Issue 28, 2015-04-15

Recognizing Cultural Diversity in Library Interface Development

The rapid increase in complex library digital infrastructures has enabled a more full-featured set of resources to become accessible by autonomous users, whether onsite or remote. However, this trend also necessitates careful consideration of the usability of new interfaces for populations with increasing cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic diversity. Researcher Aron Marcus has become an authority on how cultural principles affect interface perceptions and inform their development. This article will explore Marcus’ work to contextualize diversity issues within usability before exploring the redevelopment strategy for the New York University Libraries’ web presence, which serves a broad and global set of users.

by Nik Dragovic

With the increasing predominance of remote and digital access to academic library resources, the design of user interfaces and online access is a correspondingly more visible concern. Highly networked online environments draw a more varied audience to these web resources. The Division of Libraries at New York University (NYU) is responsible for serving a diverse group of students, faculty, staff, and other stakeholders at multiple global sites. Accordingly, the usability of online resources for the wide range of users and uses in this complex organization has become a point in focus. This article will discuss the ways in which current initiatives seek to enhance wayfinding for information seekers across academic discipline, university role, and cultural background. Conceptual frameworks in universal access will frame the discussion of user needs in the context of the user community and institutional strategies and methodologies.

A growing corpus of research exploring the influence of cultural background on user experience (UX) has emerged in the past two decades, much of which can inform the efforts currently underway at NYU. One of the major frameworks applied to this topic is that of Aron Marcus. Marcus’ thinking on cross-cultural UX design is predicated on five dimensions of culture proposed by cultural anthropologist Geert Hofstede.

  • Power-distance – the extent to which less powerful members expect and accept unequal power distribution within a culture
  • Collectivism vs. individualism – Strong group cohesion and mutual dependence versus loose social ties
  • Femininity vs. masculinity – traditional gender roles linked to domesticity versus competition and toughness
  • Uncertainty avoidance – the degree to which a culture tolerates ambiguity and resulting anxiety, expressed in varying rituals and customs
  • Long- vs. short-term orientation – Confucian-inspired dedication to the search for virtuous behavior versus the Western belief in, and search for, truth (Marcus and Gould, 2012)

Marcus has examined the ways in which these considerations affect digital interface expectations, preferences, and interactions for users in varied cultural contexts, where culture is defined as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices…” (Marcus and Baumgartner, 2004). His framework has in part been derived from contrasting the interfaces of multinational company websites and university websites. Resulting implications tied to the five dimensions extend to content, visual design, navigation, and all other elements of digital interfaces, and manifest in ways that range from strikingly clear to incredibly subtle (Marcus and Gould, 2012).

Working under Marcus, Valentina-Johanna Baumgartner derived 29 detailed dimensions of culture from the work of nine theorists (including Hofstede) and surveyed 57 multinational user interface designers and analysts to rank the importance of the various dimensions within the professional community. Many respondents found the context of the user interface to be a major influence on which elements were most essential (Marcus and Baumgartner, 2004). Respondents also asserted that the degree of compliance with the dimensions of culture is a matter of resources, since the cost of development and testing of localization features for culturally responsive interfaces is high even when only a few elements are undertaken (Marcus and Baumgartner, 2004). In the academic library environment, the question raised is how the relatively new implementation of dedicated user experience staff can accommodate these challenges and provide equitable access to resources for each of its users. For digital interfaces in particular, user diversity can be difficult to identify or even perceive. NYU is approaching this challenge with a variety of user research methods enacted through project work by dedicated UX staff as well as newly-established interdepartmental committees.

Contextualizing the Information Needs of the Global Network University

Accommodating the diverse backgrounds and information tasks of users is a complex endeavor which the Division of Libraries at New York University (NYU) is currently addressing. As one of the largest private universities in the United States, the school has a remarkably diverse population of students, faculty, and staff, in addition to a growing international presence. A 2014 report by the Institute of International Education found that NYU enrolled the highest number of international students of any postsecondary institution in the nation (IIE, 2014). The school claims 90 countries of origin for its New York student population, and 77 for its group of international faculty and research scholars. In addition to 11 Global Academic Centers that are analogous to traditional study abroad sites, the University has also established two Global Campuses that exist as autonomous degree-granting sites and recruit students worldwide for a US education. The Abu Dhabi campus, established in 2008, currently hosts students from over 100 distinct countries and claims 98 languages are spoken onsite. NYU Shanghai, established in 2012, hosts students from 49 countries. Furthermore, the range of services extends to the general public as well. Considering the robust set of archives and special collections in New York and abroad, as well as mandates to provide access to documents deposited from the US federal government as well as the United Nations, the school must also consider independent researchers in its efforts to improve interfaces for access and discovery. With one website currently in place to provide online access to the catalog and electronic resources of the shared library system, there exists a prominent need to provide an experience sensitive to this culturally and geographically diverse user base.

Index Scores for Hofstede’s Five Dimensions of Culture at NYU’s Global Campuses (Marcus and Gould, 2012)
Power Distance Individualism/Collectivism Masculinity/ Femininity Uncertainty Avoidance Long/Short Term Time Orientation
China 80 20 66 40 118
United Arab Emirates 80 38 52 68
United States 40 91 62 46 29

The chart above lists the index scores of Hofstede’s Five Dimensions of Culture for the countries in which each of NYU’s degree-granting campuses are situated. Though these figures are not fully representative of respective student populations, since each campus draws a widely international audience, the dramatic range in these measurements illustrates a point of contention for interface design. Focusing on power distance, in which a higher index suggests rigid hierarchical relationships in a society and a lower number indicates more equality and status, has a corollary to library services at NYU. Students coming to the University from high power distance countries are often challenged to acclimate to an American educational environment that is more democratic and participatory than their places of origin. To support this transition, programs are offered in library services to help explain the differences in both information retrieval and academic culture germane to an institution that operates on an American model despite a global presence. This highlights a conflict for interface design as well: should the web presence defer to the understandings of the user, or seek to support them in a transition to an environment with a different value system? Having identified user-centered practices as a foundational design principle, NYU’s objective will be to achieve the former.

Strategizing the Development of Our Online Research Hub

NYU Libraries’ last major website redesign occurred in 2008. While the staff has continued to incorporate new back-end technologies to improve access to online reference, electronic resources, and surrogate records, the need to revise the user interface, which brings together a wide variety of discoverability engines and content platforms, is acknowledged. In accordance with the current strategic plan, which names user experience as a focus area, the Libraries have originated an eponymous department for that purpose. The confluence of these factors, in addition to the growing global audience for the web platform, has presented an interesting set of challenges to strategize around. With hundreds of full-time library staff members as stakeholders in addition to the broader university community, a Web Presence Group, consisting of members from multiple library departments, was convened. This committee is led by the Head of User Experience and ensures that representatives from these separate divisions share their perspectives and advocate for their staff and users. While directly addressing diversity as defined by professional roles, this structure also includes permanent representation for staff of global sites and a Global Services Librarian. These geographically defined roles, by extension, implicate culture. This team-based approach to the development and maintenance of the library site is one of the first implicit strategies for addressing cultural diversity. With more equitable representation of different stakeholders by committee members, those more intimately familiar with the needs of those from different backgrounds have a direct voice in the strategy and implementation of new web elements. The approach is enhanced with a dedication to regular communication within the group and to outside stakeholders. The group often meets face-to-face, with synchronous virtual participation from members overseas. Communication is supplemented with institutional Google Apps including Gmail and Drive, as well as the Libraries’ shared wiki and workspace. The group itself is divided into subsections with specific responsibilities such as user testing, which helps direct the workload and leverage the expedience of smaller teams. This more egalitarian form of web development is augmented by liaison work by the committee in the form of periodic updates and outreach to explain progress and solicit feedback. Monthly emails charting group progress are distributed to the entire library staff, and the group also visits library departments to share goals and obtain needs and feedback from constituents. Some of the essential service developments currently planned or underway include updates to research guide platforms and the testing and selection of a new site-wide content management system, both subordinate to the overall reimagining of the Libraries’ web presence.

Harnessing the Power of Agile Scrum

The first strategic goal emerging from this group was the re-envisioning of the library web presence, to be interpreted as a re-engineered information architecture, user interface, and digital strategy. The last of these elements represents a particular departure from prior conceptualizations of how to manage the website. The recognition of complex and multifaceted user needs and the advent of agile development methodologies meant that web initiatives need no longer be confined by monolithic, complete redesigns. Instead, iterative processes mean that specific elements of the platform can be taken under consideration as the need arises, then swiftly developed and tested. This has enabled the popular Scrum methodology to be newly applied to this academic environment, functioning as a way to expedite work within the user experience department and enact the findings of the web presence group. Several new functions have already been deployed under this workflow, and assessment has shown that even minor tweaks have paid dividends in the usability of the site. The broader implications of harnessing this responsive framework and resulting ability to reformulate elements of the user interface with ease draw back to practical concerns in Marcus’ work. Even resource-heavy corporations struggle with the cost and complexity of directly addressing the cultural dimensions and framing of their user interface. Agile development enables incremental changes to be tested and adopted quickly, meeting these needs with an indirect and less resource-intensive approach.

The Deployment of Global and Local Experiences

The other main thrust of the new digital strategy is that of localization. A new conceptual model is in the pipeline to implementation, in which users will be able to customize the library site to their given location for easier access to relevant information. The prior web redesign centered on the Bobst Library, while current initiatives must strive to incorporate the rapidly complexifying library ecosystem growing in tandem with global sites and initiatives. The Libraries Strategic Plan 2013-2017 makes specific reference to “a user experience that is high quality, consistent, and robust regardless of the user’s location, access method, or objective,” and the first initiative subsumed under this goal targets “sensitivity to its global context.” Marcus’ work goes into depth about the consequences of localization of interface for users, namely that such efforts can help accommodate a more geographically and culturally diverse audience by customizing the experience with respect to relevant interface elements. The practical adoption at NYU will involve the user’s selection of their local or global site in order to streamline their interface. Providing information customized to the user and their intended use of physical sites will reduce the complexity of the current site, which must dictate policy and procedure for many user types and institutional sites within one space. This has been a challenge for users, as demonstrated by user testing.

The aforementioned agile development plays a significant role in enabling these customized experiences tailored to users with different locations, motivations, and cognitive needs. The fragmenting of different user flows into global and local contexts and the iterative design process set the foundation for a more holistic development process that accommodates cultural diversity in addition to a host of other priorities in one workflow. Instead of attempting to meet the needs and contexts of all users with a single interface, variable user approaches can now be divided into more cohesive and workable sections. Given this structure, user testing can be tied to a more specific site function, and findings can be more seamlessly implemented under an agile methodology. With the conceptual framework in place for this initiative, the choice of infrastructure is now being made. Testing is now underway for a content management system that most effectively meets the needs identified to make global and local site experiences function as envisioned.

The Value of a User-Centered Design Process

In turn, this reinvigorates the commitment to a user-centered process. With a user experience department now available to perform the labor-intensive research this entails, the library now employs several methods to glean insight into the development of improved interfaces and workflows for users. One of the earliest initiatives involved personas, which are commonly defined as generalized personifications of user data that emerge from user research. These are typically assigned fictitious names and images in order to provide a concrete framework to contextualize and speculate on user behavior. In the case of NYU, personas originally emerged from careful study and coding of virtual user reference transactions occurring over a chat service. (Tempelman-Kluit & Pearce, 2014) After a qualitative interpretation of the data, investigators were able to identify information needs and motivations, which acted as a springboard for the development of four evidence-based personas, as suggested by the research outputs. With the increasing need to incorporate global workflows into these resources, two global personas were also developed, which focus on the Abu Dhabi and Shanghai sites. The user experience department developed these with attention to the differing library policies and services that apply to users at these sites, since resource sharing among the libraries has resulted in complex request and delivery mechanisms that are generally managed through user interaction with the web interface. All six personas are now commonly employed in interface development projects.

User stories provide another tool for development with diverse users in mind. Based on personas, the stories address a particular information need and compel the researcher to remain cognizant of the user perspective throughout the complex process of walking through an information seeking task through a third party perspective. A number of these guiding narratives have been created to help add a practical perspective on how best to address user needs, from basic access to resources and services, to more complex engagements requiring work across platforms.

Direct work with real users is generally the most resource-intensive but rewarding form of user research, and this is currently underway. Focus groups are being conducted with students and staff on a voluntary basis, and the scope includes diverse users and perspectives from international centers. User testing, in which users are observed during the course of performing interface interactions, has also become a staple in the user-centered environment. By embracing fast and flexible agile development principles at the core of the website, usability testing can be more effectively deployed for a broader swath of users, and its results can be more easily implemented for incremental but telling improvements in user experience. Guerrilla testing, which in this context means open recruitment of study participants from central library locations, has been deployed to useful effect. By meeting the user in physical library space as well as collecting online data to drive UX research, the Libraries are making a concerted effort to gain the perspectives from across the community to represent modes of access to information and the approaches taken by those of different academic disciplines and cognitive frameworks.


Overall, new approaches to website design and feature implementation at NYU Libraries put the focus more squarely on the needs of the user. Though dedicated user experience initiatives are still in their infancy at academic libraries, progress so far has already paid dividends by improving the experience for a diverse pool of constituents, and more sophisticated means of assessment will help demonstrate the value of such efforts. Though development of a renewed web presence is still in the early stages at the institution, the charted path shows promise for the kind of all-embracing development advocated by leading researchers in the cross-cultural user experience realm. As a distinctly American university operating in many different cultural contexts, the ultimate iterations of the NYU Libraries web presence are as yet to be determined.


The members of the Web Presence Group at NYU are Katherine Boss, Zachary Coble, Michael Haag, Laura Henze, Gerald Heverly, Sarah Jones, Jessica McGivney, Dan Perkins, Raymond Pun, Charlotte Priddle, Andrew Rarig, Beth Russell, Nadaleen Tempelman-Kluit, and Kara Whatley.


Institute of International Education (IIE). 2014. Open doors report on international educational exchange. Available from

New York University Division of Libraries. Strategic Plan 2013-2017: Mapping the Library for the Global Network University. Available from

Marcus A, Baumgartner VJ. 2004. A practical set of cultural dimensions for global user interface development. In: Masoodian M, Jones S, Rogers B, editors. Proceedings of the Computer Human Interaction: 6th Asia Pacific Conference, APCHI 2004; 2004 June 29-July 2; Rotorua. Berlin (DE): Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg. p. 252-261.

Marcus A, Gould EW. 2012. Globalization, localization, and cross-cultural user-interface design. In: Jacko JA, editor. The human-computer interaction handbook. 3rd ed. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press. p. 341-366.

Tempelman-Kluit, N, Pearce A. 2014. Invoking the User from Data to Design. College & Research Libraries 75(3):616-640.

About the Author

Nik Dragovic is a Collections Assistant at New York University and Reference Librarian at St. Francis College. He was recently granted a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Pratt Institute, and his continuing research interests include usability, digital projects, and diversity in the library profession.

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ISSN 1940-5758