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Cross-Cultural Design for Nonprofits: 3 Ways to Get Started

The internet is connecting more people in more places than ever before—and yet many nonprofits focus their design efforts on WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) audiences. However, that doesn’t do justice to the dazzling variety of languages, perspectives, and expectations that true audiences bring. If nonprofits want to create effective design and communications for these modern, multicultural audiences, it means changing the usual ways they plan, research, and execute those projects.

But what are cross-cultural design projects when it comes to nonprofits and foundations? They are digital design or strategy projects that have a focus on communicating to an audience not your own, one that has a different culture, language, or geographic location. The project may be a small targeted messaging campaign, such as awareness around legal services for non-english speakers. It may be a larger website containing resources for volunteers working overseas, or in a culturally diverse city. It may even be redesigning a foundation’s intranet to be more usable for a large distributed team that spans cultures and languages. The possibilities are endless.

Once a communications team determines, through strategic research or audience feedback, that a digital project requires cultural knowledge or sensitivity, they will need to take active steps to ensure the project is successful. Deep cultural dives are not always necessary, however. Here are a few straightforward ways to take a cross-cultural design approach.

Technique 1: Embrace Cultural Immersion

When starting a cross-cultural design project, it’s important to surround yourself with the culture you are designing for. With many countries and cities dealing with social-distancing and severely restricted movement right now, that may sound difficult.. However, it’s entirely possible to conduct cultural immersion digitally.

Start by looking at digital media like movies, radio, and TV shows. Signing up for newsletters and other hyper-focused publications is also a great way to immerse yourself in a culture, and one that builds over time. For instance, for a project focused on building technical capacity and digital communities in West Africa, signing up for the Tech Cabal newsletter will offer a very focused view of the startup and venture capital world there, and as it is a daily newsletter, will offer a very nuanced picture the longer you read it.

There are also vibrant design communities in every part of the world, each one addressing unique, culturally relevant design problems. Cultural immersion can mean tapping into and working with these communities, to gain deeper insight into the design challenges we face.

But how to do this? Well, see what creative practitioners from your target culture are working on. Do filtered searches on sites such as Behance, or Twitter, to see what other communities are doing, and what they are talking about. This has the added benefit of giving you a list of potential expert contacts, should you ever need them for a project!

This digital immersion should not be treated as a substitute for actual research, but when current events, budgets, or timelines mean you can’t travel or conduct ethnographic field work, it’s a low-cost, immediate way to learn about a culture. Keep in mind that you are first and foremost an observer, not an expert. Be humble and introspective, and embrace the immersion.

Technique 2: Question Your Assumptions

Our biases and assumptions, when left unaddressed, are a huge risk to design projects. Ignoring how they creep into our work unconsciously is how we get work filled with incorrect ideas, and digital experiences that gloss over what our audiences actually need. The second cross-cultural technique means examining those assumptions.

In my new book Cross-Cultural Design, I laid out a straightforward methodology for how to push back against your biases. It starts with being clear and as honest as possible about your assumptions—to yourself, to your team, and to your clients or stakeholders:

  1. Start by documenting your assumptions about your project and the audience it is for. Do this by yourself first, and then again in a larger team, if you are part of one. Put it in a strategy document. But what gets documented as an assumption, and what stays as a statement of fact? Here’s an example: when working on a design project for users in an emerging market, someone on your team might say “We know this audience is going to access our site from cheaper feature phones…” That sentence is an assumption, and you should determine later, through research, if it is true or not.
  2. Next, share your assumptions with all your stakeholders, however uncomfortable it might make you. So it is not too awkward or confrontational, explain that you want to review some assumptions with leaders and subject matter experts as part of the strategy phase. As you share, be clear about what outcome you want: Do you want an open discussion? A focus for your brand research?
  3. Lastly, turn those assumptions into a list of questions to guide your team on the upcoming project. Our example assumption was, “We know this audience is going to access our site from cheaper feature phones.” We can refashion that into a question- “What devices do our audience use most often?” Put all the questions up in a Google doc or other accessible place, so your research and strategy phases can be directed by inquiry, instead of error-prone assumptions.

Don’t forget— it’s a good thing to speak with team members and experts who disagree with parts of your ideas and questions. Skeptical voices provide a crucial check on our impulse to go along with a popular viewpoint. That dissent, especially coming from people who know all about the culture we are designing for, can tell us a lot about how a project will be received in a different culture.

Technique 3: Prioritize Flexibility

As you begin to work on communications and design artifacts such as templates, content, icons, and color systems, you want to make sure they are designed in an open, collaborative way. But what does that really look like? Well, a flexible, shareable artifact will be something that can be iterated on, tested, and discussed by your team and your nonprofit’s audience. Here are some suggestions for getting there:

  1. Start by documenting the thinking behind your design choices, whether it’s happening quietly at your desk or in the field! Communicate your intent with members of your team, by describing what you are creating and why. There’s an added benefit—in the future, you can use this to explain your work, in presentations and marketing. It can help as you build relationships with new funders, partners and audience members who appreciate and seek out your expertise delivering cross-cultural communications.
  2. Next, begin with some small, low-stakes prototypes. You need time to work through cultural blind-spots. Any components we design, from the simplest paper experiments to complex interactive systems, are based on aesthetic rules and cultural ideas we’ve picked up through our lives. That means they are culturally constructed. Lets say you are doing rough sketches during a wireframing workshop. Native English speakers will tend to indicate blocks of text by drawing lines from left to right, in the same direction the language flows. However, prioritizing flexibility means identifying and challenging these (often subconscious) habits. If our design work will also be used for an Arabic-speaking audience, we should also sketch those blocks of text right-to-left, as that is the way Arabic flows.
  3. Finally, make sure to document design variants or options. It’s not uncommon for branding systems to have slightly different color palettes for different markets or cultures. If this is what you are working on, make sure you explain how your team should correctly use your brand colors in those cultures, and why.

For nonprofits, often widely different audiences mean that flexibility and adaptability is critical in designed communications, products, and strategies. By keeping the cultural needs of our audiences in mind with a malleable design process, we can ensure a more culturally responsive digital experience, one audiences will support and understand.

Conclusion

Getting started with cross-cultural design might feel a bit nerve-wracking, and teams might wonder if they are doing it ‘right’, or being accidentally insensitive. These actions won’t give you all the answers, or tell you exactly how to design for your multicultural audiences. But I do hope they make you feel more confident in your decision-making.

Use these ideas as a place to begin designing culturally adaptable products and experiences. I hope they help you think through how culture and design intersect. The wonderful thing about design is the power we have to decide how information is presented, how it is shared with the world, and what we empower our audiences to do with it. Nonprofits and foundations have a huge responsibility to be thoughtful and ethical about those design decisions, especially when they span culture, language, and national borders.

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