Multimedia Education Group - University of Cape Town
Cultures and Literacies: South African students and
Western Visual design on the World Wide Web
Multimedia Education Group University of Cape
New York University
New York, NY
world wide web
How do user cultures and literacies affect the interpretation of Western
visual design on the World Wide Web? The rules of Western visual design (as
classified by Kress and van Leeuwen 1996) have become generally accepted as
the industry rules of thumb for both usability and aesthetic appeal on the
World Wide Web (see Nielsen 2000, Spool et al, Siegel 1996). The conventions
of Western visual design are widely used to signify information structure
and hierarchy and to facilitate navigation - following Kress, this could be
termed a "grammar of web design". On the affective level, the somewhat less
culturally specific conventions of visual language (as identified by Bonnici
1999) are widely used to create user identification with an increasingly
Following Kress and Bonnici, this study codifies a grammar of Western web
design language, and report the responses of novice users from culturally
diverse backgrounds to a selection of key design conventions. Following the
approach of the New Literacy Studies, it is to be expected that users with
well-developed literacies in Western visual design will be advantaged and
consequently more successful in their transition to the web as medium. The
consequences of this lack of fit between web designs and the majority of
South African users' prior literacies is likely to have significant
implications in both the educational and general media contexts
Culture and web access in South Africa
Current understandings of South African web users and web user demographics
point to the vital importance of user identity in understanding web use. In
addition to user income, gender, age, race, and language have played
significant roles in limiting access to the web (Webcheck SA Web User
studies, MediaAfrica studies). Broadly speaking, addressing 'cultural'
issues will be crucial in extending real access to the web in South Africa
(rather than simply supplying infrastructure). Unfortunately, however, the
drive to broaden web access has focused primarily on the provision of
infrastructure in South Africa. This study focuses on novice web users, who
constitute 30% of the first year student intake in the Humanities at the
University of Cape Town.
Impoverished presentation values and the difficulties of establishing
The international web usability literature is not extremely helpful in
suggesting strategies to deal with this future demographic shift, neither is
the South African web industry adequately prepared for this challenge. Given
current demographics, the web industry has, of all South African media, been
least concerned with catering for a culturally diverse audience. Despite
accusations of racism, the South African media have, over the past decade,
become more diverse themselves, and more skilled at speaking to a broader
South African audience than they were in the apartheid era. Many of the
strategies that have been learned, are not, however, transferable to the
web. The web, to use Marshall McLuhan's terminology, is a 'hot' medium,
characterised by high interactivity. Consequently it requires a specialised
set of literacies which are not entirely transferable from broadcast or
print media. On the web, user engagement and involvement are governed by
very different factors.
In traditional media, presentation values have reigned supreme, and they play
a crucial role in manufacturing engagement and credibility. On the web,
however, the gratuitous use of rich media in a bandwidth-starved environment
has been a fundamental design flaw. On the other hand, without the full
power of image and sound, the media are deprived of the rich vocabulary they
have developed to convey culturally-inflected messages. On the web, new
vocabularies and new repertoires of communicative strategies need to be
developed which do not rely in the same way on rich media. This question has
not yet been studied to any significant degree, but it will be a crucial
determining factor in the uptake of the web in South Africa.
Prior knowledge, literacies, site navigation and searching
The major usability problem on the web relates to the characteristic
hypertextual disorientation of being 'lost in hyperspace' (first described
by Conklin,1987). Surprisingly large numbers of users cannot successfully
navigate sites or conduct fruitful searches. These users struggle to
construct coherence when interpreting both the text and navigational
conventions of a site. Sites are often poorly designed, and do not provide
adequate feedback, interaction or collaboration in the user's search for
meaning. Primarily, however, sites do not acknowledge the key role of
various literacies in determining the success of their users. When sites are
targeted at a broad spectrum of users, culturally and linguistically
speaking, this problem is intensified.
The active construction of coherence is vital to successful navigation of the
web. A user's construction of coherence depends on the existence of a
crucial set of well-developed prior knowledges. Users only experience web
sites as intuitively navigable when there is a close match between their
prior knowledge and that assumed by the designer of the site. The range of
literacies involved include but are not limited to:
Knowledge of formal written registers of language (primarily
Experience in interpreting Western visual design and visual
language (Bonnici 1999, Kress and van Leeuwen 1996),
Knowledge of web and GUI (Graphical User Interface)
Recent tendencies in the study of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) have
illustrated the limited value of laboratory studies based on a narrow
cognitive science approach. This study will draw on new paradigms of
research in HCI, which acknowledge that human activity is situated in both a
cultural and physical context. The insights of activity theory, in
particular, will form the major theoretical grounding of the study. In
approaches influenced by activity theory, the focus shifts from a narrow
view of humans interacting with computers, to a broader interest in human
activity, as mediated by computers (e.g. Nardi 1996).
In line with the activity theory approach, field studies have been conducted
to observe the web behaviour of 40 first year students.
Once they are given access to the internet, people still need the capacity to
know what information they want or need, where to find it, and then what to
do with it. So far, the South African web industry has ignored this issue.
Without a clearer understanding of how to engage a broader cross-section of
South Africans in internet use, we will not be able to address the challenge
of providing meaningful web resources once people have access.
Unfortunately, however, the role of culture and literacy in users'
interpretation of the web has been addressed at a rather superficial level
in existing studies of usability on the web. These studies tend to originate
from a concern with the export of software to culturally different contexts,
and consequently focus on the relatively crude practicalities of
"internationalisation" and "regionalisation". The issue of "culture" is
receiving an increasing amount of attention from the local CHI (Computer
Human Interaction) community in South Africa with some excellent theoretical
descriptions of the challenges in the field (e.g. Jackson and Lalioti 2000).
While this is an exciting development, it is important to guard against
approaches which unintentionally reduce culture into a reified social force
or homogenized national frame of mind. Given South Africa's history, this
stereotyped notion of culture (however well-meaning in intent) can be
In contrast to this approach, important insights into the cultural and
literacy factors which influence usability could be gained through adopting
the methods of anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Geertz's "semiotic" view
understands culture as the frames of meaning actively woven as people live
"culture is not a power, something to which social events,
behaviours, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed;
it is a context"
This study applies the more complex ethnographic methods of cultural analysis
in its report on South African students' interaction with visual design on
the World Wide Web.
Field studies of users
A culturally diverse group of students entering tertiary institutions
provides an interesting snapshot of the South Africa's future web users.
Field studies have been conducted, consisting of user observations,
interviews and bookmark walkthroughs. The following issues have received
How is the grammar of Western visual design (Kress) manifest in
the conventions of web design?
How do users' visual literacy in Western design relate to their
success in navigational and searching tasks?
Are there any key conventions which exert disproportionate
influence on user success?
How does experience in interpreting Western visual design, relate
to successful navigation?
How quickly and completely are knowledge of web and GUI
What is the role of visual literacy in the construction of
coherence on the web?
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July 13, 2001 - July 16, 2001
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