Cultural calibration is where one puts himself/herself in the local mindset of a new culture, ‘living’ in the shoes of their everyday lives and from there drawing key observations in comparison with other cultures in the world. This is especially important for a user experience designer – one has to be truly be well-versed with behavioural patterns in the particular culture first in order to design an effective human-centric product/service for that demographic. These can be done via a few techniques according to Chipchase, in which I will address the international language of Macdonalds and how this translates into calibrating culturally for UX.

Observations from Mcdonalds, global fast food chain

Culturally different food items

Chipchase has already mentioned how Mcdonalds mean differently in value to different countries. It can be seen as a place with air-con and free wifi in developed countries, places to sleep for the homeless even.

Ha Cheong Gai Burger in Singapore, by Mcdonalds


Mcdonalds has always been localizing their products to a specific culture. For example, Japan has Ebi flavoured (Japanese shrimps), and Singapore has Ha Cheong Gai burgers inspired by local flavours. These are often seasonal cultural products to  occasionally spice up the items on the menu, in order to spark interest. On the other hand, consistent items like fries are ubiquitous in all Mcdonalds across the world, in which allows it to be a global trademark item. Hence, a mix in both globally consistent items and items marked by cultural differences allows Mcdonalds to build a strong brand globally but is not totally identical which allows people to maintain interest in their food chain when travelling to different Mcdonalds throughout the world.

Customized image for different cultures

A more important observation that I witnessed is how Mcdonalds changed their logo colors to cater to different cultures. They have purposely customized their image to appeal to the public in a culture.

Paris Mcdonalds

When I was in France, I noticed that Mcdonalds logo was green and yellow. I was told by my French friend that this is because people are increasingly conscious about the environment and health, and thus Mcdonalds tries to improve their image with their change of colours – an eco-friendly and “healthy” food chain. In contrast, most places around the world still uses the same signature red and yellow logo, like Singapore.

Singapore Mcdonalds

Hence, different image appeals to different cultures, what is effective to a country might not be for another. This is worthy for designers to observe and apply to cultural optimisation of their designs.

Further translating cultural calibration

Linking observations to context – Utilising cultural calibration powerful design research

To fully utilise cultural calibration observations, this can be deepened with contextual knowledge of a particular culture. A model that I would refer to is Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions, which represents independent variables that different cultures tend to veer towards e.g. Power Distance Index (how less powerful members in society accept unequal power distribution), Individualism vs Collectivism (whether society values the self or the collective community mindset).

Here’s an illustration of how this could work. Using the Individualism vs Collectivism dimension, a culture which values Individualism (e.g. The Netherlands) might want to know how a product benefits them individually, whereas a country which values collectivism (e.g. Korea) might be more keen to know how the product benefits their community as a whole / how does it embody them into their society. With this context, one can link with observations from cultural calibration – in Korea city commute, people tend to group together a lot and they often have similar fashion and makeup. Trends are usually closely followed because people want to fit in to the community. Hence, this affirms Korea’s strong sense of collectivism, and a UX designer ought to design a product that benefits the “us” more than the “I”.

Therefore, linking observations from cultural calibration with contextual knowledge will largely empower the designer with ultimate tools for designing a culturally optimised product or service.


Further thoughts 

Striking a balance

It is important to strike a balance between how consumers live now (by observing the behaviours of people in a culture), and how they want to live. Observing Japan in peak hour allows us to know that people are constantly in a rush, and often tired in work. We hence see many products catered for convenience – e.g. prevalence of vending machines in subways and roads, full meals in convenience stores. But this does not tell us how do they want to live, and that is where research of their values and ideals come in. If they aspire to live the opposite of how they live now, how can one challenge that?

Food for thought – When designing a product, localizing for a culture – how far should one try to blend into the culture?