Going Global… Or Not

Entrepreneur Loic Le Meur thinks global. His recent guest post in Techcrunch provides suggestions for startups that includes “Think global as you create the business”, “Hire people from all nationalities as much as possible”, and “Make a site that is language-ready from day one, even if you launch in English”. Seems like enlightened advice, given that so much new content on the web is still targeted exclusively to US (or at least, English-speaking) audiences. While it is understandable that some sites — like mint.com, that must interact directly with banks — remain US-only at launch, it is disheartening when even services that have been successful for years refuse to open up to the global marketplace (37signals, I’m looking at you).

This phenomenon is perhaps most annoying when dealing with media properties, which could clearly benefit from added exposure, and which seem deeply invested in the old broadcast model of distribution. To whit, this is what I get when I try to watch my favorite TV show (House) in the newly launched Hulu service:

Hulu

There are no technical reasons for this; it seems like an entirely marketing-driven restriction, carried over from a world in which geography and distribution were intimately tied.

Culture (pop and otherwise) has been one of the US’s main exports during the past century, and it is an important part of continued American influence around the world. As more of our media usage moves online, this stubborn insistence on limiting distribution by geography is likely to curtail that influence. Putting up artificial borders around cultural artifacts to satisfy old-school business models seems as smart as setting the speed limit at 30 mph to keep the horse-carriages safe from automobiles.

Architecture as Cultural and Location Grounding

Thomas Vander Wal has been traveling a lot, and he’s finding that the local architecture can have important effects on his feelings of connectedness.

This is interesting to me because one of the hallmarks of the much maligned International Style of architecture is a trans-national vocabulary that is rooted more in fantasies about the machine age rather than in local context. Much of the design work we do online follows similar rules that hint at a global style (or styles), and results in a homogeneousness that is meant to convey “that we, too, can design like North Americans”. Here’s an example: an article by a Russian developer that proposes a categorization of different web UI styles, all based on designs for sites for US-based companies, presumably for replication by other designers.

Perhaps more culturally-aware design can help bring a feeling of rootedness to websites, much like culturally-aware architecture can for cities. How should we approach this, when we’re being sold on the notion of “global commerce online”?

Skip Intro

Gerry McGovern: “A Flash intro is a fourth-rate attempt at a TV ad by people who won’t get a chance to design real TV ads. They were invented by graphic designers desperate to turn the Web into TV, and who wanted to look cool and win design awards.”

Yes! Somehow, the word hasn’t reached a lot of businesses in my corner of the world. In my recent presentation about building trust online to folks from the tourism industry in Panama, I cautioned the audience about the use of Flash on their sites. I saw some heads nodding in agreement, and most of them seemed to belong to Americans.

It’s probably a cultural issue—people in Panama seemingly believe Flash-heavy sites make their businesses look cutting edge. I’d be willing to bet that a lot of users in the US (where the Panamanian tourism industry focuses most of its efforts) and elsewhere find Flash intros either hokey or outright annoying, and the businesses end up suffering as a result.

Thoughts on Global Information Architecture

Update (Apr 6, 2005): The Global IA discussion list is now operational. Please join the list if this is a topic you care about.

I was happily surprised by the response Liv, Peter and I received to the Global IA tracks during the IA Summit in Montreal; there seems to be a real need for this conversation in the IA community. As we mentioned during the presentation, there are more questions than answers at this point—which is OK, as long as we know what we don’t yet know.

Here are my thoughts on some of the most common questions I heard at the Summit, just to keep the hoops rolling…

What is Global IA?

I see IA as the profession that enables understanding through information-rich media. IAs aim to help individuals find their way to information that is somehow valuable to them. In some cases, these individuals may already aware of their need for this information; in others—such as in the introduction of a new product or service—AIs may be tasked with helping them become aware of their need. In either case, our objective is to help connect a person with a bit of information that is somehow useful to them.

The “information-rich medium” that most of us are working on presently is the Web, and we’ve developed a variety of tools to help design websites in which people can more easily make their way to the information they need on the Web: taxonomies, mental models, thesauri, etc. These tools (and the websites themselves) are heavily grounded in language (both textual and otherwise), and—more broadly—in culture.

Most site design thus far has been done by designers for audiences of the same culture, and most cross-cultural sites have been “localized” versions of the “home site”—which in most cases was designed with a particular target culture in mind (even if unwittingly so). Because of this, these localized sites may not be as effective for folks from other cultures, who may have other mental models, ways of organizing the world, attitudes towards information sources, etc.

With this in mind, we aim to:

  1. Understand these differences between cultures (if they really exist), and
  2. Develop / adapt tools to help design teams work for audiences (“users”) from other cultures effectively.

The end result of this work should be “foreign”-designed sites that are effective and persuasive—in other words, that feel natural and homegrown to local users. (It’s worth noting that this goal may be counter to a business’ objectives. More on this in a future post.)

Why does Global IA matter?

One of the most frequent questions I got at the Summit was: “why should I care about this stuff?” Some ideas:

  • The increasingly global composition of organizations. To whit: US employment at Intel Corp. slipped by more than 3,300 people in 2003, but it grew by more than 4,300 abroad. (Source: MSNBC)
  • The increasingly global composition of markets. To whit: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)—US’s largest food operation—has had their sales almost double in the past 7 years. Joint partnerships overseas are key to the boom; overseas operations account for almost half of operating profits. (Source: Food Engineering Magazine)

It seems organizations and markets are becoming increasingly globalized; as a result we will probably see an increase in cross-cultural design projects, both in terms of target audiences and project stakeholders. If we are to be effective enablers of understanding in this environment, we need to understand our cultural assumptions / mental models and how they differ from those of the people we serve.

Most of the talk of globalization in the US seems to be focused either on concerns over so-called offshoring (e.g. “We’re losing our jobs to India”) or the potentials of untapped foreign markets (e.g. “We’re rolling out 26 non-English sites in the next year”—actually heard at the Summit). I’ve heard little talk about the opposite effect—foreign designers working on artifacts for use in our own culture, a side effect of globalization that will probably become more prevalent as borders become further eroded. I believe we will be pushed into these studies by pain, as we increasingly find ourselves on the receiving end of this equation. (Note: as a non-American, I already am on the receiving end of this equation.)

There is a further reason to pursue these issues: the current environment’s globalization tendencies are occurring in parallel to a new tendency towards tribalism, as evidenced by the September 11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing “War on Terror”. People now seem to be more suspicious of “others” than before; as designers tasked with enabling understanding, IAs have the potential to help peoples of different cultures to reach out to each other and work together more effectively.

At the very least, investigating Global IA can help us bring our own cultural assumptions to the fore, helping us become more effective designers through self-understanding. In addition, studying others’ mental models can help us expand our palettes, allowing us to be more effective designers for audiences in our own culture(s).

Your thoughts?