Beyond methodology: Looking at the cultural foundations of technology use

I have long known the great necessity for technical communicators to understand their audience. Blakeslee’s ideas that we need to focus in on a specific audience is hardly news. I even had an understanding that communication has to be adapted across cultural lines so that people from different cultures can easily understand. In order to communicate with a broader audience, you may have to adapt your methods. When I think of adapting communication for a cross-cultural audience, I think of IKEA assembly instructions. They are an excellent example, because they rely fully on pictures and remove the necessity for translation in order to be used in different countries. Apparently some people think that IKEA instructions are difficult to follow, but I think that those people would likely be even more confused by written instructions in Swedish.

However, while I know that communications methods have to be adapted in order to communicate across cultural lines, I never really put any thought into the idea that the very way that technology is used can vary between cultures. I liked the way Baron explained the phenomena in Always On by comparing how we use technology to how people in China and India eat rice differently and how English and German people drive differently, not because of how the item is intrinsically different, but because the culture is different (pp.130-131).

It is the deeper issue, the foundation, that will matter. If we don’t understand how a culture uses a technology, any communication with members of that culture is going to fail to some degree if we don’t question the assumptions that are guiding our decisions. In Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Thatcher gives the example of the differences in website construction between collective and individualistic cultures. While it makes sense that there would be differences in content, it is really interesting that the standards for an effective website are different to the point that the entire site may not be put together as a cohesive whole, but that different departments would be completely unique.

I do wonder though, how much variation there may be within a culture. For example, Thatcher showed examples of how the same information would be formatted differently for two different cultures. I actually thought that the American version of the letter was too abrupt, and preferred the version intended for the Mexican audience as it seemed more gracious.

Or even considering cell phone usage, I feel like everyone I know uses their phones differently. I know people whose whole lives are contained in their phone and they use it for everything. I know people who only have a landline, and people who are avid texters. I know people who are phone talkers and phone avoiders (that is me). And that is just among some of my closest friends. How do you define a culture’s use of technology when it can vary so severely from person to person? And how can you communicate effectively with a culture, if there is such variability in technology usage? Are basic cultural trends good enough to base a communication strategy off of?

Posted on November 10, 2013, in mobile, Society. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I didn’t realize that about IKEA. I just had a lot of fun going to their website and looking through the A-Z section of product instructions (http://www.ikea.com/ms/en_US/customer_service/assembly_instructions.html#1). I can’t say for sure if it would work for me to have visual instructions alone, but I doubt it. I think I would have to have some writing to supplement (or videos, which looks like the direction they are taking).

    I found much of Thather’s webite analysis interesting and helpful. The one thing that seemed counterintuitive to me was the idea that you wouldn’t have that templated look in some collective societies. Whenever I go to sites where every page is organized diiferently, I feel confused and lost. I guess that’s the price we’d have to pay to get the “unique” feel that would be more valued in diffuse societies.

    • I think IKEA instructions are really easy to follow, but obviously not everyone agrees! I had a hard time with that as well. I think the only way I would be okay with it is if everything was a variation on a theme. So instead of a basic template, they just incorporated the same fonts and colors to give it some continuity. But having every section be completely different would be pretty confusing, I think.

      • I’ve always had a tough time with IKEA directions…but I also need things written out VERY clearly to follow. I don’t like things that are ambiguous. The same goes for work projects. I like a clear direction to start so that I know what is expected. I don’t like gray areas.

  2. You pose a good question about how we define and generalize about a culture’s use of technology enough to create a communication strategy. It’s true that in every culture there are people who do not follow the mainstream trends and people who are earlier and later adopters than the rest. Still, I think the implication of the reading is that simple cultural trends are enough to build a communication strategy on. Maybe the variance in opinions within our society speaks to Thatcher’s point about creating a universally appealing platform for communication.

    I think it’s possible that while Ikea may have thought its picture manuals universal, they might have actually been an inappropriate communication method for some cultures such as the ones Thatcher discusses that rely heavily on oral communication.

    • It is true that there are trends that are predominant enough that we can base our communication strategies upon them. And you have a great point that IKEA may not have the best tactic for every culture. But, I do think that on a purely practical level, we have to define our audience more narrowly and we have to make choices that are not only best for that audience, but also, I would contend, that are practical and monetarily feasible for the company that we are working for.

  3. You speak truth! People’s entire lives are wrapped up inside their phones. There are even apps for storing all of your passwords. I couldn’t even imagine if someone stole my phone or hacked into it…

    • Oh, I know! My roommates phone went crazy last week and locked her out after she ran an update on it and it turned her world upside down because she had her work schedule on it, the documentation she needed for work, etc. It was awful.

  4. Excellent question: “How do you define a culture’s use of technology when it can vary so severely from person to person?”

    I believe I mentioned PewInternet.org cellphone use data with another student already this week, but here are the results of a quick search I did on New Media and Society for research on mobile phones in other countries: http://tinyurl.com/mobilephonesearch

  5. You have a definate point about the IKEA instructions. I prefer their pictures over the pages of translations in different languages you get with some products. Lego uses a similarily universal style of instructions.

    I thought Thatcher’s example was interesting, and I also felt the American version was too direct. I feel something in between would’ve been more effective and appropriate for an American audience.

    I think cell phone usage varies so much based on actual need, individual priorities, and also economic factors. I use my phone a lot, but I only use texting occasionally. For me, it is my primary phone, music player, and a portable computer.

  6. Funny that you mention Ikea (I love that store, by the way)! I just put together a wall-mounted drying rack for my laundry room from there. The instructions were very easy . . . . this time. Last year, we bought a light to hang in my daughter’s room (here is the picture: http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/00197191/ ). When we opened the box we saw a million little pieces that all had to be assembled. Those instructions were horrible! I think it had more to do with the amount of pieces (and then, of course, one piece was missing) than the instructions. Just like in text versions, the more complicated the assembly, the more complicated the instructions and sometimes only having a picture based instruction sheet just doesn’t cut it.

    Your 3 questions at the end of your post, “How do you define a culture’s use of technology when it can vary so severely from person to person? And how can you communicate effectively with a culture, if there is such variability in technology usage? Are basic cultural trends good enough to base a communication strategy off of?”, were such great questions! These would be great ones to explore in more detail.

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