Unique behaviors and cultural differences

Paul Blunden
6 min readJun 13, 2023

I recently interviewed some of my senior Design Research colleagues located around the world, to gain their perspective across a number of areas including customer centricity of the brands they work with and their respective markets. You can find the full interviews on our YouTube channel here. Given their wide geographic spread, one of the areas I wanted to explore was the unique market behaviors or cultural differences (and norms).

My interviews were with colleagues who spoke about Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, and United States. In fact, we have over 150 researchers covering more than 30 markets, and my intention is to conduct more interviews and broaden the insight further.

Why it’s important to understand your target market

What I have learned from over two decades of being involved in international design research, is that brands struggle to develop products for their non-core markets. They generally either significantly under or significantly over-estimate the allowance they need to make for cultural, market or language differences. This can lead them to invest more than they should in international product development or way too little and deliver products that are not well aligned with the target customer base.

I’d like to say from the outset this isn’t a “brands are bad” post. It is easy to forget that it was only 30-years ago (April-1993) that the internet was available to the public. And during that time, the range of devices that we use to access it has exploded. User-behaviors are similarly evolving faster than we can keep pace with. The first iPhone was 2007 so at the glacial pace that some corporations work to, this is all still very new.

Not only is it all new, but also the internet changed access to products and markets. Pre-internet, consumers didn’t really buy cross-border. These days they buy almost anything from almost anywhere. Even now, I regularly meet clients who have customers buying from them cross-border, in a different currency and language — Chinese fashion buyers from UK website for example.

So brands have a lot to contend with, and the turbulent economic and political environment isn’t helping. But with saving money remains a major driver for all organizations, if you are going to invest in your international product strategy, I think it worth understanding where you’ll get the best return.

Cultural norms

Before we get into some of the more nuanced observations, let’s deal with some “known-knowns”. These are things that crop up time and again in research and were echoed by my colleagues whether they were in the market or had completed research about the market. They are not trivial and brands ignore these at their peril.

Illustration of three people from different cultures holding boards with arrows pointing in different directions.

The first is that in Germany, people are very focused on their personal data. This goes way-beyond GDPR requirements and is not about the rules enforced upon them by governing bodies. As my colleague Nikos said, “in Germany the safety of personal data and transparency of transactions is actually really important [to the individual]”. Another colleague Giulia added “there’s this kind of awareness of what is happening to ‘my’ data”.

It is common when conducting research in Germany to observe participants reading the terms and conditions. Participants want to learn how their data will be used and what they are signing up to. This is very different to other markets, with Greece at the other end of the scale where “this is non-existent”.

Germans are also hard to excite. That is a particular problem if you are conducting multi-market research and using a scoring framework. You may have found that the scores in Germany are worse than for your other markets. That doesn’t necessarily mean your product doesn’t fit the German market, it is just the nature of the way they offer feedback. When conducting research in Germany my colleague Malte recommends “you have to be very proactive to get feedback”.

The British are more pragmatic than people from many other countries. London-based researcher Suzi told me, “They’re not a race that likes bureaucracy or that likes form filling. And I think the possible upshot of that is that when it comes to using digital services, I think they may be a pretty impatient”. Suzi described research situations in the UK where the designers were observing and found it “a bit crushing to see how quickly they go and find an easier way of doing it”.

Broader market behaviors

I was fortunate to interview researchers based in Turkey and Madrid who described total opposites in purchase behavior. In Spain I was told that compared to other markets, ecommerce has been slow to take off. My colleague Brian told me “There’s more resistance. Spain has mostly avoided urban sprawl, so you have cities that are walkable, and you have quite literally shops on every corner. There’s also a little bit more reticence to putting credit cards online, and not trusting that it will be delivered”.

In Turkey it is completely different. Ece, who is based in Istanbul told me that Turkish people “don’t want to go out and buy something. We want everything with a courier”.

But there are a lot of commonalities between European countries. Malte has found that the French and Spanish behave differently to the Dutch and Germans. He found they clustered even in areas as subtle as “the selection of colors”. Nikos has found commonalities between Portugal, Spain and Greece which together are different from UK, Netherlands and Germany, that together are also quite similar.

Further afield I discovered some interesting things about Brazil and Australia. Ana-Lucia from Sao-Paulo told me that in Brazil, brands need to think about WhatsApp as a channel. It has become so ingrained in the culture “they demand services so much that it became an important customer service channel for companies of all sizes”. We have seen this also in India, and it is similarly required whether large enterprises or SME’s.

In Australia, I spoke to my colleague Dan, who is originally from Minnesota, USA but has lived in Australia for more than a decade. Prior to that he lived in the UK for 6-years so he is very well positioned to compare the markets.

He told me that he found Australia to be typically a little bit slow to adopt things and was lagging behind in many areas as a result. But he went on to say that “with digital transformation, it’s actually been a blessing in disguise”. Because of a lack of legacy systems, Australia has been able to almost start from scratch. Dan gave the example of digital services from the government where they rolled out contactless payments relatively early. By comparison, when Dan returns to the US he said, “sometimes things feel really antiquated”.

That brings me neatly to North America and how Canada is viewed from the outside versus what it is like within. Other than accounting for French Canadians, my experience of talking to brands about research is that they typically group Canada with the US. But I learned from Ilona, that this is a mistake. “We have a really multicultural a society”, “everybody can be Canadian, and also keep their previous culture”. “We have people in Canada who never learn to speak any of the official languages”. She argues that is a huge opportunity for brands who can evaluate multiple languages and cultures in one place.

Lessons for brands

One of the most important lessons for brands is to find out when not to do research. As I mentioned earlier, in my experience brands sometimes spend money when they don’t need to. Establishing when the planned investment will be wasted is clearly going to reap immediate benefits. Perhaps also providing more funds for when research should be carried out.

Tapping into local knowledge is a good way of starting to understand how different your target market is from that which you are familiar with. Finding out who the local competitors are (local not global brands also operating in market) and gaining an understanding of how they implement similar features and functions is another great way to identify if there are market similarities or big differences.

If you decide to carry out research in your target market, make sure you understand the implications of what you are learning. As with the German example, it can be misleading to try and compare markets so make sure you know what cultural influences are at play. Both with the experience you are trying to deliver as well as when conducting research.



Paul Blunden

Paul is Founder and CEO of UX24/7 and has spent more than 20 years in UX and Design Research.