January 1997

Root Page of Article: Intercultural Computer-Mediated Communication, by Néstor G. Trillo


How, then, do we address a user's culture, particularly in an international forum that is becoming increasingly networked? One way is to stress a cross-cultural component within a user-centered design development process. This process was originally defined by Gould and Lewis (1985), as an approach that stresses that the user's cognitive, social and attitudinal characteristics must be understood and supported. An emphasis on a cross-cultural component may surface oversights in addressing the diverse needs of a multicultural userbase.

Just as the college programmer's prototype was biased towards a certain languages, present interfaces may be biased towards certain users. The lingua franca of the Internet and WWW, for instance, is English. When almost 80% of Internet host computers are located in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries (Mandel, 1996), developers' assumptions have limited initial multilingual capabilities. Some browsers such as Netscape can be adapted to a degree for displaying numerous languages, and others such as, Internet Explorer 3.0 promise to have multi-language capabilities built-in. However, HTML 2.0 itself, like the college programmer's language software, can not handle languages that flow other than left to right. This may change with proposed DIR and LANG tags which indicate which direction to display text, as well as which language to display text based on ISO 639 codes.

Likewise, interfaces are predominantly graphical. Percival (1990), for example, noted the increasing use of Graphical User Interfaces in computers and online services; yet, blind users are at a disadvantage when confronted with Graphical Interfaces (Coombs, 1995). The Project on People, Computers, and Design , and the Archimedes Project at Stanford, however are working to overcome this by investigating how best to present visual information in an audio format for blind users.

Another opportunity for incorporating cross-cultural factors lies in the development of Agents. Intelligent Agents promise to accomplish tasks for a user over a network such as collecting information, purchasing products, filtering email, etc. In doing so, an Agent becomes a mediator between its user and the networked environment. "Agents view the world from our perspective, and this has to be reflected in the interface..."(Beale & Wood, 1995) If an anthropomorphic agent is designed to behave in a human manner, then it must have access to the same "cultural index" as its user in order to view the world from the same perspective. To the degree that they are designed to behave in a human manner, Intelligent Agents must be able to interpret not only language, but cultural nuances embedded in the language. For example, cross-cultural research (Hall, 1976; Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1988; Hofstede, 1980) suggests that a low-context user from an individualistic society may prefer an Intelligent Agent that provides more information explicitly, while a high-context user from a collectivistic society will find the same Intelligent Agent overwhelming, perhaps to the point of information overload.

Furthermore, culture may have even more significant implications in technology --usage...

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