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Designing Cross-Cultural Digital Experiences: 3 of 6

The field of chronemics is another branch of cultural anthropology that can be applied to digital communication. It relates to the way we structure and use time. Chronemics is frequently defined as the study of the role of time in communication. As I mentioned in an earlier post, notions of time play a significant role in the communication process. Time perception plays an important role in non-verbal communication as well as verbal communication. The use of time can affect lifestyle, relationships, attention spans, speed of speech and other behavior. These notions of time are learned experiences and vary across societies.

Chronemics divides the world into two primary camps in terms of their approach to and usage of time – monochronic and polychronic. Monochronic cultures tend to view time as discrete rather than continuous. In these cultures, time is organized into fixed, precise elements, often to be optimized for maximum efficiency. In this system, time is scheduled, arranged and managed. As a result, there are many known elements that comprise monochronic cultures. These include arriving on time, utilizing schedules, adhering to deadlines, doing one task at a time, valuing personal space and having ‘completion’ as the primary metric for success. Examples of monochronic cultures include the United States, Northern Europe and Israel. If you read my previous post, monochronic cultures also tend to be low context.

Polychronic cultures, by contrast, tend to view time as more continuous with no structure – almost circular in design. Polychronic cultures are much less inclined to be concerned with a precise accounting of every moment. As you might expect, this leads polychronic cultures to often have an almost 180-degree different approach to many behaviors than monochronic cultures. People in polychronic cultures are often ‘running late’ which is acceptable. In fact, more acceptable than arriving early! People in polychronic cultures tend to do multiple things at the same time, and are more natural multi-taskers than monochronic folks. Workers in polychronic cultures tend to not like having rigid schedules imposed upon them. They prefer to work as they see fit with limited structure, plans and schedules. 

Polychronic cultures tend to be more relationship focused than monochronic cultures. This leads to some frustrating experiences when monochronic folks participate in a polychronic culture. For example, in monochronic cultures, people queue up for service in public situations.  Severs take the next in line. In polychronic cultures, people are often served based upon their relationship to the server. Hence a ‘regular’ will get served before a patron unknown to the server, regardless of line placement. In fact, there are often not queues in some polychronic situations as everyone is just trying to get their face in front of the server with the expectation that will get them served accordingly.

Another aspect of polychronic culture is that progress, rather than completion, is the metric for success. In a world where time is fluid, completion takes on a whole new meaning. Why would someone ‘complete’ the roof of their house if they have kids who might need a place to live in the future? Better to leave some rebar and bricks on an unfinished roof just in case….  Examples of polychronic cultures include most of Spanish speaking Latin American, much of the Muslim world, China and many countries in Asia. Additionally, most polychronic cultures are also high context cultures. The table below illustrates many of the differences between monochronic and polychronic cultures.

So what might all of this mean when applied to digital communication? Well, first off, it appears that people from monochronic cultures have less time to spare and need to get to the point quickly. That would lead to digital communications that are extremely organized, direct, and perhaps at times a bit sparse to ensure the audience consumes a specific, but likely limited message. Designers should assume that website users have limited time and need to find what they are looking for quickly, so designs need to be every intuitive and content easy to find. Content should focus on benefits for the individual user and the ease of doing business, or ‘making a deal’ with the content provider.

Sites geared towards a polychronic audience, by contrast, should offer a greater depth and breadth of content. The assumption should be that users have more time to explore the site and content and begin building a relationship with your firm or brand. Content should focus on wider benefits and be geared towards relationship building. Busier designs with a wider array of content will keep users in the polychronic world engaged. Additionally, users are likely to expect more frequent content updates on a polychronic-audience-geared site as users are less likely to expect to ever see a ‘completed’ website.

The logical question now is: who is doing this, and doing it well?  In my last post I documented that Nestle had done a good job of altering their core content management system (CMS) driven templates to accommodate the differences between high and low context cultures. Well, it turns out they have also done a good job in altering their website for both monochronic and polychronic cultures. The screen grab below is the current home page for Nestlé’s United States home page.

This home page reveals a very monochronic (and also low context) communication approach. The home page design relies primary on a five-panel hero carousel to communicate key content to users. Most of the rest of the home page is a large footer area that makes it very easy to link to or access specific website pages and content. There is very little to actually ‘explore’ on the homepage. Other than a press release section, this home page is clearly designed for a quick read and easy access to specific secondary content.

Of those five carousel panels, only panel one features imagery of people, and then, they are mostly solo images. The rest of the imagery is somewhat technical in nature and the language speaks to individuals. In fact, the third panel (featured below) even states, “How an American Strawberry goes from the farm to YOUR ice cream.”

Nestlé’s China website home page (shown below), by contrast, is clearly geared towards a different audience type – a polychronic and high-context one. In the screen grab below, we see a website with significantly more content zones than the US site. Beneath the hero carousel and above the large footer area of the template, we see nine different content blocks, in a colorful array with imagery appropriate to a polychronic culture.

The hero image carousel has four out of five panels featuring imagery of people, and all in groups – no solo shots. The panels are colorful, lively and have a somewhat ‘busy’ looking design. They are intended to draw the reader in to better engage with the site. Several images are clearly meant to show value to team work and group participation. There are awards that seemingly are meant to show the positive relationship between Nestle and China (panel 5 shown below). Even the technical content has a human face to it, as panel two (shown below) indicates.

Then, beneath the hero carousel, we see two rows of additional content blocks not displayed on the US website home page (shown below). Notice that six of nine blocks show imagery of people in groups, and the one solo shot is of an officially recognized minority woman, showing awareness and sensitivity to Chinese culture. These blocks discuss society, health and likely employment. These blocks are clearly designed to draw in the user and get them to spend more time interacting with the website – to begin building a relationship with the Nestle brand. An approach we would expect from a website geared towards a polychronic (and high context) audience.

Relationships are also clearly featured in these additional content blocks shown above. We see a family picnicking, a team united, employees working together and a mother bonding with her baby. Only one image is technical in nature. The overall design of this homepage is seemingly meant to have the viewer move from one content block to another with a series of brightly colored, busy and some might say a bit distracting series of images, verbiage and calls to action. 

Even the news and articles are presented in a more engaging way than on the China site (top right hand block above) revealing more verbiage to draw in the user than in the US. The goal of this site is clearly meant to build relationships and show Nestle as a good corporate citizen. This is a site for someone with some time to explore and lots of content to engage the user. This is a very stark contrast to the calm and comparatively bland US homepage design.

These two sites are good examples of leveraging the concepts of Chronemics for improving and optimizing the digital experience for culturally diverse audiences. These examples show again how a content management system, with a template driven design, can be leveraged and optimized for both monochronic and polychronic based websites. They also do a good job handling the high versus low context cultural issue as well.

By now hopefully you can see how these concepts from cultural anthropology are clearly relevant and useful in the area of digital communication. They are also additive, in that they support and often build on each other to build increasingly unique and appropriate communication models and structures for varying cultures while maintaining a standardized infrastructure and CMS-based platform. In my next post, I will incorporate time orientation into these models to further illustrate how another concept from cultural anthropology can further improve cross cultural digital communication and yield positive results for marketers, brands and organizations.