IUNTC analyses the need for localizing user documentation

How important is localizing user documentation? A report from the latest meeting of the International University Network in Technical Communication (IUNTC) provides insights.

Text by Daniela Straub Yvonne Cleary


Because markets for technical products have globalized, it is essential to consider the impact of cultural preferences on the usability and user experience of user instructions. On Thursday, May 12 over 50 participants joined the latest meeting of the IUNTC, led by Dr. Joyce Karreman, Assistant Professor of Technical Communication at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Dr. Karreman's presentation was entitled “How important is localizing user documentation? Research on the effects of localization on users.” The presentation discussed a series of experiments Dr. Karreman and her colleagues, Qian Li and Menno de Jong, have conducted to explore how Chinese and Western user instructions differ, and to determine the effects of cultural adaptations on Chinese and Western users.

The first study Dr. Karreman described was a content analysis of 50 Western and 50 Chinese household manuals. The analysis confirmed previous research findings that demonstrated differences in content, structure, and visuals. In terms of content, Dr. Karreman and her colleagues found that Western user documentation tends be highly instrumental: Its purpose is to explain to end users how a device works. Chinese manuals are likely to be less purposeful and more entertaining. Chinese user documentation is not only meant for end users, but also for technicians, and may contain marketing as well as procedural information. Western documentation tends to be highly structured, e.g. using levels of headings, chunking, and lists. In contrast, in typical Chinese documentation, heading levels and lists are less likely to be consistent or prominent. Instructions may be presented in paragraphs rather than lists. Chinese manuals present expository information in an inductive structure (arguments first), whereas Western manuals present expository information in a deductive structure (conclusion first). In terms of visuals, again, Western instructional documents are functional, and visuals (e.g. technical drawings) are meant to clarify how a device works. In Chinese user documentation, cartoons and other entertaining or diverting visuals are used.

In a related study, Dr. Karreman and her colleagues interviewed twenty Chinese technical communicators, to explore their opinions about differences between Chinese and Western user documentation. The interviewees recognized the importance of culture and the different expectations of Western and Chinese users. They believed that Western users rely more on user documentation than Chinese users. Because the interviewees used style sheets and standardized tools, the research team concluded that Chinese manuals may become more like Western manuals in the future.

Dr. Karreman also described three user studies designed to explore the effects of Chinese and Western approaches to structure, expository information, and visuals. These studies were conducted with three participant groups: Chinese people based in China, Chinese people based in Europe, and Westerners based in Europe. The results of the study on document structure showed no significant differences in task performance or perceived usability. In the second study, examining the structure of expository text, both groups of Chinese participants preferred expository text presented inductively (with arguments first) for both readability and persuasiveness, while Western participants preferred information presented deductively. The third study examined the use of various types of cartoons and technical line drawings. The results were largely in line with expectations, that Chinese participants appreciated entertaining visuals while Western participants reacted more positively to technical visuals.

The overall conclusion of this work is that localization improves the user experience, but may not be essential for the usability of user documentation.

A lively question and answer session followed the talk, with questions and comments about how the studies had been conducted, demographics of participants, follow-up research, the hidden impact of culture, and an array of other topics. IUNTC participants thanked Joyce Karreman for her interesting and insightful presentation.

The next IUNTC meeting will be on Tuesday, June 14 at 15.00 (CET). Professor Kim Sydow Campbell from the University of North Texas will lead this meeting, entitled: “How do YOU search for existing knowledge? Listening to academics and practitioners in business/professional/technical communication across the globe”.

Learn more about the IUNTC here: https://www.technical-communication.org/technical-writing/international-university-network-in-technical-communication or write an email to d.straub(at)tekom.de to join the network for free.


Further reading

Li, Q., De Jong, M. D. T., & Karreman, J. (2020). "Cultural differences between Chinese and Western user instructions: A content analysis of user manuals for household appliances." IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 63(1), 3-20.

Li, Q., Karreman, J., & De Jong, M. D. T. (2019). "Chinese Technical Communicators' Opinions on Cultural Differences between Chinese and Western User Manuals." ProComm 2019, IEEE International Professional Communication Conference, July, Aachen, Germany.

Li, Q., De Jong, M. D. T., & Karreman, J. (2021). "Cultural differences and the structure of user instructions: Effects of Chinese and Western structuring principles on Chinese and Western users." Technical Communication, 68(1), 37-55.

Li, Q., Karreman, J., & De Jong, M. D. T. (2020). "Inductively versus deductively structured product descriptions: Effects on Chinese and Western readers." Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 34(4), 335-363.

Li, Q., De Jong, M. D. T., & Karreman, J. (2021). "Getting the picture: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Chinese and Western Users’ Preferences for Image Types in Manuals for Household Appliances." Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 51(2), 137-158.