The Importance of Cultural Differences in Product Design

Patrick Chen

Product at Facebook, Inc



Our app was designed to turn people’s phones into remote controls allowing them to search through a multitude of providers. Opening the app to find 500 options for many users was both annoying and perplexing. In the US, we could relegate providers by ZIP code narrowing them down to the top five. However, when we decided to go international we encountered numerous challenges. India was a market that appealed to us but required us to understand their customers’ preferences. This is where my international experience and living in India came in handy.

In India, providers are not distributed by region, and once you would open an app you would get 500 local, regional, provincial, and national providers to choose from. Trying to find what you are looking for would be enormously hard and would not always lead to the desired results.

Actions taken

Having the experience of living in India was massively helpful in understanding how the market works and what are the typical habits of Indian customers. While people liked to have all the options available they would end up indefinitely scrolling through or mistyping the name of providers. With so many choices we had to dwindle it down to the most probable ones. I proposed to conduct an analysis and identify how many of our customers were using satellite providers. It turned out that the majority of people who were our target customers -- those using cell phones to control their TVs -- would be using satellite providers. That helped us narrow down the list ranking satellite provider at the top of a list. I was able to trim the list down to 10 providers and those worked for 95 percent of our customers.

Another bothersome problem was that our users would often mismatch names of providers and TV stations that were often too similar. For example, the name of the provider was Doordarshan, while the TV station was called DD, and our customers would only be familiar with the name of the TV station, not the provider or vice-averse. They would spend a lot of time trying to find it scrolling through the providers’ list which would either take them a lot of time or they would drop-off.

We also included a channel guide within different sections -- movies, TV shows, etc. However, we initially failed to notice that some words in one and the same language have a different meaning. In the US, a TV show means episodic content, while in India, it means anything on TV, including movies. Our data was telling us that TV shows did exceptionally well and movies didn’t do well. It didn’t make sense because people love watching movies in India and when I dug into this I realized that people in India subsumed everything under TV shows. We had to re-name TV shows as episodic content and place movies up.

Using international icons was also a subject of cultural interpretation. The app included content that was on TV at the moment, upcoming content with reminders, and a channel guide. The channel guide icon didn’t make sense for everyone. It was a cultural more than a logical matter because they didn’t have the concept of a channel guide.

Lessons learned

  • Initially, we didn’t have a lot of data, and we had to rely on my personal experience and understanding of the market and customers’ habits. Once we had the data, we could analyze things, compare them with our assumptions, and come up with better solutions, tailored to culturally fit the Indian market.
  • Large markets like Indian are not homogeneous and regional preferences add to the complexity. Understanding them is crucial.
  • In today’s globalized world, things can be so similar and so different at the same time. For example, the Chinese market is a polar opposite to the Indian market -- there is only one provider and the problem of multiple choices doesn’t exist. But there are many other similarities between the two in comparison to the US market and its customers.

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Patrick Chen

Product at Facebook, Inc

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