Chinese culture is growing in the United States. According to Wikipedia, Chinese-Americans constitute the largest overseas Chinese community outside Asia and the third-largest such group in the Chinese diaspora worldwide. A part of the growth is due to increased movement of Chinese people to America. Once established, Chinese immigrants often develop web resources to cultivate and maintain cultural customs (for example, the Chinese American Family website). When examining the design of such websites, questions such as the following arise: What particular cultural identities are involved? To what extent are the styles, logos, buttons, navigation, colors, fonts, and content more Chinese, more American, or indicative of a unique third identity?
These are important questions—not just for Chinese-Americans—but for many other culturally heterogeneous groups. In particular, frequent migration puts a demand on government agencies and non-profits to create online resources for immigrants. But to talk about cultural identity in the 21st century means less one particular culture. With rapid movement of people and products worldwide, it is more likely people see themselves as having increasingly fragmented identities comprised of multiple cultural influences. This is the case with Chinese-Americans. Some Chinese-Americans were born in the United States but are committed to maintaining an identity as part Chinese, while others are frequently identified as Asian-American, and still others born in countries outside China with large Chinese diasporas. The question of cultural identity has grown more complex than in the past. Hence, the question of Chinese-American cultural identification requires great sensitivity.
So how do web developers and UXers conceptualize online communication strategies for multi-ethnic and/or immigrant groups? One way is to examine what they produce on their own through the lens of universal constructs, values, and/or dimensions of cultures. Cultural dimensions have been shown to connect with, if not guide, communicative habits, understandings, and social relations. In Culture’s Consequences (2001), Geert Hofstede distilled cultures according to specific values. The central motives of this research were to see if there exist universal categories of culture that span social communities and nations. His initial work produced the four dimensions as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Hofstede four dimensions.
This dimension refers to the extent to which people weigh their individuality against their willingness to submit to the goals of the group. In individualistic cultures, the needs of individuals over groups is emphasized. Individual achievement and success are prioritized as are making one’s mark in the world, standing out, and being unique. The opposite situation holds in collectivist cultures, where group success is more important than individual achievement.
This dimension reflects the extent to which a society willingly embraces or avoids the unknown. A culture with high uncertainty avoidance values predictability, structure, and order. A culture with low uncertainty avoidance values risk taking, ambiguity, and limited structure.
Power-distance refers to the extent to which people accept unequal power distribution in a society. A high power-distance society believes in strict authority and hierarchy. Less powerful citizens of such societies tend to accept this unequal power distribution. A low power-distance society emphasizes egalitarianism and shared power.
This dimension encompasses the extent to which a culture exhibits traditionally masculine attributes (assertiveness, competitiveness, toughness, ambition, achievement, material possessions, success, distinct gender roles) or feminine (family, cooperation, tenderness, nurturing, caring for others, preserving the environment, quality of life).
Hofstede later added two dimensions, long-term orientation and indulgence/self-restraint. These dimensions have been excluded in this article because the prior research in analyzing the dimensions of web content used to guide this study did not include them.
How to Measure Cultural Dimensions
Through numerically scaling the extent to which members of different cultures express the values, it becomes possible to identify how cultures communicate, and from there, create effective communication. These universal dimensions seem like a good starting point from which to identify the particular cultural-communicative habits of Chinese-Americans on the web.
A Point on a Continuum: More Chinese or More American?
Six raters analyzed two Chinese-American websites: one about food (see Figure 1) and the other containing information about the local community (see Figure 2). Protocols were established to balance gender and cultural background among raters. Two raters were Chinese, two American, and two identified themselves as Chinese-American. Each rater group consisted of one male and one female. Inter-rater reliability came within acceptable limits (90% percentage agreement) and training ensured uniform comprehension of the tasks.
Figure 2. One of the two websites evaluated by the raters in the study.
Figure 3. One of the two websites evaluated by the raters in the study.
The coding instrument and study design were based on those developed by Nitish Singh and Arun Pereira in The Culturally Customized Website (2005), who operationalized 38 features in which cultural dimensions may be applied to website usability. For example, one web feature tied to collectivism is the extent to which a site has a “family theme, pictures of family, pictures of teams of employees, pictures of groups of friends, language about employee teams/friends/groups, language emphasizing team and collective work/goals/responsibility” and so forth. Space and copyright limitations do not permit full recitation in this article of the 38 categories. Where categories are applicable, reference to the specific page number in the book are provided.
Website ratings were compared with country classification scores based on a study conducted by Fernandez, Carlson, Stepina, and Nicholson called “Hofstede’s Country Classification 25 Years Later” published in The Journal of Social Psychology (1997). The Fernandez et al. study developed a method for standardizing dimension scales that facilitated adaptation for websites. Scores from this website study were analyzed according to their formula, rendering the site’s dimension valence as follows: a negative score indicates one side of the dimension, a positive score corresponds to the opposite side of the dimension, and a 0 indicates the midpoint (no specific valence over either dimension). Using the data in Table 1 for example, with the dimensions of Collectivism and Individualism, the negative score ‑0.96 shows more collectivism for the Chinese culture, whereas the 1.52 score for USA indicates more individualism in the United States. A score of 0 would indicate that a country has equal amounts of both collectivist and individualist characteristics.
The Chinese-American websites rated negative values (-0.59) along the Collectivist-Individualist dimension. Using the rubric developed by Singh and Pereira (p. 72), the specific ways these websites displayed collectivist orientations include photo albums, affiliation programs, connections with local organizations, and inclusion of Chinese symbols. Such features emphasize a “we-feeling,” a cohesive group united by these features.
Table 1. Comparison of Cultural Dimensions Between China and USA.
|Dimensions (- to +)
|Collectivist to Individualist
|Low to High Uncertainty-Avoidance
|Low to High Power-Distance
|Feminine to Masculine
The websites displayed features that one would associate with low uncertainty avoidance (-1.01) relative to the countries of China and the USA. Returning to the features rubric in Singh and Pereira (p. 94), the sites did contain FAQs, but broken links, links to pages with layouts distinct from the portal, and unclear navigation led raters to conclude that the sites would best be used by people who do not need a lot of structure and predictability and can figure things out on their own. This seemed unexpected because both the US and China have moderately-high uncertainty avoidance (China 0.31 and USA 0.59), which might suggest that Chinese-American users prefer more structured graphical and navigational organization.
Figure 4. Table 1 data visualization.
Relative to the United States (-0.01), the Chinese culture places more credibility in institutions that have a high power distance (1.05). For example, it is reported that high power distance in China is visible in the rigid status categories between workers and employers and in authoritarian parenting styles (for example, see Power Distance in China). The Chinese-American websites showed more egalitarian features (‑0.47) than American ones. Again, following the rubric in Singh and Pereira (p. 112), neither site showed much in the way of power distance features except the promotion of a “Bestselling Cookbook” (Figure 1) and use of proper titles when listing doctors and/or lawyers of Chinese heritage under “Links” in the community site (Figure 2). Neither site features photos of important website developers. The “Contact Page” of the food site refers to its users as “friends” rather than in more subordinate terms.
The Chinese culture is considerably more masculine (2.00) than the US (-0.58). On the websites, as specified in the rubric (p.126), there was more entertainment related content but no gaming, contests, or competitive content. Users can get free recipes just by signing up; they do not have to enter a sweepstakes. The bold use of yellow with green and nature aesthetics (image with leaves) suggested to the raters that the sites had a feminine character.
Application to Projects
The placement of the Chinese-American websites along the continua of cultural dimensions suggests that multi-ethnic websites sometimes fall within and outside of dimensions of original and host countries. Much like Chinese-American identities themselves, the websites often defy simple categorizations. Three takeaways emerge from these findings that can help the development and reception of Chinese-American web content:
- Consider features that have the following components to better develop websites for Chinese-Americans:
- collectivist (by including content that suggests a connection to a larger community)
- have low uncertainty avoidance (you do not need to “hand hold” your users)
- foster low power distance through egalitarian interactions among participants (a loose management structure over the direction of the site)
- exhibit feminine characteristics (soft language, ample use of colors and embellishments)
Some cultural values will be more American and others more Chinese. It is important to link specific kinds of features with culture. For example, the color and imagery might need to be more Chinese in character and the navigation more American. Further testing and inquiry among your own cohort of users will be necessary to determine these specifics.
- Confirm through research that real-world users have similar outcomes for the cultural dimensions. The websites reflected Chinese values along the dimensions of collectivism-individualism and uncertainty-avoidance. They were more American along the dimensions of power-distance and feminine-masculine. Whether similar dynamics hold true in face-to-face groups is unclear. It is possible that a Chinese-American web/online consciousness has evolved independently of that in the real world. Research in the real-world Chinese-American community would be needed to confirm this point.
- Recognize that immigrant and multi-ethnic groups have distinct cultural features independent from yet comprised of national identities. Development for such groups therefore calls for tuning into the specific cultural values of that group. This study provides a model for how one might get that information. Additional information should come through live interviews, surveys, and questionnaires from the people within that community.
The findings here are intended to provide a broad picture of universal dimensions in Chinese-American websites and to suggest a method as to how to obtain this type of information and apply it to projects. The predicted position of Chinese-American sites might reasonably be expected to fall between country scores on the dimensions. Contrary to this expectation, the data here indicate that the scores vary according to individual value, culture, and topic. Along three of the four dimensions, the Chinese-American websites fell outside the region between the country scores. Does this mean that Chinese-Americans online have partly formed a unique “third” identity?
Because of this situation, practitioners should go beyond reliance of broad numerical models to include articulated and considered evaluations of website content by actual prospective users. The findings here are intended to help guide that process along, but broadly. Additionally, in the case of multi-ethnic and/or immigrant groups, additional intervening identity issues impact usability preferences. As one example, generational conflict over values are often highly sensitive among multi-ethnic and immigrant groups. Language barriers, budget, and personnel limitations might also influence the quality of websites. In some situations, a website feature might be identified with a cultural dimension, but is actually more characteristic of a poorly constructed feature. UXers and web developers for these groups need to be sensitive to these “third-variable” distinctions.