Socio-Cultural UX (SX) in Context of Ontology, Information Architecture & Culture

(This article was originally published on March 24, 2018 )

During late 19th- and 20th-century, a set of European philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. This doctrine, more popularly known as Existentialism, started from Søren Kierkegaard who proposed that proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely, or “authentically“. After the Second World War years this impacted various discipline including theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology etc. and was carried over by the philosophers like Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre.

Sartre claimed that a central proposition of Existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals—independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence”)—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individuals fit. So basically, “human beings, through their own consciousness, create their own values and determine a meaning to their life.”

Even though this doctrine was used and misused heavily in the disciplines like literature and filmmaking, it has elements that often helps to revisit and refining existing user experience and usability models, as the underlying concept has ontological aspects involved.

Ontology is even older philosophy, since the time of Parmenides (late sixth or early fifth century BC around the time or Aristotle), related to existence that is more of a study of the nature of being, becoming, existence and reality with the specific focus on the categorization of beings and their interrelationships. Basically, from the field of Metaphysics, it is the study or concern about what kinds of things exist – what entities there are in the universe. When we look at the whole gamut of ontology, we find three terms having the most practical context to user experience discipline – ontology, taxonomy and choreography.

Information Architecture is much more than a sitemap or wireframes. The classical definition of UX always points to have an aspect of “meaningful” to the context of experience for the user. This term “meaning” is more or less derived from the ontological perspective. The Theater of Absurd movement of 1960’s, revolved around the concept of the existence of human and the exploration of “meaning”. Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot(1966), where the two tramps waited for the Godot through-out the play, and who never arrived till the end, raised the debates that spurred many literary theories and views till the present day, tried to define what or who the Godot is. Many made the reference to archaic as well as biblical roots, where there was another sect who gave the Godot a new meaning as a saviour or a Christ of that age. Interestingly when it was asked to Beckett about the meaning of Godot, he answered “If I knew, I would have said so in the play”

Similarly, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote No Exit in 1944, an existentialist play originally published in French as Huis Clos (meaning In Camera or “behind closed doors”), which is the source of the popular quote, “Hell is other people.” (In French, “L’enfer, c’est les autres”). The play begins with a Valet leading a man into a room that the audience soon realizes is in hell. Eventually, he is joined by two women. After their entry, the Valet leaves and the door is shut and locked. All three expect to be tortured, but no torturer arrives. Instead, they realize they are there to torture each other, which they do effectively by probing each other’s sins, desires, and unpleasant memories. It reflects how ontology affects the meaning of entities/users.

In phenomenology, the terms the Other and the Constitutive Other each identify a cumulative, constituting factor in the self-image of a person; his or her acknowledgement of being real.As such, the Other is dissimilar to and the opposite of the Self, of Us, and of the Same. The condition and quality of Otherness, the characteristics of the Other, is the state of being different from and alien to the social identity of a person and to the identity of the Self.


So in user experience, specifically to communication context typically when we speak about ontological factors, we mostly mean language implies certain meaning to us, but may be confusing to others. One word can have a variety of meaning which may be simply opposite to what the user might need to communicate. This communication medium can be oral through any language, through gestures, through visual indicators over a UI etc.

As we know that a mental model of any user varies from another based on his prior experience and expectation of the subject in context. The user is always in the centre and reacts to another user or a subject through any mode of interaction and/or communication. The information that flows through this system (e.g. hypertext system or a social gathering at a certain point in time and place) is significant gets affected by the mental models of the users present and the ontological contexts they have about the others (including the users and the subjects) in that context. In information technology, an ontology is the working model of entities and interactions in some particular domain of knowledge or practices, such as electronic commerce or “the activity of planning.” In artificial intelligence ( AI ), an ontology is, according to Tom Gruber, an AI specialist at Stanford University, “the specification of conceptualizations, used to help programs and humans share knowledge.” In this usage, an ontology is a set of concepts – such as things, events, and relations – that are specified in some way (such as specific natural language) in order to create an agreed-upon vocabulary for exchanging information.

In recent years the awareness about the influence of culture on the UX practices have been increased. Day by day, Human Factor professionals are increasingly reviving the UX tools, frameworks and methodologies in the light of a better understanding of how culture influences user experience and how people think, behave, and feel. awareness of culture is extremely critical as the global community becomes interdependent economically, politically, and socially. To achieve success in the current international marketplace, Human Factors/Ergonomics (HF/E) professionals need to develop an understanding of people from other cultures, such as, for example, how psycho-social factors influence performance in the workplace due to cultural differences.

Power Distance Index (PDI) describes the degree to which less powerful members or a society accept an unequal distribution of power. The central question in this dimension is how a society handles inequalities among individuals. A high power distance means that people within a society have accepted a certain hierarchical order and the inequalities that come with it. In a society with a low power distance, people are constantly trying to equalize the distribution of power, especially those who have less power.

In the articles like Major cultural-compatibility complex: considerations on cross-cultural dissemination of patient safety programmes it is explored how the people from societies with a small power distance don’t like to be controlled. They only accept leadership if it’s based on true expertise.

So one of the popular approaches to design for cross cultural user experience is what Sabina Idler describes as — “Offer enough objective and detailed information on your website to allow people to make up their own mind. Meet your website visitors on eye-level, treat them with respect, and show interest in their needs. Communicate with this group in an informal, direct, and participative way to gain their trust and get them engaged”.

Similarly, it comes out from such research and explorations that website “visitors from societies with a big power distance are used to authorities and solid structures. Be prepared that they take you as an expert and trust you as an authority figure. Make sure you offer them facts and clear statements and don’t give them too much responsibility. Visitors from this group are less critical and less driven to search for detailed information in order to make up their own mind”.

Another cultural aspect that is critical while planning user experience for cross cultural segments is Individualism versus collectivism (IDV). The second dimension describes how much people in a group focus on themselves and on the group as a whole. The position of a society on this dimension is reflected in whether people refer to themselves as “I” or “we”. Individualist societies prefer a loose social network in which everyone is expected to take care of themselves and their immediate families. In a collectivist culture, people care as much or even more for others than for themselves. In exchange, others take care of them. visitors from a collectivist culture act in the interest of the group, rather than their own interest. They make decisions based on the opinion of others and on what’s common or popular, not so much on their individual desire. Consider this on your website and offer enough reference points, such as “most popular” categories, testimonials, or social media sharing options to gather instant and personal feedback from friends.

In Methodological Advancements of Cross-Cultural User-Centered Product Development  (2009) ( ) details, the outcome a research that aims at the further advancement of the methodological foundations of cross-cultural user-centred product development approaches based on a stable and profound theoretical basis. The research used approach to ‘study the applicability of six distinct user-centred product development methodologies’ and was ‘tested with 248 participants in total’ using ‘western concepts and theories, and their applicability in disparate cultural contexts of the Far East (China and Korea in particular)’.

The different components of influencing factors analyzed in the context of the result of the research for the cross-cultural method application were – Cognitive abilities, Creativity, Decision Making, Mental Models, Problem Solving, Emotion, Communication, Engagement, Extrinsic, Intrinsic, Ideals and Motivation.

“When asked about top three reasons for failure of International development projects experts mainly pointed out a lack of understanding about the target culture’s user, insufficient financial support and tight time schedules.”  [p. 26]

Also the dissertation suggests “ethnocentric biases” as the red flagged attribute that has to be avoided. “Consequently the experts’ top advices for being prepared for international product development refer to avoiding ethnocentric biases, to be aware of the importance of human factors, i.e. to know the user of the target market, to get the management to buy in and to allow for an appropriate time schedule“   [p. 26]

Back in 2014, I had coined “SX” to represent the overall changing practice methods in usability domain, in the context of cultural and social factors that influences. In the blog post “Socio-cultural User Experience (SX) in context of Google Glass” ( ), tried to quantify the usability issues of Google Glass in context of the social and cultural context and deductive analysis gave a clue to the root of ‘public fear’ that was growing at the time against the Glass. It was interesting that starting from the later part of 2013, the topics related to The Google Glass infringing with personal privacy became hot cakes for tech-debates. Many social scientists, human rights activists have started to see the ‘Glass’ as the evil that reminds them with George Orwell’s ‘1984’. The fear of a ‘Google Big Brother’ controlling the major shares of the information world is seen as the intruder to private aspects of ‘the public’.

Socio-Cultural User Experience (SX) is the missing piece or the component for the existing tool that helps in bringing in the quantifiable model that tries to bridge the current gap. SX is a framework that also helps to see the social influence on the user and tries to get the insight into the light.

SX provided the required handle for easy customization and tailoring of the Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA)  for people from different cultures and social backgrounds. In addition, it helps in designing for an international market, gaining knowledge with regard to the influence of social and cultural factors on perception, cognition, decision making, persuasion, trust, safety, aesthetics, and usability.   It is interesting to see that the cultural context of the user is found to be a leading reason behind the failure of international projects.

Here is an infograph of SX you can download: