Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Reading :: Cross-Cultural Technology Design

Cross-Cultural Technology Design: Creating Culture-Sensitive Technology for Local Users
By Huatong Sun

I've been a fan of Huatong Sun's work ever since I read her award-winning dissertation a few years ago. That dissertation synthesized activity theory, genre theory, and British cultural studies to examine how people use SMS (texting) in US and Chinese contexts. It was timely.

So is this book, which is based on the dissertation but expands into subsequent studies of locally used technology. Sun argues that to design technology for local users, we must better understand local technology adaptation and meaning-making. That doesn't mean simply examining big-C "Culture" according to basic precepts or characteristics; it means examining how users themselves interpret, localize, and integrate technologies. How do practitioners and designers "develop an effective approach to design appropriately localized products that meet the cultural expectations of local users, support their complex activities in concrete contexts, empower their agency, and mediate their identities" (p.xiv)? Sun's answer is "the design philosophy and model of Culturally Localized User Experience (CLUE), which integrates action and meaning throughout the cyclical design process in order to make a technology both usable and meaningful to local users" (pp.xiv-xv). She illustrates its principles through studies of text messaging - "a technology that is poorly localized at the developers' site but is then rescued by users' localization efforts" (p.xv).

Sun brilliantly draws on specific, well grounded examples of text messaging to illustrate her principles, avoiding the essentialism that too often characterizes examinations of cross-cultural communication. She doesn't make her story a contrast of US and Chinese use, but rather a contrast in how locally grounded individuals perceive and use the same technologies in different contexts. In doing so, she illustrates the
seven defining features of the CLUE framework:
  1. The CLUE approach highlights the praxis of use.
  2. Local culture constitutes the dynamic nexus of contextual interactions and manifests numerous articulations of practices and meanings.
  3. User experience is both situated and constructed.
  4. Technology use is a dual mediation process.
  5. Structured affordance comes from dialogic interactions.
  6. Culturally localized user experience respects use practices of individual local users and values their efforts at user localization.
  7. Design is both problem solving and engaged conversation. (pp.233-234)

Sun illustrates each feature well through sensitive, compellingly told stories interspersed with data. And although the sweep of theory is broad, through these stories she manages to make it understandable, applicable, and convincing. 

Full disclosure: Huatong and I discussed this book project as she planned it, and I encouraged her to develop it and send it to a top-notch press. If you want to see why, just pick up a copy. It's solid work, and recommended reading for anyone interested in technology design, technology localization, and related issues.

Full disclosure 2: Forgot to mention that I received a free copy of the book. It's worth list price.

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