Designing automotive HMI for different cultures

Car in a globalized world
July 27, 2023
5 min read

Last year, according to UNCTAD, global trade hit a record high. The exchange of goods between nations and continents widens customer choice and facilitates unprecedented economic cooperation. According to ACEA, around 19% of EU car exports are headed for China's rapidly growing automotive market, which makes it the second biggest market, after the USA, for EU-made cars. However, there is a significant shift between the cultural backgrounds of each of these market's customers, making it challenging to create products that will work for all of them.

At Kontrolka, we routinely design for customers across oceans, so we learned to study users closely. Let us look at some cross-cultural design ideas together!

Sources of data used in this article:
UNCTAD, Global Trade Update

About culture

Sometimes it is hard to define what culture is, but it is at the core of us and shapes how we behave and interact with products. Culture is a broad concept that encompasses the collective social behavior, institutions, and norms observed within human societies. It encompasses a wide range of elements, including the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits exhibited by individuals within these social groups. Culture often finds its origins or is attributed to specific regions or locations.

Influence on design decisions

At the core of cultural research is Geert Hofstede’s Cultural dimension Theory which identified six dimensions we could use to classify cultures. For example, with its low individualism aspect, China allows for the existence of super apps like WeChat. While these are not definitive answers to your design problems, they can set you up on a path that will enable you to avoid cultural misunderstandings or patterns that make customers uncomfortable.

Symbolism and more

The other side of the same coin is the meaning of the visual elements we use in design. We perceive colors and symbols to have specific meanings, but those are not universal. Culture builds its associations through history, mythology, religion, and linguistics; each culture has its unique take (find below a simple chart with worldwide meanings). Symbols can also have different meanings or may not be understood correctly - In 2018, when Amazon rolled out in India for the first time, users were not using the search function. User research later uncovered that there was no association for most of the population between magnifying glass and the search function, making it not understood and unused.

Car in context of culture

Car is ubiquitous means of global transformation, but that does not mean every culture views it the same. Regional differences include traffic or sides you drive and what you expect to find in a car.


German cars are a powerhouse of the automotive world. They produce some of the strongest brands, which can make competing with outside brands reasonably tricky. German people are individualistic with very high uncertainty avoidance, meaning the car's reliability is usually the number one thing they consider. You can appeal to German drivers by creating a sense of certainty for them. They are also very conservative, so rolling out new HMI should be done gradually.


India is a colorful country full of meaning and tradition. Colors hold a special place for Indians, therefore wilder visual usage can appeal to them. Of course, with respect to their meaning and tradition. Hindu culture also has a unique tradition: As everything should move forward in Hinduism, some Indians will always drive a little forward before backing up.


The fast-paced culture in China is highly receptive to quickly changing experiences. They will be more accepting of changing HMI and experimental approaches. They also have a relatively unique digital culture that developed independently from Western ones. They have their patterns of usage, symbols for functions, and ways to organize information that you should respect. One suggestion we got from the research: Avoid UI that suggests the car is a living thing as that would be something that could make customers from China uncomfortable.

Cross-culture: Dos and Dont’s

Let us look at some points that we usually try to do or avoid!

- Decide if you are making a car for a specific culture or a vehicle for multiple cultures. Knowing what the end product is helps you craft the perfect process!

- Localize colors, symbols, terminology, and digital patterns. It will help make your product familiar to users out of the box.

- Pay attention to the driving side and reading directions. It will shake up the layout and patterns and help avoid unwieldy UI.

- Talk to people from the culture. Even better, visit and immerse in the target culture by experiencing it firsthand! It will allow you to catch many mistakes quickly and avoid possibly embarrassing situations.

- Look for culture-specific features. Each culture has its needs, and some are unique, so if you manage to fill them, you will be a step ahead of your competitors. For example, Karaoke is a very popular activity in Asia, and users might appreciate some extra fun, while in Europe, it may not be very wanted.

- Never offend your customer. Some cultures do not eat a particular food or have certain norms. Be careful and sensitive to avoid awkward situations.

- Address cultural characteristics. Refer back to Cultural dimension theory and stick to it for the culture.

- Consider ergonomics. Refer back to Cultural dimension theory and stick to it for the culture. Most character profiles are widely available information, but nothing beats hands-on research.

Our mission is to make the world a better place by perfecting interaction and communication between humans, machines and artificial intelligence. We, at Kontrolka, continually learn about diverse cultures around the world and we leverage that knowledge to make HMI speak better to your customers.

One universal aspect that resonates across cultures is the desire for comfort. Discover more about enhancing the experience of car rides and making them more enjoyable for everyone.

We are looking forward to hearing more about your project! Connect with our lead UX designer to talk more about how we can collaborate on your project

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