user with a web site reveals that the culture of a user is an important factor.
A test of Taiwanese and German students resulted in various significant differences in effectiveness,
efficiency and satisfaction. Task design and results of the experiment are presented. Human-computer
interaction can be evaluated by different means. The paper discusses how methods need to be interpreted in
international user test settings. For example, time might not be a valid measure in long-term oriented
cultures for all interaction tasks.
Culture determines the way people deal with their
environment and how they interact in social groups.
The role of superiors in a society and the perception
of time are examples for issues which are dealt with
differently in different nations. Culture affects the
design of information systems as well. Optimal
design of information systems for users from other
cultures requires an understanding of the concept of
culture and the factors that contribute to its
existence. In a globalized world, such an analysis
can ultimately lead to better information systems. A
good understanding of the cultural differences
between web pages and their perception can support
system designers in optimally modifying their pages
for a particular culture.
Finding out differences about web site
perception is important and at the same time
difficult. User testing in human-computer interaction
usually randomly selects users and assigns them to
(often two) different system designs in order to
determine the superior design. Doing this,
comparable user populations can be created.
However, culture is a variable which cannot be
randomly assigned to the users. Therefore, culture
might have effects on the test situation which cannot
be controlled. Such test are sometimes called quasi-
experimental (Borth & Döring, 1995). The
interpretation of intercultural user tests needs to take
care of these issues. Some of these issues are
discussed in this paper. They are as far-reaching as
measures of success are concerned.
The remainder of this paper is organized as
follows. Section two defines culture for the purpose
of this paper. The next section briefly reports the
state of the art on cultural research within web
design. Section four explains the experimental setup.
Section four five elaborates the results which are
followed by a discussion and the paper ends with a
There are many definitions of culture (Kroeber &
Kluckhofen, 1952). The influential Dutch
anthropologist Hofstede defined culture as learned
patterns of ”thinking, feeling, and potential acting
that form the mental program or the ”software of the
mind” (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005) of an individual.
This particular ”software” affects our way of
thinking and acting in the world. National or social
cultures define how people interact with each other,
e.g. in groups and their environment.
Karen Schmitz A., Mandl T. and Womser-Hacker C. (2008).
In Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems - HCI, pages 62-69
DOI: 10.5220/0001700200620069
Culture is often illustrated by using the metaphor
of an onion: the most visible outer layers are easier
to access than the hidden inner core, which is
difficult to identify (Trompenaars & Hampden-
Turner, 1997). Visible aspects of a culture are easily
recognizable for anyone. The invisible ways of
thinking and dealing with the world are much more
difficult to access. This leads to many
misunderstandings in intercultural encounters. For
example, while the greeting behaviour can be easily
observed in a different culture, it is much more
difficult to find out how a culture deals with
unavoidable uncertainties of our existence.
Cultures are often classified in accordance to
their relative positions on a number of polar scales
which cultural anthropology commonly calls cultural
dimensions. The position of a culture on those scales
is determined by the dominant value orientations.
Such quantified models of culture are difficult to
find. Hofstede originally defined four dimensions of
culture (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005):
1. Power distance measures the extent to which
subordinates (employees, students) respond to
power and authority (managers, teachers) and
how they expect and accept unequal power
distribution. In high power distance cultures,
individuals pay more respect to superiors.
2. Individualism vs. Collectivism: these value
orientations refer to the ties among individuals
in a society. In collectivist cultures, individuals
define themselves more as members of a social
group. They are expected to share their
belongings with the group and can rely on the
backup within the group.
3. Uncertainty avoidance describes the extent to
which individuals feel threatened by uncertain
or unknown situations. High uncertainty
avoidance cultures try to avoid or prepare for
4. Masculinity vs. Femininity: these two extreme
values of this dimension focus on the
differences between the social roles attributed to
men and women and the expected behaviour of
the two sexes. Masculine values are related to
competitiveness and feminine values are related
to quality of life.
After much criticism about the Western orientation
of the whole model, Hofstede added a fifth
dimension which origins from East Asian cultures
and which is related to time: Long-term vs. short
term orientation. Long-term oriented societies are
willing to invest and wait longer for the return. In
short-term oriented cultures, individuals want to get
the return for their investment very fast (Hofstede &
Hofstede, 2005).
Trompenaars introduced another dimension
which is important: universalism vs. particularism.
Universalism means that rules are to be followed
under all circumstances. Under particularism, the
members of a culture follow relax rules according to
the circumstances (Trompenaars & Hampden-
Turner, 1997).
A dimension strongly related to individualism
vs. collectivism dimension is high vs. low context.
In a culture of low context information must be
explicitly stated. In a high context culture,
information is transferred to a large extent by
context and requires knowledge of the culture in
order to read the context information (Beneke,
There has been much criticism on the cultural
dimensions as proposed by Hofstede and others. For
example, Hofstede only considered national cultures.
However, there are often heterogeneous sub-cultures
within countries which should be considered
independently. Despite the criticism, the dimension
remain an appealing approach for researchers in
information technology because they provide a
quantitative model and they are very plausible.
The main differences between Germany and
Taiwan can be seen in table 1. We also display the
values for the USA, because the web sites of
American universities were used in the user test. It
can be observed that Germany and the USA are
much closer than Taiwan to any of the two other
Table 1: Values of Cultural Dimension (http://www.geert-
Dimension Germany USA Taiwan
31 29 87
Individualism 67 91 17
Power Distance 35 40 58
Masculinity 66 62 46
65 46 69
As an illustration for the differences between both
countries, we show the text of a Taiwanese traffic
ticket which exemplifies the values of keeping face
and the collectivistic orientation: “We beg your
pardon that we need to charge a fee from you in
order to follow the laws to maintain public order
and the security of the traffic. We hope that you
understand that and that you will see to follow the
User Testing
traffic rules in the future. We wish you health and
peace.” (Chen 2004).
People form their environment and create artefacts
under the influence of culture. This is also true for
information technology and especially software.
People from different cultures have different points
of views on how good systems look like (Mandl &
de la Cruz, 2008). In order to achieve good usability
and success on the market, system designers should
consider these cultural factors and adopt systems to
the target culture.
Consequently, web pages and e-commerce sites
also need to be adapted to the language and culture
of the potential user or customer. This process is
referred to as localization (Aykin 2005). Many
suggestions for the adaptation refer to simple facts
like formats, colors or symbols. Moreover,
localization also needs to consider hidden aspects of
culture (del Galdo 1996, Sturm 2005).
For research on the localization of information
systems, cultural dimensions have often been a
starting point because they provide a plausible and
quantified culture model. Marcus et al. 2003
presented examples for differences for all cultural
dimensions which are convincing. However, their
findings are based on a small and pre-selected set of
web sites. Moreover, it is not clear how cultural
dimensions may contribute to research on
intercultural web design. Some authors noted that
the assumptions made on the basis of cultural
dimensions were misleading (Griffith 1998).
An early study of Barber & Badre (1998) tried to
find typical cultural markers in an inductive
approach. The approach of Marcus et al. (2003)
started with knowledge on cultural dimension in
general and intended to locate effects within web
sites. This could be labelled a deductive approach.
Cultural markers are also procured by Sun (2001).
His study which included interviews about certain
homepages showed that the presence of cultural
markers increased the aesthetic satisfaction with a
web site. However, only few users were interviewed
(Sun 2001).
The methodology for intercultural research is
especially problematic. What is measured in a
human-computer interaction experiment in an
intercultural setting? Can good vs. bad design be
determined or can usability or typical design for one
culture or another be identified? Empirically
convincing studies are difficult to set up from a
methodological point of view. In common
quantitative human-computer interaction studies,
two versions of a user interface are presented to two
user groups who are selected from the same culture
and who are believed to be homogeneous. For
comparative studies in international web design
analysis, the user groups are different and their
reaction to the system is under investigation.
However, it is difficult to leave the system constant.
The system cannot be presented to two groups of
users from different countries without modification.
The system needs to be translated and culturally
adapted. For example, the investigated task may be
embedded completely differently in the two cultures.
Typical user groups like university students may
have quite different features like social group in
different societies. Hence, the system often needs to
be changed significantly in order to be adequate for
a real-life experiment which makes comparability
difficult (Evers 2002). This is a general problem is
intercultural research (Eckensberger & Plath, 2003).
In order to overcome these problems, sometimes
expatriates are used as test users (Sheppard &
Scholtz,, 1999). For tests with e-learning systems,
foreign students can be used (Kamentz & Womser-
Hacker, 2003, Kamentz & Mandl, 2003). This
method may relax the problem of the language
barrier, however, it needs to be emphasized that
language competency in a second language is not
comparable with the language competence in a
native language. Another way to overcome the
methodological problems is the use of mock-up
systems instead of real-life web pages (e.g. in
Sheppard & Scholtz 1999, Hodemacher 2005). The
drawback lies in the artificiality of the experiment.
One further method is the use of pages which are in
a foreign language for all test users (e.g. Schmitz
2005, Dormann & Chisalita 2002). Dormann &
Chisalita try to quantify the differences between the
perception of test users from different cultures and
the design of web sites from other countries. Their
analysis is focused on the dimension femininity vs.
masculinity for university web sites in Italy and
A different methodological approach is adopted
by Kralisch & Berendt (2004). They used web log
mining to infer preferences of users. Web log mining
exploits the log files which ware automatically
collected when users access web sites. They could
show, for example, that users from long-term
oriented cultures are more likely to use browsing
than keyword search (Kralisch & Berendt, 2004).
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Key word search leads to the goal faster, however,
browsing through an ontology might help the user
with orientation within an information system at
future search tasks. The time invested for getting to
know the system is invested and the users hope for a
return in the future. They assume that knowing the
system will facilitate their future searches. Long-
term oriented cultures are more willing to invest this
extra effort whereas short-term oriented cultures
tend to value quick access to information more
highly. They rely more on key word searching.
The ultimate goal of studies which intend to
reveal effects of culture on web site design and
perception is the design of optimal systems. The
influence of culture needs to be measured and later
applied to user interface design.
We conducted a user test in Taiwan and Germany in
order to determine differences in the perception of
web sites and preferred navigation techniques. We
chose university students as test subjects because
they are easy to recruit. Students are usually
considered to be a group which has comparable
socio-economic features. However, even that may
not be the case in cultures which are far apart.
Although the const of living for students is much
higher than in Germany and tuition is also higher,
the percentage of students within the society is
higher in Taiwan.
The tasks for the user test were chosen to be
natural for university students. We created a
scenario in which the student wants to study abroad
and needs to acquire information from American
universities. This is a natural task for both German
and Taiwanese students because from both groups
many individuals study in the USA at some point in
time. Nevertheless, Taiwanese students are likely to
gather such information from informal sources like
personal contacts rather than from web sites. By
choosing queries on American universities (Babson
College, Adams College, Cedarville University) as
natural tasks, we also managed to have comparable
information systems for the user test. We needed no
artificial web sites nor translation of web sites from
one language to another. We selected only students
with at least good English language skills. The
selected universities are the Babson College, the
Adams College and the Cedarville University. These
three sites differ in their web site design and
represent conservative as well as innovative designs.
The site of the Butler University was used in
addition because it displays its main menu on the
right side. This might be preferred by Taiwanese
students because it goes along with the Chinese
reading direction from right to left. The site of the
American education ministry was included in one
search task.
The groups of test persons in Germany as well as
in Taiwan needed to interact with web sites which
were in a foreign language and which were not
developed for their particular culture. We believe
that this is a good strategy to determine differences
in web site perception in a comparative test.
Certainly, it is not an adequate strategy to determine
the most appropriate design for one specific culture.
For this study, 24 students both from Taiwan and
Germany were recruited. All test persons were
between 20 and 30 years old. The majority fell into
the age group between 23 and 24. In both test
groups, both sexes were almost equally represented.
Almost one third of the Taiwanese students and one
fifth of the German students had visited the USA
prior to the test. Nevertheless, the Taiwanese
students graded their English competence almost
one grade lower than the German students. The test
in Taiwan and Germany was conducted in English
which seems to be a valid method (Dray, 1996). A
control group of additional German students was
tested in English in order to measure the quality of
the foreign language material.
The test consisted of a pre-interview, two search
tasks for all three universities and finally an
interview and a questionnaire about the sites, tasks
and performance. Thinking aloud was encouraged
before the test. Six search tasks typical for the
information needs of foreign students were designed.
A typical test task was: Which MBA programs are
offered at College X? A time limit of three minutes
was set for this task. Another task was: Which kinds
of stipends are offered at College Y?
The results are based on the objective measures and
the subjective ratings provided by test subjects.
5.1 Performance Measures
Task completion was measured for all six tasks.
Overall, the performance was satisfying and
Taiwanese students performed worse as shown in
table 2. For one task, the difference was significant
with a error probability below 1%.
User Testing
Table 2: Task Completion. Significant difference between
groups is marked with *.
Task Taiwanese students German students
1 75% 87.5 %
2 29.2% 50%
41.7% 83.3%
75% 87.5 %
75% 87.5 %
This confirms the hypothesis that German students
get along better with the American web sites
because the two cultures are similar. This result is
confirmed by remarks of Taiwanese test students
who found the American sites “completely
different” than Chinese or Taiwanese sites. The
same cultural adequacy is supported by the
completion time of those test subjects who finished
the tasks. It can be seen that the German students
were mostly faster. For four tasks, the difference is
statistically significant according to a T-test.
tim e in seconds
Figure 1: Task Completion Time.
To investigate the influence of testing in a foreign
language, a German verification group was tested
with the test material in their native tongue. Within
this group, the task completion time was only for
two tasks below the task completion time in the test
with English. The only statistically significant
difference was found for a task for which the
German group was slower.
It was expected that the Taiwanese would take
longer to complete the tasks. At the same time, it
was assumed that they would tolerate the longer
completion time due to the long-term orientation of
their culture. This was examined with a post test
questionnaire. Test subjects were asked whether they
agree with the following statement: “I found all
necessary information in due time”.
Contrary to the hypothesis, Germans tend to
agree stronger with this statement on a six-point
scale. The difference is even statistically significant.
However, this result must be interpreted under
consideration of the task completion figures. The
agreement with the statement correlates strongly
with success of the test person for the corresponding
task. The following figure shows the answers of
Taiwanese students for task six. The students who
finished the task and the students who did not finish
the task are marked with different colours.
There are not enough students who finished the task
to conduct a statistical test. The hypothesis that
Taiwanese students as members of a long-term
oriented culture are more patient during their search
tasks and that they are willing to invest more time
cannot be proven statistically. However, we tend
accept this hypothesis. The Taiwanese students took
also more time to fill out the questionnaire and
ended up with a longer overall test time (75 minutes
compared to 45 minutes). They invest more time and
expect a better performance in the future. They are
more oriented toward long-term success than short-
term performance.
5.2 Preferred Search Method
Based on results from previous research, we
formulated a hypothesis that Taiwanese students
would use browsing options more often for finding
the result. Long-term oriented cultures seem to tend
to use links in order to have better orientation
whereas members of short-term oriented cultures
tend to use keyword searches more often because
they emphasise short-term success over long-term
This hypothesis could not be verified. Germans
relied more on links than the Taiwanese students
who tended to use site search functions more often.
However, the differences shown in table 3 are not
statistically significant. The utterances during the
test confirm that the hypothesis needs to be rejected.
Taiwanese students explicitly stated that they used
keyword search because it is faster. At the same
time, Germans stated that they want to get
orientation. Maybe uncertainty avoidance also
influences the search options used. In addition, bad
experiences with search systems need to be
considered as well. Further research is necessary.
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Number of students
Figure 2: Task completion and subjective rating.
Table 3: Search Options.
search as
well as
25.0 % 20.8 % 54.2 %
16.7 % 8.3 % 75,0 %
The links followed during the test were
categorized as text or graphic links. A hypothesis
was formulated, that Taiwanese students would
rather use graphic links because they are from a high
context culture. The pages contained few graphic
links overall. Consequently, most links used were
text links. However, five out of 24 Taiwanese
students used graphic links and only one out of 24
Germans. The data supports the hypothesis but
statistically significance cannot be achieved.
For one search task, the test persons had the
choice of either using a standard search engine like
Yahoo and Google or the search page of the ministry
of education. The high power distance in Taiwan
suggests that Taiwanese students would rather use
the authoritative search engines from the ministry.
This is indeed the case. Only 52.4 % of the Germans
used the ministry search compared to 62.5 % of the
Taiwanese. However, the difference is not
statistically significant (T-Test).
5.3 Information Design
Two questions on the questionnaire tried to find out
whether the users were satisfied with the information
present on the pages. High context cultures might
require less information than low context cultures
like Germany. Test persons were asked whether
there was sufficient information on the pages and
whether there was too much information. No
significant result supporting the hypothesis was
found. This might be due to the test design. Germans
might have been satisfied with the level of
information because they are from a culture similar
to the culture of the web sites. The Taiwanese
students might have been satisfied with even less
information but did not feel that it was too much.
Too little information on a page might be seen as
more negative. A test with pages from a culture with
even higher context might be helpful. Not all
deviations from the preferred model are interpreted
equally. This result has also been obtained by other
experiments (Dormann & Chisalita, 2002).
Students were asked whether they find
information on the administration of a university to
be important. Students from Taiwan with a higher
power distance might find such authoritative
information more important. This is indeed the case.
Taiwanese students assigned an importance grade of
3.63 on the six point scale from 0 to 5.0 whereas the
Germans assigned a lower average grade of 2.0. The
observed difference proved to be statistically
significant (T-Test, 1% error probability).
One web site had a menu on the right side. The
attitude towards this for Westerners unusual position
was queried in the questionnaire. Taiwanese students
overwhelmingly thought that this position is
acceptable (87.5 %) while only about half of the
Germans found it acceptable (47.8 %). The
difference is statistically significant (T-Test, 1%
error probability).
Animations were used on one site and they were
evaluated much more negatively by Taiwanese
The test showed that cultural distance seems to lead
to a decrease in performance during the human-
computer interaction with web sites. Some
differences might be caused by cultural reasons
other than the perception of the web site. These
problems make such test difficult and need to be
considered during test design.
Students were asked to grade their knowledge of
English. On average, the Taiwanese students
selected almost one grade lower than the German
User Testing
students although the Asians have more travel
experience in the USA. This is likely to be due to the
modesty required by the culture which is rooted in
collectivism. This assumption is supported by
utterances during the test. One student from Taiwan
said: “I can’t take very good, can I?” Modesty leads
generally to a situation in which Asians tend to
assign less extreme grades in questionnaires (Evers
2002). This effect may have skewed some of the
results obtained by questionnaire. It seems necessary
to modify the scales offered for both groups. This is
done for social science surveys (Iwai, 2005).
The main problems caused for the test in Taiwan
were due to the importance of face keeping in the
culture. Test subjects were reluctant to use the
thinking aloud method because they might reveal a
personal mistake. Similar observations have been
reported before (Evers, 2002). Group tests are
sometimes mentioned as a means to alleviate these
issues, however, they might be seen as a competitive
test situation and make test subjects even more
uncomfortable. The test situation might even have
led to some discomfort because a woman was
conducting the user test in Taiwan.
An important factor is that also objective data
and its relation to subjective data needs to be
interpreted within the context of the culture.
Subjective and objective data measure different
aspects of usability and do not always lead to the
same preference (Hornbæk & Law, 2007). In
intercultural user test settings, the relation depends
on the culture. For non-repetitive tasks like
explorative searching, the time spent on the task
might not be felt as negative by long-term oriented
Our study clearly indicated that users from different
cultures perform tasks differently on the same web
sites. The differences can often be interpreted within
cultural models like the dimension of Hofstede.
Some previous findings on cultural differences could
be confirmed, others could not be supported by our
findings. The preferences of search options based on
long- vs. short-term cultures as well as the
preference of high context cultures for rich
representations could not be supported. On the other
hand, the effect of power distance on the content of a
web site was confirmed. The users from a culture
more similar to the culture of the tested sites had
better results which might be due to their cultural
Many difficulties of international user testing
were identified. Results need to be interpreted within
the culture of the users. Merely statistical analysis
might give to misleading results. However, many
more studies are necessary to gain more insight into
the consequences of different cultures on the
creation and usage of software systems. In the
context of the globalization, the topic is more and
more important.
We would like to thank Prof. Dr. Wu Ling-Ling
from the National Taiwan University for her great
support during the preparation and the
implementation of the user test in Taiwan.
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