Consider the cultural context for people’s mobile experiences

Excuse me while I take this call on my mobile (UK), cell phone (US), celular (Latin America), portable (Japan), hand machine (China), muthophone – phone in the palm of your hand (Bangladesh), nalle – teddy bear (Sweden), Pelephone – wonder phone (Israel) or handy (Germany).

And it doesn’t stop there. Other distinguishing differences between cultures that come to mind are for example that people from Germany tend to find that words with all capital lettering are aggressively shouting at them. Or that the color red in China translates to lucky or happiness whereas in the western world it tends to imply warning or caution.

In general, these cultural factors can be broken down further in order to account for local influences on a user’s mobile experience.

  • Language, typefaces and character representations
  • Metaphors and symbols
  • Color, style, dress and environment
  • Technology and infrastructure

We can also think beyond communication and translation and dig deeper into human behavior across cultures to uncover more of the why when it comes to designing for local experiences. Empathy for behavior helps to explain the potential variations in mobile tasks and modes ranging from texting, real time voice or video, voice queries and virtual assistance, silent or dark modes, and system generated content (ML/AI).

Politeness in particular is interesting. People in Japan have very low tolerance for interruption or social disruption as they find it rude and a mobile manner mode is part of the local etiquette. In contrast, Indians experience a sense of obligation to respond to colleagues and friends & family. This social pressure results in taking a call almost anywhere and often prioritizing their mobile usage over their current situation.

Also privacy varies substantially. For example in Spain and Italy, where people don’t hesitate to discuss their business openly, mobile conversations are plentiful and transparent. In the US we are seen to talk very loudly on the phone showing seemingly little discretion within our surroundings.

But recently I stumbled upon perhaps a somewhat controversial framework known as the Hofstede’s 5 cultural dimensions (3rd reference) expressed as:

  • Power distance: the degree of acceptance or expectation that power is distributed unequally
  • Uncertainty avoidance: one’s tolerance for ambiguity or risk and perceived level of threat
  • Individualism: vs. collectivism ie weighing one’s own needs vs the needs of one’s social groups
  • Masculinity: opposing femininity and duality of sexes
  • Long vs. short-term time orientation: how a society values long term devotion or traditions

This framework suggests we step back yet again and consider how people fundamentally view their relationship with their phone and mobile usage within the context of how they perceive themselves within the wider world. Some cultures are oriented to describe their experiences and tell their stories within the context of those around them instead of talking directly about themselves. This cultural vantage point of Self has a knock on effect for how people might describe the positive and negative attributes of their phone and overall mobile user experiences.


  1. Overcoming Cultural Barriers in Mobile User Experience – Apptentive
  2. Cell phone culture: How cultural differences affect mobile use – CNN
  3. Tanja Walsh, Piia Nurkka, and Rod Walsh. “Cultural Differences in Smartphone User Experience Evaluation” Oct 11, 2010.

Photo by Dan Silva on Unsplash