Shahnavaz, Houshang

Shahnavaz, Houshang

Address: Department of Human Work Sciences, University of Luleå, 97187 Luleå

Country: Sweden

Phone: 46 920 914 73

Fax: 46 920 910 30


Past position(s): Acting Professor, Technical Psychology, Department of Human Work Sciences, Luleå University

Education: Dipl Ing, 1960, Technical University of Darmstadt; MSc, 1974, University of Birmingham; PhD, 1976, University of Birmingham

Areas of interest: Ergonomics of working systems involving interaction of people and computers; ergonomics of industrially developing countries and technology transfer

Monday, 14 March 2011 20:33

Cultural Differences

Culture and technology are interdependent. While culture is indeed an important aspect in technology design, development and utilization, the relationship between culture and technology is, however, extremely complex. It needs to be analysed from several perspectives in order to be considered in the design and application of technology. Based on his work in Zambia, Kingsley (1983) divides technological adaptation into changes and adjustments at three levels: that of the individual, of the social organization and of the cultural value system of the society. Each level possesses strong cultural dimensions which require special design considerations.

At the same time, technology itself is an inseparable part of culture. It is built, wholly or in part, around the cultural values of a particular society. And as part of culture, technology becomes an expression of that society’s way of life and thinking. Thus, in order for technology to be accepted, utilized and acknowledged by a society as its own, it must be congruent to the overall image of that society’s culture. Technology must complement culture, not antagonize it.

This article will deal with some of the intricacies concerning cultural considerations in technology designs, examining the current issues and problems, as well as the prevailing concepts and principles, and how they can be applied.

Definition of Culture

The definition of the term culture has been debated at length amongst sociologists and anthropologists for many decades. Culture can be defined in many terms. Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) reviewed over a hundred definitions of culture. Williams (1976) mentioned culture as one of the most complicated words in the English language. Culture has even been defined as the entire way of life of people. As such, it includes their technology and material artefacts—anything one would need to know to become a functioning member of the society (Geertz 1973). It may even be described as “publicly available symbolic forms through which people experience and express meaning” (Keesing 1974). Summing it up, Elzinga and Jamison (1981) put it aptly when they said that “the word culture has different meanings in different intellectual disciplines and systems of thought”.

Technology: Part and Product of Culture

Technology can be considered both as part of culture and its product. More than 60 years ago the noted sociologist Malinowsky included technology as part of the culture and gave the following definition: “culture comprises inherited artefacts, goods, technical processes, ideas, habits and values.” Later, Leach (1965) considered technology as a cultural product and mentioned “artefacts, goods and technical processes” as “products of culture”.

In the technological realm, “culture” as an important issue in the design, development and utilization of technical products or systems has been largely neglected by many suppliers as well as receivers of technology. One major reason for this neglect is the absence of basic information on cultural differences.

In the past, technological changes have led to significant changes in social life and organization and in people’s value systems. Industrialization has made deep and enduring changes in the traditional lifestyles of many previously agricultural societies since such lifestyles were largely regarded as incompatible with the way industrial work should be organized. In situations of large cultural diversity, this has led to various negative socio-economic outcomes (Shahnavaz 1991). It is now a well-established fact that simply to impose a technology on a society and believe that it will be absorbed and utilized through extensive training is wishful thinking (Martin et al. 1991).

It is the responsibility of the technology designer to consider the direct and indirect effects of the culture and to make the product compatible with the cultural value system of the user and with its intended operating environment.

The impact of technology for many “industrially developing countries” (IDCs) has been much more than improvement in efficiency. Industrialization was not just modernization of the production and service sectors, but to some extent Westernization of the society. Technology transfer is, thus, also cultural transfer.

Culture, in addition to religion, tradition and language, which are important parameters for technology design and utilization, encompasses other aspects, such as specific attitudes towards certain products and tasks, rules of appropriate behaviour, rules of etiquette, taboos, habits and customs. All these must be equally considered for optimum design.

It is said that people are also products of their distinctive cultures. Nevertheless, the fact remains that world cultures are very much interwoven due to human migration throughout history. It is small wonder that there exist more cultural than national variations in the world. Nevertheless, some very broad distinctions can be made regarding societal, organizational and professional culture-based differences that could influence design in general.

Constraining Influences of Culture

There is very little information on both theoretical and empirical analyses of the constraining influences of culture on technology and how this issue should be incorporated in the design of hardware and software technology. Even though the influence of culture on technology has been recognized (Shahnavaz 1991; Abeysekera, Shahnavaz and Chapman 1990; Alvares 1980; Baranson 1969), very little information is available on the theoretical analysis of cultural differences with regard to technology design and utilization. There are even fewer empirical studies that quantify the importance of cultural variations and provide recommendations on how cultural factors should be considered in the design of product or system (Kedia and Bhagat 1988). Nevertheless, culture and technology can still be studied with some degree of clarity when viewed from different sociological viewpoints.

Culture and Technology: Compatibility and Preference

Proper application of a technology depends, to a large extent, on the compatibility of the user’s culture with the design specifications. Compatibility must exist at all levels of culture—at the societal, organizational and professional levels. In turn, cultural compatibility can have strong influence on a people’s preferences and aptness to utilize a technology. This question involves preferences relating to a product or system; to concepts of productivity and relative efficiency; to change, achievement and authority; as well as to the manner of technology utilization. Cultural values can thus affect people’s willingness and ability to select, to use and to control technology. They have to be compatible in order to be preferred.

Societal culture

As all technologies are inevitably associated with sociocultural values, the cultural receptivity of the society is a very important issue for the proper functioning of a given technological design (Hosni 1988). National or societal culture, which contributes to the formation of a collective mental model of people, influences the entire process of technology design and application, which ranges from planning, goal setting and defining design specifications, to production, management and maintenance systems, training and evaluation. Technology design of both hardware and software should, therefore, reflect society-based cultural variations for maximum benefit. However, defining such society-based cultural factors for consideration in the design of technology is a very complicated task. Hofstede (1980) has proposed four dimensional framework variations of national-based culture.

  1. Weak versus strong uncertainty avoidance. This concerns a people’s desire to avoid ambiguous situations and to what extent their society has developed formal means (such as rules and regulations) to serve this purpose. Hofstede (1980) gave, for example, high uncertainty avoidance scores to countries like Japan and Greece, and low scores to Hong Kong and Scandinavia.
  2. Individualism versus collectivism. This pertains to the relationship between individuals and organizations in the society. In individualistic societies, the orientation is such that each person is expected to look after his or her own interests. In contrast, in a collectivist culture, social ties between people are very strong. Some examples of individualistic countries are the United States and Great Britain while Colombia and Venezuela can be considered as having collectivist cultures.
  3. Small versus large power distance. A large “power distance” characterizes those cultures where the less powerful individuals accept the unequal distribution of power in a culture, as well as the hierarchies in the society and its organizations. Examples of large power distance countries are India and the Philippines. Small power distances are typical of countries like Sweden and Austria.
  4. Masculinity versus femininity. Cultures that put more emphasis on material achievements are regarded as belonging to the former category. Those giving more value to quality of life and other less tangible outcomes belong to the latter.


        Glenn and Glenn (1981) have also distinguished between “abstractive” and “associative” tendencies in a given national culture. It is argued that when people of an associative culture (like those from Asia) approach a cognitive problem, they put more emphasis on context, adapt a global thinking approach and try to utilize association among various events. Whereas in the Western societies, a more abstractive culture of rational thinking predominates. Based on these cultural dimensions, Kedia and Bhagat (1988) have developed a conceptual model for understanding cultural constraints on technology transfer. They have developed various descriptive “propositions” which provide information on different countries’ cultural variations and their receptivity with regard to technology. Certainly many cultures are moderately inclined to one or the other of these categories and contain some mixed features.

        Consumers’ as well as producers’ perspectives upon technological design and utilization are directly influenced by the societal culture. Product safety standards for safeguarding consumers as well as work-environment regulations, inspection and enforcement systems for protecting the producers are to a large extent the reflection of the societal culture and value system.

        Organizational culture

        A company’s organization, its structure, value system, function, behaviour, and so on, are largely cultural products of the society in which it operates. This means that what happens within an organization is mostly a direct reflection of what is happening in the outside society (Hofstede 1983). The prevailing organizations of many companies operating in the IDCs are influenced both by the characteristics of the technology producer country as well as those of the technology recipient environment. However, the reflection of the societal culture in a given organization can vary. Organizations interpret the society in terms of their own culture, and their degree of control depends, among other factors, on the modes of technology transfer.

        Given the changing nature of organization today, plus a multicultural, diverse workforce, adapting a proper organizational programme is more important than ever before to a successful operation (an example of a workforce diversity management programme is described in Solomon (1989)).

        Professional culture

        People belonging to a certain professional category may use a piece of technology in a specific fashion. Wikström et al. (1991), in a project aimed to develop hand tools, have noted that despite the designers’ assumption of how plate shares are to be held and used (i.e., with a forward holding grip and the tool moving away from one’s own body), the professional tinsmiths were holding and using the plate share in a reversed manner, as shown in figure 1. They concluded that tools should be studied in the actual field conditions of the user population itself in order to acquire relevant information on the tools characteristics.

        Figure 1. The use of plate share tools by professional tinsmiths in practice (the reversed grip)


        Using Cultural Features for Optimum Design

        As implied by the foregoing considerations, culture provides identity and confidence. It forms opinions about the objectives and characteristics of a “human-technology system” and how it should operate in a given environment. And in any culture, there are always some features that are valuable with regard to technological progress. If these features are considered in the design of software and hardware technology, they can act as the driving force for technology absorption in the society. One good example is the culture of some southeast Asian countries largely influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism. The former emphasizes, among other things, learning and loyalty, and considers it a virtue to be able to absorb new concepts. The latter teaches the importance of harmony and respect for fellow human beings. It is said that these unique cultural features have contributed to the provision of the right environment for the absorption and implementation of advanced hardware and organizational technology furnished by the Japanese (Matthews 1982).

        A clever strategy would thus make the best use of the positive features of a society’s culture in promoting ergonomic ideas and principles. According to McWhinney (1990) “the events, to be understood and thus used effectively in projection, must be embedded in stories. One must go to varying depths to unleash founding energy, to free society or organization from inhibiting traits, to find the paths along which it might naturally flow. . . . Neither planning nor change can be effective without embedding it consciously in a narrative.”

        A good example of cultural appreciation in designing management strategy is the implementation of the “seven tools” technique for quality assurance in Japan. The “seven tools” are the minimum weapons a samurai warrior had to carry with him whenever he went out to fight. The pioneers of “quality control circles”, adapting their nine recommendations to a Japanese setting, reduced this number in order to take advantage of a familiar term—“the seven tools”—so as to encourage the involvement of all employees in their quality work strategy (Lillrank and Kano 1989).

        However, other cultural features may not be beneficial to technological development. Discrimination against women, the strict observation of a caste system, racial or other prejudice, or considering some tasks as degrading, are a few examples that can have a negative influence on technology development. In some traditional cultures, men are expected to be the primary wage-earners. They become accustomed to regarding the role of women as equal employees, not to mention as supervisors, with insensitivity or even hostility. Withholding equal employment opportunity from women and questioning the legitimacy of women’s authority is not appropriate to the current needs of organizations, which require optimum utilization of human resources.

        With regard to task design and job content, some cultures consider tasks like manual labour and service as degrading. This may be attributed to past experiences linked to colonial times regarding “master-slave relationships”. In some other cultures, strong biases exist against tasks or occupations associated with “dirty hands”. These attitudes are also reflected in lower-than-average pay scales for these occupations. In turn, these have contributed to shortages of technicians or inadequate maintenance resources (Sinaiko 1975).

        Since it usually takes many generations to change cultural values with respect to a new technology, it would be more cost-effective to fit the technology to the technology recipient’s culture, taking cultural differences into consideration in the design of hardware and software.

        Cultural Considerations in Product and System Designing

        By now it is obvious that technology consists both of hardware and software. Hardware components include capital and intermediary goods, such as industrial products, machinery, equipment, buildings, workplaces and physical layouts, most of which chiefly concern the micro-ergonomics domain. Software pertains to programming and planning, management and organizational techniques, administration, maintenance, training and education, documentation and services. All these concerns fall under the heading of macro-ergonomics.

        A few examples of cultural influences that require special design consideration from the micro- and macro-ergonomic point of view are given below.

        Micro-ergonomic issues

        Micro-ergonomics is concerned with the design of a product or system with the objective of creating a “usable” user-machine-environment interface. The major concept of product design is usability. This concept involves not only the functionality and reliability of the product, but issues of safety, comfort and enjoyment as well.

        The user’s internal model (i.e., his or her cognitive or mental model) plays an important role in usability design. To operate or control a system efficiently and safely, the user must have an accurate representative cognitive model of the system in use. Wisner (1983) has stated that “industrialization would thus more or less require a new kind of mental model.” In this view, formal education and technical training, experience as well as culture are important factors in determining the formation of an adequate cognitive model.

        Meshkati (1989), in studying the micro- and macro-ergonomic factors of the 1984 Union Carbide Bhopal accident, highlighted the importance of culture on the Indian operators’ inadequate mental model of the plant operation. He stated that part of the problem may have been due to “the performance of poorly trained Third World operators using advanced technological systems designed by other humans with much different educational backgrounds, as well as cultural and psychosocial attributes.” Indeed, many design usability aspects at the micro-interface level are influenced by the user’s culture. Careful analyses of the user’s perception, behaviour and preferences would lead to a better understanding of the user’s needs and requirements for designing a product or system that is both effective and acceptable.

        Some of these culture-related micro-ergonomic aspects are the following:

        1. Interface design. Human emotion is an essential element of product design. It is concerned in such factors as colour and shape (Kwon, Lee and Ahn 1993; Nagamachi 1992). Colour is regarded as the most important factor to do with human emotions with regard to product design. The product’s colour treatment reflects the psychological and sentimental dispositions of the users, which differ from country to country. The symbolism of colour may also differ. For example, the colour red, which indicates danger in Western countries, is an auspicious token in India (Sen 1984) and symbolizes joy or happiness in China. 
        2. Pictorial signs and symbols that are used in many different applications for public accommodations are strongly culture related. Western pictorial information, for example, is difficult to interpret by non-Western people (Daftuar 1975; Fuglesang 1982).
        3. Control/display compatibility. Compatibility is a measure of how well spatial movements of control, display behaviour or conceptual relationships meet human expectations (Staramler 1993). It refers to the user’s expectation of the stimulus-response relationship, which is a fundamental ergonomic issue for safe and efficient operation of a product or system. A compatible system is one which considers people’s common perceptual-motor behaviour (i.e., their population-stereotype). However, like other human behaviour, perceptual-motor behaviour may also be influenced by culture. Hsu and Peng (1993) compared American and Chinese subjects regarding control/burner relationships in a four-burner stove. Different population-stereotype patterns were observed. They conclude that population stereotypes regarding control/burner linkages were culturally different, probably as a result of differences in reading or scanning habits.
        4. Workplace design. An industrial workstation design aims to eliminate harmful postures and improve user performance in relation to the user’s biological needs, preferences and task requirements. People from different cultures may prefer different types of sitting posture and work heights. In Western countries, work heights are set near the seated elbow height for maximum comfort and efficiency. However, in many parts of the world people sit on the floor. Indian workers, for example, prefer squatting or sitting cross-legged to standing or to sitting on a chair. In fact it has been observed that even when chairs are provided, the operators still prefer to squat or sit cross-legged on the seats. Daftuar (1975) and Sen (1984) have studied the merits and implications of the Indian sitting posture. After describing the various advantages of sitting on the floor, Sen stated that “as a large population of the world market covers societies where squatting or sitting on the ground predominate, it is unfortunate that up to now no modern machines have been designed to be used in this way.” Thus, variations in preferred posture should be considered in machine and workplace design in order to improve the operator’s efficiency and comfort.
        5. Design of protective equipment. There exist both psychological and physical constraints with regard to wearing protective clothing. In some cultures, for example, jobs requiring the use of protective wear may be regarded as common labour, suitable only for unskilled workers. Consequently, protective equipment is usually not worn by engineers at workplaces in such settings. Regarding physical constraints, some religious groups, obliged by their religion to wear a head covering (like the turbans of Indian Sikhs or the head covers of Muslim women) find it difficult to wear, for example, protective helmets. Therefore, special designs of protective wear are needed to cope with such cultural variations in protecting people against work-environmental hazards.


        Macro-ergonomic issues

        The term macro-ergonomics refers to the design of software technology. It concerns the proper design of organizations and management systems. Evidence exists showing that because of differences in culture, sociopolitical conditions and educational levels, many successful managerial and organizational methods developed in industrialized countries cannot be successfully applied to developing countries (Negandhi 1975). In most IDCs, an organizational hierarchy characterized by a down-flow of authority structure within the organization is a common practice. It has little concern for Western values such as democracy or power sharing in decision-making, which are regarded as key issues in modern management, being essential for proper utilization of human resources as regards intelligence, creativity, problem solving potential and ingenuity.

        The feudal system of social hierarchy and its value system are also widely practised in most industrial workplaces in the developing countries. These make a participatory management approach (which is essential for the new production mode of flexible specialization and the motivation of the workforce) a difficult endeavour. However, there are reports confirming the desirability of introducing autonomous work systems even in these cultures Ketchum 1984).

        1. Participatory ergonomics. Participatory ergonomics is a useful macro-ergonomics approach for solving various work-related problems (Shahnavaz, Abeysekera and Johansson 1993; Noro and Imada 1991; Wilson 1991). This approach, mostly used in industrialized countries, has been applied in different forms depending on the organizational culture in which it has been implemented. In a study, Liker, Nagamachi and Lifshitz (1988) compared participatory ergonomics programmes in two US and two Japanese manufacturing plants which were aiming to reduce physical stress on workers. They concluded that an “effective participatory ergonomics programme can take many forms. The best programme for any plant in any culture may depend on its own unique history, structure and culture.”
        2. Software systems. Societal and organizational culture-based differences should be considered in designing a new software system or introducing a change in the organization. With respect to information technology, De Lisi (1990) indicates that networking capabilities will not be realized unless the networks fit the existing organizational culture.
        3. Work organization and management. In some cultures, the family is so important an institution that it plays a prominent role in work organization. For example, among some communities in India, a job is generally regarded as a family responsibility and is collectively performed by all family members (Chapanis 1975).
        4. Maintenance system. Design of maintenance programmes (both preventive and regular) as well as housekeeping are other examples of areas in which work organization should be adapted to cultural constraints. The traditional culture among the sort of agricultural societies predominant in many IDCs is generally not compatible with the requirements of industrial work and how activities are organized. Traditional agricultural activity does not require, for example, formal maintenance programming and precision work. It is for the most part not carried out under time pressure. In the field, it is usually left to the recycling process of nature to take care of maintenance and housekeeping work. The design of maintenance programmes and housekeeping manuals for industrial activities should thus take these cultural constraints into account and provide for adequate training and supervision.


        Zhang and Tyler (1990), in a case study related to the successful establishment of a modern telephone cable production facility in China supplied by a US firm (the Essex Company) stated that “both parties realize, however, that the direct application of American or Essex management practices was not always practical nor desirable due to cultural, philosophical, and political differences. Thus the information and instructions provided by Essex was often modified by the Chinese partner to be compatible with the conditions existing in China.” They also argued that the key to their success, despite cultural, economic and political differences, was both parties’ dedication and commitment to a common goal as well as the mutual respect, trust, and friendship which transcended any differences between them.

        Design of shift and work schedules are other examples of work organization. In most IDCs there are certain sociocultural problems associated with shift work. These include poor general living and housing conditions, lack of support services, a noisy home environment and other factors, which require the design of special shift programmes. Furthermore, for female workers, a working day is usually much longer than eight hours; it consists of not only the actual time spent working, but also the time spent on travelling, working at home and taking care of children and elderly relatives. In view of the prevailing culture, shift and other work design requires special work-rest schedules for effective operation.

        Flexibility in work schedules to allow cultural variances such as an after-lunch nap for Chinese workers and religious activities for Muslims are further cultural aspects of work organization. In the Islamic culture, people are required to break from work a few times a day to pray, and to fast for one month each year from sunrise to sunset. All these cultural constraints require special work organizational considerations.

        Thus, many macro-ergonomic design features are closely influenced by culture. These features should be considered in the design of software systems for effective operation.

        Conclusion: Cultural Differences in Design

        Designing a usable product or system is not an easy task. There exists no absolute quality of suitability. It is the designer’s task to create an optimum and harmonic interaction between the four basic components of the human-technology system: the user, the task, the technological system and the operating environment. A system may be fully usable for one combination of user, task and environmental conditions but totally unsuitable for another. One design aspect which can greatly contribute to the design’s usability, whether it is a case of a single product or a complex system, is the consideration of cultural aspects which have a profound influence on both the user and the operating environment.

        Even if a conscientious engineer designs a proper human-machine interface for use in a given environment, the designer is often unable to foresee the effects of a different culture on the product’s usability. It is difficult to prevent possible negative cultural effects when a product is used in an environment different from that for which it was designed. And since there exist almost no quantitative data regarding cultural constraints, the only way the engineer can make the design compatible with regard to cultural factors is to actively integrate the user population in the design process.

        The best way to consider cultural aspects in design is for the designer to adapt a user-centred design approach. True enough, the design approach adapted by the designer is the essential factor that will instantly influence the usability of the designed system. The importance of this basic concept must be recognized and implemented by the product or system designer at the very beginning of the design life cycle. The basic principles of user-centred design can thus be summarized as follows (Gould and Lewis 1985; Shackel 1986; Gould et al. 1987; Gould 1988; Wang 1992):

          1. Early and continual focus on user. The user should be an active member of the design team throughout the whole product development life cycle (i.e., predesign, detail design, production, verification and product improvement phase).
          2. Integrated design. The system should be considered as a whole, ensuring a holistic design approach. This means that all aspects of the system’s usability should be evolved in parallel by the design team.
          3. Early and continuous user testing. User reaction should be tested using prototypes or simulations while carrying out real work in the real environment from early development stage to the final product.
          4. Iterative design. Designing, testing and redesigning are repeated in regular cycles until satisfactory usability results are achieved.


                In the case of designing a product on a global scale, the designer has to consider the needs of consumers around the world. In such a case, access to all actual users and operating environments may not be possible for the purpose of adopting a user-centred design approach. The designer has to use a broad range of information, both formal and informal, such as literature reference material, standards, guidelines, and practical principles and experience in making an analytical evaluation of the design and has to provide sufficient adjustability and flexibility in the product in order to satisfy the needs of a wider user population.

                Another point to consider is the fact that designers can never be all-knowing. They need input from not only the users but also other parties involved in the project, including managers, technicians, and repair and maintenance workers. In a participatory process, people involved should share their knowledge and experiences in developing a usable product or system and accept collective responsibility for its functionality and safety. After all, everyone involved has something at stake.



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