This document will discuss the issues surrounding the nature of interface design for Pan-European projects that encompasses all citizens, irrespective of cultural identity and diversity, and how to tailor such content for electronic delivery of information and services across all possible digital interfaces.

Intercultural Considerations

The complexity of the new and arising digital media that is recognised as a communication is only part of the identifiable problem. Adherence to cultural differences and individual identities as part of the design brief will form a crucial backdrop to content development. By taking a broad brush and discussing all possible future considerations as far as we are aware, ensures that foundations can be set in place that will provide for the longevity of the project to encompass and not alienate minority citizens.

The basis for embracing cultural diversity must stem from the basic Human Right, as Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states;

“Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

In other words, Internet Access to Community, Governmental (national and local) will become a fundamental right.

Post-war, immigrants from all nationalities travelling to and around Europe are now regarded as national citizens. Many now in their third generation of residence and patriation have been able to claim three major rights; Judicial/Political, Socio-Economic and Cultural/Religious. These citizens bring with them many new design challenges due to the complexity of their differing languages and writing conventions and sympathy to symbolism and colour usage for example. It is my personal view to embrace such smaller cultures and minority groups into the design process and not alienate them from the bigger picture.

Another identifiable target audience are those with disabilities. We acknowledge that many information sources do not cater for their special needs. Mouse navigation is the primary way of travelling around a website but not the only way and there are those who rely on voice navigation due to lack of full use of limbs. Visual impairments including colour blindness all have a bearing on interface design.

The third audience concern is the general mass population. Differing levels of technological familiarity will see different requirements for accessing the required information.

The core thought is to see adding access, not as a restrictive burden, but as an enhancement to everyone. By clearly identifying the target audiences now, (irrespective of their inclusion or timing in to the initial phased development) will ensure a re-branding is not required and the solution is truly scaleable. Our belief is that the most successful offering is one that embraces all citizens of the Community.

Possible Intercultural Considerations

  • Partially sighted and visually impaired
    Use of text rather than graphics for text-to-speech and earcons rather than icons (audible presentation of information like “modem hand shaking song”). 30% larger font size and sensitivity to colour usage.
  • Colour blindness
    Use of red, green, brown, green and purple and constructive use of Alt text for images. Having strong contrast between foreground and background colours. Use of texture shading rather than colours in charts and icons.
  • Foreign languages
    Scalability of words on a screen where German is 40% longer and Chinese is 90% deeper than the equivalent English translation.
  • Differing writing conventions
    Arabic cultures reading right-to-left as opposed to left-to-right and use of justified text or navigation systems fixed on the left.
  • Colour sensitivity
    Religious or superstitious use of certain colours and their significance in certain cultures, for example white meaning death to Chinese. “The future is bright, the future is Orange” in parts of Ireland.
  • Use of typography
    Typefaces that are difficult to read on screen for visually impaired users or altered using spacing or scaling that may hinder legibility.
  • Use of images and symbolism
    Providing alternative text descriptions for images and use of shapes and symbols that may have cultural significance.
  • Browser usage
    Awareness to other types of browser access beyond normal visual rendering such as text-to-speech or modified browsers not requiring heavy use of mouse movement.
  • Navigation simple vs technical
    Technological familiarity of using “click here for…” versus Boolean searches and drop down boxes for quick access to specific areas. Having multiple ways of accessing the same information to cope with people variants.
  • My site – personalisation
    Collecting information on user profile and serving the correctly adjusted content to the specified requirements of those viewing the content

Whether the results of investigations determine non-use of certain colours and styles for everyone or just for certain people groups will become clearer after further discussions at the development of the brief. It may be a combination of the both where coloured textures within bar charts for both colour blind and correctly sighted people, as well as using style sheets that can change content on-the-fly to automatically increase the font size 30% for partially sighted people, for example.

New Media Considerations

When discussing New Media design it is worth pointing out that we are dealing with a relatively new and developing technology; as such standards are fluid and open to change. In some cases they have not yet reached a format that is said to be the norm.

Web Access

The web has changed beyond all recognition over the past couple of years and, with new emerging standards and browser interfaces, will continue to do so. Streaming Shockwave, Real Audio/Video and QuickTime content for the multimedia experience are now considered standard web technologies and supplied with all new browser upgrades. The move towards more Dynamic content with DHTML and XHTML is upon us, though further development and enhancements are in the offing. This move facilitates a previously unimagined flexibility to allow animated content to be displayed, and to change colours, font sizes and layouts ‘on the fly’ with Cascading Style Sheets.

Faster and cleaner connections are now becoming apparent as well as the increased performance of faster computers being sold for multimedia web browsing. 56k modem access is now a norm. Monitor sizes are getting larger which allows more screen area in the design of web sites. 800 x 600 pixels is now considered minimum with a move towards the 1024 x 768 pixel screen. The depth of colours is also becoming more tolerant than the previous 216 palette but still not yet standard in all applications.

WAP Phones & PDA’s

Unlike the pages in HTML, WML has cards, which are put together in a stack. Because of the many restrictions such as display and memory of the mobile devices, a logical and purposeful display of the information is absolutely crucial. WAP services do not have to impress users with fancy graphics, but instead concentrate on information presented as simple and as effective as possible for the browser.

Today’s standard is a sub-VGA graphical display up to a text-only display with 5 lines of 32 characters. There is also a great difference between the WAP capable devices and at present standards are very loose. Because of bandwidth problems with a small narrowband device, a WAP deck should not be more than 3000 bytes and for pictures no more than 1500 bytes. Users of mobile phones tend to do more than one thing at a time so design of navigation should be fast and simple with few navigational tools.

Other considerations should be lack of keyboards so that menu options should not require much typing. Text should be short and relevant with self-explanatory words for navigation. Menu depth should be kept to a minimum with the most important information at the top level. Also an option to customise your WAP browsing search criteria via an alternative website so that connection times are kept to a minimum.

Internet Kiosks and Web Payphones

There are two types of kiosks available; the Internet-based Kiosk where information is located and maintained on an internet based server (where transactions are done by a touch screen and not confined to the standard type web browser); the Web Payphones where customers pay for minutes of high speed connection time to surf the web or check emails or news channels etc.

The primary design for kiosks is that the web site should be 100% touchable. It should be simple and intuitive and when touched should “do something”. Frames should not be considered unless permanent and do not require scrolling. Scrolling via kiosks can be problematic when contained within frames. Therefore long screens should be broken into 14 line segments and displayed on a set of sequenced screens. It should be a graphic rich interface and often no text hyperlinks. Buttons are often 3D and reactive. Fonts should be large and simple and colours bold. And after a couple of minutes of inactivity, the systems should default to an attractive animation loop.

There may also be a need for an external keyboard as well as the touch screen “keyboard”. This also will have bearings on how the user interfaces with the program. Forms, for example, could be point-and-click rather than require a lot of typing and entry.

Digital Television

Digital TV is still in its formative stages. Digital relates to the signal and not resolution of a television set. Many analogue TV’s (NTSC/PAL/SECAM) are still being used in conjunction with a Web TV box or a network computer (which is using the screen as web browser) and not engaging the viewer in full interactivity that Digital TV offers. Analogue TV also has a poorer resolution and cannot render full white or red correctly.

Web TV is still a concern for designers, and many solutions for the digital TV environment should be addressed in serving websites to be viewed on a traditional analogue TV screen as opposed to a computer monitor.

The primary concern for designing for digital TV is the screen space, which is very small. There is no scalability of resolution as there is in multi-sync computer monitors where they trade off brightness for more screen space. This is not an option for TV viewers who watch their sets in often brightly lit situations. Digital TV will be based around the 16:9 ratio as opposed to the 4:3 ratio of analogue TVs and use a screen area of 1280 x 720 pixels. However the viewing angle of a TV is one third of that of a monitor due to the fact that, with TV, people sit five times further away.

The secondary concern is that of passive viewing. In short people are watching TV. Therefore at all times the video and audio must be freely viewed and not overwritten with graphical content to the point of obscuring what they are watching. Interface graphics should provide a way to enhance their viewing by adding extra features and thereby keeping the viewer in the TV context.

Another concern is that viewers will not tolerate a lot of navigation. Content should be simple and concise and not require much scrolling. Input devices are generally around a remote control “pointer” and not even necessarily a keyboard, so input requirements should be set to a minimum.

The demographics of the viewing audience of TV users is also highly proportionate to people who are over 60 as opposed to 20-30 year old average web users. They are also fault intolerant. It better work first and every time! They are also sensitive to the amount of input required of them to perform a task.

Design considerations therefore should encompass using 3D graphics to differentiate between graphics and video, using transparent overlays, plain colours, large font size and contrasting colour combinations. Navigation and content should be simple and concise and not make demands upon the user to perform a task.


There are many other considerations that will need to be investigated when discussing a pan-European project. An example is the television standards of PAL and SECAM across the English Channel compared to the high end-user of the Minitel system in France. Obviously there are several issues relating to emerging standards of Broadband, which may be worth discussing, as well as looking into Tokyo’s NTT DoCoMo and the I-mode issues and how they may influence the changes to WAP technology in the west.

The need for XML to serve different interface design for differing users will become increasingly apparent. Interfacing this with for example, an Oracle back end would need further investigation. Suffice to say developing an interface via Oracle and XML can be done in conjuncion with technologies ranging from Perl to PHP.

In looking at the cultural variants of displaying scalable content due to language differences one of the more challenging aspects will be how to serve different amounts of content required for a website and Digital TV with the associated size reduction.


For further reference to these considerations, the following two consortia and their published articles are most helpful.

Information Society Forum

The Forum was established in 1995 to provide the opportunity for representatives of varying groups to contribute to the challenges within technology and their social aspects.

A particular document that is relevant would be the European Way for the Information Society” from 4th January 2000.

World Wide Web Consortium

The Consortium was set up in October 1994 to develop interoperable technologies (specifications, guidelines, software and tools) to lead the web into its full potential.

A particular document that is relevant would be Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0from 6th November 2000.

Note: This document originally appeared in 2001 – and yet to be updated.
Dean Donaldson.