RGI Action Research: Culturally Responsive Design

We recently supported a client with the deployment of interactive training centers in China, Japan, Singapore, and India. From the beginning, our primary goal was to establish a strong and consistent brand experience across these culturally distinct locations. We knew that there would be tremendous value in conducting an ethnographic inquiry into the values, sensibilities, and expectations of the people who would actually utilize the training centers, and align them with the brand.

Our research question, and the driving force behind our design process, ultimately became: Can culturally responsive spaces positively position a brand or product, and is it possible to communicate a consistent brand message globally while adjusting for cultural responsiveness locally?


Preliminary Findings

Literature review on workplace culture in the respective locations informed the preliminary design. It also produced insights into the environmental expectations held by members of our client’s target age group, Generation Y. Most significantly, Steelcase’s finding suggested that, “When you involve users in the process of planning the workplace, you get a more culturally appropriate work environment as well as earlier and deeper buy-in from everyone.”


Action Research Methodology

In response to this evidence, we utilized an action research model. Action research is a collaborative process that works hand-in-hand with design thinking and works well on a tight deadline. Essentially, it enables the inquirer to identify problems and develop solutions throughout the research process. In-person interviews and an on-going phone interview schedule connected the design team with future occupants and culture representatives in each location, enabling the team to apply occupant insights to design development in real time.


What We Learned

Early on in the conceptual phase, we identified an opportunity to make the space more welcoming through the inclusion of design elements from the natural world. We presented the concept to the interviewees, which showed the inclusion of nature features in the training center graphics package (e.g. images from Yuyuan Garden) and opened a discussion around the imagery. We learned that from our Western perceptive, nature imagery would soften the space in a way that would be welcoming. From a Chinese perspective, nature imagery in the space would cause the host (our client) to appear soft.

As the discussion advanced, it became clear that the Chinese values of strength and leadership aligned with the brand values, and that the graphics would be more culturally responsive if they represented those shared ideals.

Through this process we were able to align local and global values to bring our client closer to customers. Evaluation data collected at the end of the training program suggested a client-centered experience consistently across locations. 

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