Designing an Arabic User Experience – Part 1: What, Why and How

The first article in our 3-part series on designing an Arabic user experience and the unique UX & usability considerations that come with it.

Arab users are online.

By 2018, internet penetration is predicted to jump from 37.5% in 2014 to over 55% in 2018 (1).

The number of internet users in the region is projected to reach close to 226 million.

Yet, despite the fact that 60% of Arabic speakers prefer browsing content in Arabic (this number jumps to 97% when you look at Saudi Arabia and Egypt alone, the two largest countries in the region)(2), the rapid rate of online adoption hasn’t been matched by a similar increase in Arabic websites and content.

Regardless of the type of organisation or industry you’re in, if your target audience are in the Middle East, you need to be online and speaking their language.

Growing competition, tech savvy populations and increasingly affordable access to the digital world means Arab users expect, rather than hope, to be able to find you in the digital world.

But it isn’t enough to just have a presence on the web.

Online success requires that you design for good user experience. And when you’re designing specifically for Arabic websites and Arab users, you need to apply UX and usability considerations that are specific to users in the region.

Why does having a good user experience matter?

Because it matters to your users.

If your product doesn’t provide users with a positive experience, they won’t use it.

The user experience is what shapes your organisation’s perception in your customer’s mind. It’s what makes them come back to use your website or app the all important second time.

Users are fickle. If they have a bad experience, they won’t come back.

Good UX is the difference between a casual visitor and a paying customer. It leads to increased satisfaction, which leads to increased credibility and trust. And in a region that’s still fairly new to digital, trust can make or break your online success.

Good UX is also what sets you apart from your competition. When users have an average experience with you, but a better one with the competition, they’ll go to your competition.

The bottom line is, good UX directly affects the bottom line. Investing in designing for user experience increases sales and reduces costs.

How do we design an Arabic user experience?

First off, let’s be clear. There is no single, monolithic ‘Arabic UX’.

While we’re using it as a catch-all phrase to summarise some of the unique characteristics of the experience users have with Arabic websites or apps, it’s important you don’t think of it as a separate process or that all Arab users behave the same.

Designing a good user experience is the same approach everywhere. It requires implementing a user-centered design process where the end user is at the center of every decision that is made. It requires understanding who your users are as well as their needs, goals and motivations using your products.

So when we talk about designing an Arabic UX, we’re really talking about designing a specific experience, in Arabic, for a specific type of user, using a specific type of product, for a specific reason.

The user-centered design process stays the same.

That said, there are certain characteristics and trends unique to Arabic web sites and digital products that need to be taken into account. This is on top of behavior unique to users from the region within the demographic you’re targeting.

Differences in mental models

A central tenant of UX design is designing for behavior. We make design decisions based on what users actually do, not what they say they do or what we think they do.

Through scientific HCI and user research, a body of design ‘best practices’ has developed. And many of these best practices rely on established mental models most users have formed.

A mental model is a “model of what users know (or think they know) about a system such as your website … [users] base their predictions about the system on their mental models and thus plan their future actions based on how that model predicts the appropriate course.” (Mental Models, NNg)

Users create mental models based on their past experiences and interactions with other websites, apps and software. If we accept that users spend most of their time using other products (Jakob’s Law, NNg), by the time they arrive at your site or use your app, they’ll expect it to work in the same way as other ones they’ve used.

The most established examples include things like users expecting global navigation to be located at the top of the page, links to be in blue and underlined, and a site’s logo to link back to the home page.

Because internet penetration and online activity started and took off in the West, many of the web design standards we’re used to are based on mental models that were developed with Western websites, software and apps (remember, we’re not just talking about sites but also popular software, such as Microsoft Office).

There is sometimes a tendency to assume that these mental models carry over smoothly to users in other parts of the world. While that may be true for many examples like the ones mentioned above, it’s not always the case.

Users in Arab countries don’t always interact with digital products in the same way as their Western counterparts. This can be because of different exposure and availability of technologies; different restrictions or capabilities or even just different motivations and goals.

The point is you need to take care with the assumptions you make about the mental models that users in the Arab world have.

A question of culture

Just as important as understanding differences in mental models exhibited by Arab users is understanding differences in culture between users in Arabic speaking countries and those in the West.

Culture is defined as the collection of shared patterns of behavior of a particular group of people. It can be characterized by everything from language, religion to different social habits and even the food they eat.

The value differences between societies that come about as a result of culture often play a role in differences in behavior.

While neither the West nor the Middle East can be considered monolithic cultures, there are enough significant differences to make considering these cultural influences a good starting point when designing digital products.

We should point out that we’re not saying you can always draw direct insights about what makes a usable design just from understanding a culture.

It’s more that cultural observations can help guide you in the right direction and, at the very least, make sure you don’t make the kind of mistakes that put your users off instantly.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to knowing your users

While academic theories about culture and established standards of web design and usability are a good starting point for designing for Arab users, the only way to really create usable products that deliver a great user experience is through user research with real users on the ground.

The biggest mistake designers make is designing for themselves or designing based on what they think users do.

In the next article of this 3-part series, we’ll take a look at some of the practical usability issues that arise when designing Arabic interfaces. We’ll then wrap up our series with insights from our own experiences carrying out user research with local users right here in Saudi Arabia.

At UXBERT we’re passionate about helping to build a user-centered design culture right here at home and the more people we can get talking about it, the better.

So if you’ve got any thoughts or experiences of your own regarding designing and building products for Arab users, make sure to let us know in the comments below.

Points of Note:

  • Rapid rate of internet penetration with Arab users hasn’t been met with similar increase in Arabic websites and content
  • A good user experience is a competitive necessity if you want your product to stand out from the crowd
  • There is no single monolithic “Arabic UX” – instead, we need to apply the same user-centered design process, starting with understanding exactly who your users are
  • Most accepted best-practices for web design are based on mental models of users in the West. Not all of those mental models translate directly to users in the Arab world
  • Culture plays an influential role in shaping behaviors and attitudes with regards to digital products
  • Even with established best practices and standards, the best way to create usable products is by researching your “real” users

Other Articles in the ‘Designing an Arabic User Experience’ Series:

Part 2: Usability & Arabic User Interfaces

Part 3: Usability Testing in Saudi Arabia

 

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