User Universals

by Luke Wroblewski November 12, 2004

Answering the question of “How different are we?” is paramount to understanding the level of variation necessary between international product releases. Local business units and many user experience teams tend to favor deeper localization often advocating unique features and designs that will “work” in a local market.

Their evidence comes from market segmentation data and ethnographic observations that point out societal differences between international markets (the most notable of which occur within lower socio-economic segments). Global business units and product development teams, on the other hand, lean more toward consistent product solutions. After all, international variations are costly and increase the complexity of design, development, and maintenance processes. Finding the right depth of localization is a balance between cost and the potential increase in revenue that deeper localization may provide.

So just how different are we? Steve Portigal recently pointed out that there’s quite an interesting tension between “People are all the same no matter where you go” and “People are completely different.”

“What we know or what we think we know, about the hereditary basis of human nature can be expressed by linking together three determining levels of biological organization: the universals of culture, the epigenetic rules of social behavior, and behavioral genetics.” –Edward O. Wilson, Consilience

In 1945, George P. Murdock outlined sixty-seven cultural universals: common social behaviors and institutions found to exist in all cultures. Though Murdock’s cultural universals have “evolved in mutual isolation, they are remarkably convergent in broad detail.” Steven Pinker has since expanded the list in his book The Blank Slate (2002). A few of his universals: aesthetics, units of time, tools, taxonomy, symbolism, statuses and roles, semantic category of location, narrative, normal distinguished from abnormal states, mental maps, metaphor, and more.

But to what extent can we count on these traits in the context of interface design localization? Can we turn to cultural universals as support for maintaining interaction consistency across international markets? Edward O. Wilson seems to have the answer: “While the categories listed occur too consistently to be due to chance alone, their finer details differ widely among societies within and between hemispheres.”

Alternatively then, we can look to epigenetic rules and the concept of prepared learning for support of global interaction design solutions. Turning again to Wilson:

“Primary epigenetic rules are the automatic processes that extend from the filtering and coding of stimuli in the sense organs all the way to perception of the stimuli by the brain. Secondary epigenetic rules are regularities in the integration of large amounts of information. Drawing from selected fragments of perception, memory, and emotional coloring, secondary epigenetic rules lead the mind to predisposed decisions…”

Prepared learning maintains, “Humans are innately prepared to learn certain behaviors, while being counter-prepared against others.” Prepared learning forms a subset of epigenetic rules that “comprise the full range of inherited regularities of development in anatomy, physiology, cognition, and behavior.”

Though these concepts imply universal consistencies between cognition and behavior, we may be guilty of reification (“the quick and easy mental algorithm that creates order in a world otherwise overwhelming in flux and detail”) if we give them too much merit as deterministic responses to common interface and information architecture paradigms.