Does Globalization Mean Losing Culture?

At UXPA Boston this past May, I gave a 5 minute talk illustrating both good and poor usability in unexpected places. I chose to look at a series of situations I’ve encountered during my various travels, ranging from Finnish farmer’s markets to Japanese toilets. During the Q&A session after the talk, someone asked a very interesting question.


“You said you were frustrated by the Japanese toilet, but I think it’s very unique and interesting, and I wouldn’t want to lose the Japanese culture it represents.”

I agree. I loved the completely new and foreign culture in Japan. Still, I stand by my assertion that a toilet (particularly one in a hotel that is specifically designed for Westerners) is not the best place to experience unique and interesting culture. I believe the best way to preserve diverse cultures while also creating globally intuitive experiences is through the use of context and judgement.


Context is key across all UX. We provide more features on a home stereo than on a car stereo, because we accept the context of a driver needing larger buttons and fewer options. We design a different experience for a hospital remote control than for a home remote control because we recognize the context of a bedridden patient with access to only cable (and not Xbox).

We should also recognize the context of an airport hotel as different from the context of a neighborhood, village, or even a hotel with a different target audience.


I’ve had a few weeks to think about the question I was asked, and I’ve considered it for a long time. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two problems with the question ”You said you were frustrated by the Japanese toilet, but I think it’s very unique and interesting, and I wouldn’t want to lose the Japanese culture it represents.”

Problem #1 is that this is not actually a question. It’s an objection.

Problem #2 is that the objection assumes that we can either have unique and interesting cultures, or we can have positive user experiences and intuitive UIs.

I do not accept this assumption. It is our job as designers to use our judgement and identify when something is going to provide a poor experience. But a poor experience doesn’t just come from confusing toilet panels. It also comes from sterile experiences. Therefore, the best experiences will both preserve culture and provide intuitive UIs.

It’s our job to consider the context of each interface. It’s our job to use our judgement. So, audience member from May, if you are reading this, I’m sorry I didn’t have much of a response at the time. Your question was an excellent one, and I’ve given it a lot of thought. I hope I’ve more completely answered you now, and I hope this information helps you to also use context and judgement as you design experiences.

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, where she helps healthcare, finance, and educational organizations communicate with their audiences. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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