US UX versus EU UX: What’s the difference?

In response to questions from Amy Knox regarding US.UX and EU.UX, Søren Muus (creative director at FatDUX and co-initiator of ECUX) recently posted on the mail list of the Information Architecture Institute some interesting ideas in this matter. We are happy to republish his piece, because we find it food for debate.

Hi Amy Knox,

Interesting question! I think the subject is worth a book, or at least an article. But for now I’ll just try to provide you with a sufficient answer. Apart from being the creative director at FatDUX, which is an international UX company, I’m also founding member of “European centre for user experience”, so I feel obliged to have some answers to your questions. I’ve also been working with several multilingual sites, latest with the ILO (UN), which they are about to launch.

I’m not sure if there’s a specific “European” UX – it’s mostly a matter of content and tone of voice, perhaps to the extend where this is reflected in IA as a consequence hereof, or from being multilingual in an area where language barriers don’t follow national borders. There are of course both national conventions and best practices that relates to specific countries or language areas that you have to beware of. I’ll give you a few examples in my attempt to answer your questions below.

Most of the problems you may encounter, would derive from either lingual, cultural, political or historical issues. And these challenges relates very much to who YOU are, or pretend to be.

If you are branded as an US organisation acting in Europe, you need one approach. If you are branded as an international organisation with local representatives, you need another. If you are branded as a local (national) entity, acting on behalf of an US or international organisation, you need even another approach.

Then add to this, that in some cases it’s an advantage to be “American” – on others certainly not. There are some “familiarity issues” about this euro-american situation: as an European, no Europeans are related to all Europeans, but we all have either American friends or relatives, so we can not all have opinions about, say Swedes or Croatians, but we all have opinions about Americans.

And finally you have to consider if you are going to have a website that consists of mirrored versions of the main site, or if you’re having independent versions for each area. And if these areas are separated by national boundaries or language borders (“French” or “France”).

However, working close together with someone from the areas you are dealing with, can prevent you from a lot of trouble, once you have decided the issues above.

Here are some answers to your questions:

Q: How you think audience expectations and user interactions (might) differ from country to country?

A: At least in three ways; take into consideration that band width may vary much from different parts of Europe, along with state of hardware (and thus ability to handle new internet software), and of course the general capacity for using the web (how web-savy people are in different countries). This may very much influence the way you should design your website. But again, it depends much upon what you are doing and what your website is about, and how the audience will know about your site.

Q: Are there any basic rules of the road for UX across the globe that are worth sharing?

A: As a UX professional you are properly already acquainted with most of them – there aren’t really any “All-European” exceptions, unless you think of Europe as being the only place in the world (at the moment), where you find such density of nations – in many aspects with much in common, in many other aspects with nothing at all in common – leaving you to find out what, and what impact that has on your project.

Be aware of legal requirements, both local (national) like the “Impressum” which you have to provide in Germany, as it states the exact ownership of the company running the site. And also EU requirements and restraints, such as it’s not allowed to make gender or age obligatory when filling out a form, unless its vital for the transaction. Mind that EU and Europe is not the same: Switzerland, Norway and quite a few central and eastern European countries are not member of the EU (European Union).

Be aware that many European languages has a formal version (often written) version, and an informal (often spoken) version. And that this can be directly reflected in various use of pronouns, and indirectly reflected in choice of words and much other.

Q: Anything you wish someone would have told you before you jumped into a multilingual site overhaul?

Be very careful WHICH languages you chose to use, and which languages you attach to what areas, especially as “replacement” language; Dutch and Flemish are the same language, and yet not. Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are “scandinavian” and very close, but they are actually three different languages. And although German is natively spoken by more than 100.000.000 and probably understood by just as many, NEVER NEVER NEVER use German as replacement language in smaller, countries surrounding Germany – use english instead. Most Europeans actually speak and understand English quite well – well you know about that.

Q: Any cultural quagmires that could be easily avoided?

A: Sure, but again it mostly relates to content and tone of voice. If you make sure to join up with local people you can avoid most of them; “Holland” is only an area in what the dutch calls “Nederland” like “England” is NOT the whole island, but only part of it. Both Italians and Germans often regard them selfs as part of smaller, local regions – or even cities. Slovenia is NOT part of the Balkans. Portugal is NOT a Mediterranean country (it has no costal line towards the Mediterranean sea). Europe is filled with these issues, and as I said; depending on who YOU are, this is more or less important.

People living in larger European nations (especially, UK and France) tends to be more “forgiving” towards “broken” english or french. Whereas small nations are very touchy about their language; it has to be absolutely correct. On the other hand; people in smaller countries are quite used to being “inferiorated” by larger languages, and often speaks more than two languages besides their native tongue.

To cut a long story short, there’s a multitude of issues related to planning for “European UX” – I hope that I gave you some food for thought. If I should give you only one advise, it would be to team up with some local capacities, IAI can actually get you very far, and I hope that “European centre for user experience” soon will provide a platform for getting in touch with such, besides being a place for exchange of experience specifically with UX in Europe.


Søren Muus

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  • Peter H

    As a Swede, I’d rather go with English than Danish ^_^

    • Søren Muus

      Yeah, it’s rather sad we missed the opportunity of just being “scandinavian”.

  • Rob le Pair

    The suggested distinction between a formal (often written) and an informal (often spoken) ‘version’ of ‘many European languages’ is too simplistic and inappropriate; every language, including American English, has its means (sometimes different and often similar) for expressing a formal or informal style, depending on the communicative goal, target audience, relation between interlocutors, situational context, etc.

    • Christos Kallinteris

      Any text shorter than a book is going to be “simplistic” on a subject of this complexity.

      Furthermore the distinction between formal and informal language is actually stronger in most continental languages than it is in English and can turn up in aspects that are not obvious to an English speaker. Take the distinction between informal “Du” ( you, second person singular, ) and formal “Sie” ( you, second person plural) in with attendant grammatical differences German. Parallel constructs exist in all European languages I’m passingly familiar with but never show up in English.



      • Søren Muus

        Thanks Christos Kallinteris, that was just my point in both cases:

        1. I tried to give a short answer to a question that really demands more than a book, with a couple of good examples.

        2. Exactly what I wanted to show. And let me add: in several European languages your choice of “formality” even effects the verbs.

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  • Aad ‘t Hart

    The first and most important is the actual user. It’s about their emotions when interacting with your product or service. Emotions are based on expectations and the expectations are influenced by culture. This means cultural aspects like language, date formatting, paper formats etc. are important, but only a very small part of the expectation influencers. It’s too difficult to generalize, you have to study the target audience first, it’s about people… never forget that!


  • Søren Muus

    Thanks Aad ‘t Hart,
    I agree; users are people. And the manifestations of “best practices”, the “shared references” and “adaptive patterns” of inter-human behaviour (or interaction) is “culture”. I take it you’re saying that defining the differences in “UX” across the Atlantic is like defining the differences in “culture” across the same ocean. That’s my experience to. To make good user experiences, you (also) need to know about the culture(s), and therefor also the audience the you’re addressing.

    …I’m still wondering if Amy Knox found the answers useful :)

    • Søren Muus

      Just for the record: Amy DID in fact write back to me. I’ve taken the liberty to copy her mail to me here:

      “Thanks so much for your thoughtful and detailed response to my email. You politely, but effectively relayed the dual messages of “don’t make assumptions” and “don’t generalize”. Maybe also, “do your homework.”

      I agree that the topic, explored fully, would be enough to fill a book. Alas, the audience would be quite small.

      Thank you again for the incredibly helpful email.

      Amy Knox”

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  • Amy Knox

    It’s true! I found the email to be very helpful. I’ve also enjoyed / learned from the discourse that my original email sparked. Great stuff – I hope the conversation continues.

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