Cultura: Achieving intercultural empathy through contextual user research in design

Chen Hao

Research output: ThesisDissertation (TU Delft)

280 Downloads (Pure)


In today’s globalizing world an increasing number of companies design products and services for overseas markets and users. Designers face the challenge of creating solutions that fulfil users’ needs, and this becomes more important as the cultural distance between them continues to grow. Unsuccessful international endeavours which resulted in market disasters have already been noted. For example, the Italian fashion company Dolce & Gabana recently made an advertisement that featured a Chinese model struggling to eat ‘the great traditional Margherita Pizza‘, by using ‘this kind of small stick-shaped tableware’- chopsticks, and many Chinese customers took cultural offense at being depicted in the caricature (Ng, Lam & Jane, 2018). As can be imagined, if designers do not carefully consider the local cultural context for which they hope to create designs, their solutions are likely to be mismatched, or perhaps even harmful to their users. To avoid such situations, rich stories about everyday experiences, shared by users, are valuable resources to help designers to develop empathic understanding of users. Contextual user research, using generative techniques, has been demonstrated to be an effective way of collecting insightful user stories and communicating them to designers in order to create meaningful solutions, and has become a recognizable part of design practice. However, most of the reported work has been with users and designers with a shared a cultural background, so that empathic understanding can be built on a tacit shared cultural basis. When conducting contextual studies with a cross cultural dimension, we found the problem to be twofold: first, these tools and techniques, when employed in user research, sometimes failed to facilitate social interactions or bring out expressions of users, due to mismatches with cultural inclinations. Second, designers found it difficult to empathise with the individual aspects of user insights (such as quotes and anecdotes) from a culture they had little experience with. This thesis focuses on conducting contextual user research in a cross-cultural setting. It investigates ways of supporting users in telling rich and relevant stories, and designers in building empathic understanding (the design goal of this thesis). By investigating the issues mentioned above – a framework will be proposed, various tools and techniques to support users and designers will be created. A new and rewarding process for conducting intercultural contextual user research, called Cultura, will be developed at the end of the research..
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Delft University of Technology
  • Stappers, P.J., Supervisor
  • van Boeijen, A.G.C., Advisor
Award date17 Sep 2019
Print ISBNs9789402816600
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Design tools and techniques
  • Cultura
  • Contextual user research
  • Intercultural empathy


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