January 1997

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

Culture and Interfaces

A human-computer interface should represent digital information in a manner easily understood by a user. In a graphical interface, for example, the desktop metaphor and the use of icons represent tangible, real-world objects. By association, the user has an intuitive sense of the implied functions of an icon. For example, an icon of a trashcan is often used to denote a method for deleting files on computer systems, while a mailbox is often associated with e-mail.

Cultures, however, differ in the associations attributed to the same real-world object, thus promoting divergent assumptions about how to interact with the graphical interface metaphor. A graphical metaphor, like language, is not always understood on an intuitive level. An object, even one created for a specific purpose (like a trashcan or a mailbox), does not have meaning in and of itself, but only that which the user attributes to it. "Metaphorical structures in multimedia are cultural indexes. Critical skills are required to understand metaphorical packaging"(Davis, 1993). In other words, both the content and the form of the information are culturally influenced. This would imply that in order to correctly interpret metaphorical structures, knowledge of the appropriate cultural index is required of the user.

Cross-Cultural Interfaces are not "universal" products that attempt to be all things in all cultures. A Cross-Cultural Interface is one that is developed in light of, and supported by the cultural, cognitive, social and attitudinal characteristics of the enduser, and whose development is guided by the appropriate culture in order to suitably address the constraints and advantages of a given ecology. Although much software can be localized, this does not fully address the user's cognitive, social and attitudinal characteristics. If we are to address a user's culture in an international forum, it will require more than mere localization after the fact, just as the college programmer's prototype required more than a patch.

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