It has been two very interesting years since I moved from my native France to the US. Since then it seems I’ve been in a permanent mode of ethnographic observation, taking note of everyday experiences that strike me as exotic. This collection of observations has made me realize just how deeply culture and cultural differences impact the practice of design.
Culture of collective progress versus culture of indivdiual progress
Me, myself and the group
I’m still very surprised to realize how much you exist as an individual in the US. In France, above all you’re an element of a group, a city, a social class. It’s relatively easy to identify members of different groups based on social codes. In the US, codes are much more interchangeable. That’s why it’s sometimes hard for Europeans to grasp who they’re talking to.
In the US, individual identity is more important than the group, whose primary purpose is to support individual achievement. Americans subscribe to an optimistic concept of social mobility and feel free to “butterfly” among multiple groups depending on their current passions, beliefs, or needs. In contrast, Europeans generally have a more restrictive sense of social class and group identity that shapes how they define themselves as individuals.
Where is progress going?
Why does this matter? It matters because it indicates trends of progress and which direction we’re taking to improve our lives. European countries aim for collective progress first. Public transportation, healthcare, and education are perceived to be the fundamental attributes of a country that just works: everyone should be a beneficiary—your financial means, social class, and education level don’t matter (or shouldn’t matter because there are, of course, many nuances and problems to reach this ideal state). In the United States, businesses want to offer individuals the best experiences and services. You’re the customer.
Why is it important for design?
Whatever words or explanations we choose to describe differences in political or cultural values, what’s important is to be aware of those differences and how they frame our approach to user experience design.
UX for Me
Addressing a kind of “superhero culture,” this approach is characterized by isolated products and services which can be customized to primarily benefit the individual and those whom he or she cares about. Innovation may be more dynamic and competitive, but it may be at the expense of greater fragmentation and inequality.
UX for the Group
This approach is often characterized by interrelated products and services designed to benefit the community as a whole. The intent is to offer a coherent system that is equally accessible to everyone, but this comes with the risk of compromising satisfaction at the individual level.
Where we’re going
Even superheroes need collective systems and services. Maybe it’s cool to drive an awesome car. But it’s not so cool to live in a polluted, sprawling city with chronic traffic congestion. Your awesome car is useless if you’re stuck in gridlock. It might then be interesting to have alternatives like biking, car sharing, or taking the train. However, a good service must also address an individual’s expectations. A public transportation service may offer many collective benefits, but it must ultimately be reliable, punctual, and safe to attract individual commuters. A car sharing service may be convenient and cost-effective for individuals, but it should also adapt to the urban context to help resolve problems like pollution and parking, not make them worse.
Progress means pushing our practices of User Experience to balance the individual and collective aspects of any innovation. Success is designing a great individual user experience that’s also relevant and appropriate to the community.