Designing infographics for international usability is hard

In June 2012 cxpartners tested a series of interactive infographics that were designed to communicate global food security information. We conducted testing in Asia, South America, North America, Europe and Africa. We tested the infographics using our remotely moderated testing techniques allowing us to test in five continents and feed recommendations and ideas back into the visual design process in less than a week.

Along with typical user interface problems like buttons not looking enough like buttons and content and calls to action being in the wrong place we saw fascinating cultural differences around participants' understanding and reaction to icons and colour.

Culturally, as you'd expect, there were marked differences in people's interpretation of colours' meaning. Some of the predominant colours used in the infographic were:

  • Red - Western (Danger, Stop,) Eastern & Asian (Celebration, Good Luck) Africa (Wealth)
  • Green - Western (Spring, Go) Eastern & Asian (Infidelity) North Africa (Corruption)
  • Orange - Western (Harvest, Traffic lights) Eastern & Asian (Sacred)

The colours had not been chosen to impart information in their own right, but participants read meaning into their use and the meanings were different around the world. There's no simple take away from this observation, other than colour choice needs to be considered very carefully for different regions of the world.

We also observed some more unexpected variations in peoples interpretation of icons.

Money icons - icons depicting coins and bank notes were considered less effective than icons depicting currency symbols even when the local currency was not represented in the icon. Icons representing a single currency (the US dollar) fared particularly badly outside of North America and Europe.

Health icons - In North American and Europe a simple apple icon represented health well for most participants. However in other regions the Apple icon was not interpreted as a health icon. The connection with computers was raised several times as you might expect too.

Market (food market) icons - Several variants of an icon representing a market stall were tested. Westerners found a simple stall on four legs and a tilted top and a shade with an apex the most representative. In Asia and Africa a stall with large wheels and an umbrella shade was thought the best. Each of these were represented as being full of produce. Empty stalls had seriously negative connotations and were universally rejected.

The speed and flexibility of the testing allowed cxpartner's consultant Amy McGuinness, who conducted the user testing, to feed design insights into the icon design process as the testing progressed, allowing the client to refine and perfect the icons during the course of the research.

These few highlights from this international usability study go a little way to show just how much more there is to consider in international design.