How Culture and Web Design Are More Alike Than You Think!

webdesignculture2We’ve been working on our new website for months and it is inching closer to being ready for launch! While I’m ridiculously excited about it, I’ve also taken time to reflect about the journey of our first major re-launch and have come to the realization that redesigning a web site is a lot like crossing cultures!

Let me first provide a bit of background about what is involved in designing a new site. When you build a website, you are working with your own ideas and vision. But you have a team to help you see that concept through and that includes:

– a digital strategist (who advises, plans and executes a digital strategy including architecture of the site, the use of plugins and other tools, etc.)

Tony, our digital strategist from DSW, starts to map out ideas on the white board.
Tony, our digital strategist from DSW, starts to map out ideas on the white board.

– a designer (who makes the gorgeous graphics that represent your business or identity)

– a web developer (the genius who cuts and codes it all)

In the case of Melibee’s relaunch, I had to engage (as an educator/entrepreneur) with the world of web builders. They are certainly a curious mix of creative and linear types. Crossing into that subculture was like diving into a pool of jello – slippery  – yet a lot more enjoyable than I had imagined!

I was very clear about a few items. I didn’t want to go into this website redesign with only a US American perspective as we are a global company.  Our first step was to take our talented and diverse Melibee team and create a subhive (what most people call a “committee”) that explored other sites for idea. They drafted various home page wireframes for us to consider as a starting point.  Our initial “winning” wireframe came from our past Bulgarian bee, Gerry.

Our current web development team consists of a digital strategist from the Northeast US (who also happens to be my husband Tony, the founder of Digital Strategy Works also known as DSW), a Canadian web designer, and a member of DSW’s web development team (from North Carolina, in the Southern part of the US.)  As I’ve written about in the past, the Northeast and the Southern part of the US often feel like different countries to me, so it has been a great learning experience for me to slow my own frenetic Northeast pace down to absorb all the info coming my way, in true Southern style. Working with a Canadian designer also reminded me to not be too US American in my approach to design. The recent Melibee logo was redesigned by an Indonesian man, which provided an opportunity for me to practice explaining our fabulously quirky Melibee “brand” to a non-native English speaker, all done through the web.  The entire process has been a learning experience for which I am grateful.

With that in mind, here are specific examples where I found web design to feel quite like getting off a plane in a different country – exciting and nerve wracking – yet, I went into it wide eyed and eager to soak it all in.

Roll with it

For those of us who know a thing or two about crossing cultures, we quickly learn that two of our greatest skills are flexibility and dealing with ambiguity with an open mind and heart.  You have to simply learn to roll with things and to observe, ask questions to your cultural informant(s) and to be open to changing your style too.  As new information came down from the web team daily, I often had to turn to my cultural informant (Tony, my digital strategist) to make sure I was asking appropriate questions and not asking for unrealistic components for my allocated budget. He was a daily translator in the lingo of the web world and provided invaluable information that allowed me to pivot and accept changes as they came.

Interculturalists also know that time varies across cultures. Through building this new site, I found that time takes on a whole new meaning in web development!  You walk into the website transformation with all sorts of notions about what your site can be and then you have to adjust based on the information that you’re learning through the process. Web development is not taking a pretty graphic image and turning it “on”.  It takes more time than most people realize to consider all the programs, plug ins, design elements, code, languages, methods of viewing (ipad vs smart phone vs laptop vs desktop) and so much more.  Timelines take on a whole new meaning in web development because there are things that have to be worked through on the tech side that sometimes cannot be anticipated.  In web development it is best to make time your friend, as it is therefore much easier then to embrace your realistic “go live” date.

Perception is your reality

We’ve all heard of the cultural snafus made by major brands who have crossed borders for business ventures.  I knew it was important to carefully think through how we presented ourselves as an American owned small business in a global market.  Were the color combinations culturally appropriate?  Did the symbols represent anything other than I knew?  Were the images effective?  Did we represent ourselves well across cultures?

Putting the old site up on the big screen so we could all brainstorm together
Putting the old site up on the big screen so we could all brainstorm together

Ultimately, perception comes into play when you are putting yourself out there on the web. I asked myself and the team how they thought people would perceive us. As education tends to be a more traditional field and many of our clients and visitors are educators (or educators in the making), I examined whether our site was going to be too playful for a field that is less eager to change than the business world.

Other questions needed to be considered.  How did we represent ourselves in English?  Did the words feel like Melibee yet still carry weight across cultures?  Were we too direct?

Another major factor for me was whether we honored our own Melibee culture.  It was vital to me that we “stay Melibee” and still do our best to meet the needs of people visiting our site. Needless to say, I’ll look forward to your feedback about this when we launch!

I was also adamant that our new site be very bold in stating what we do at the top of the home page as this is one of the biggest challenges we face – people haven’t quite known what we actually do all day long at the Melibee hive. They sometimes think that we send students abroad as a 3rd party partner (we don’t.) The new site addresses this head on, perhaps in a more direct way than some cultures would like.

The ubiquitous iceberg

Like the cultural iceberg we tend to rely on to talk about culture, web design is so often about what we don’t see above the surface of the water.  The reality is what you’re not seeing the behind the scenes of the collective experience of the individuals who are doing the project planning and defining what rules of engagement will occur on the surface  – the web page you see.  You don’t get to see the “why” the planning went into place and where the ideas came from that ultimately evolve into the website.  In web design, the majority of what happens in making the rules of the website is not visible to the eye.

Learning Daily

What often draws us to serial sojourning is a love for being in a constant learning environment – a place where we continuously grow.  Tackling a new website kept me in this space for months and allowed me to gain new skills.  I can talk tech with my web team with some confidence now, but I also learned a lot about my personal style.  My strengths include communicating with sincerity and gratitude and pushing for creativity across platforms.  This experience also reinforced that I can work with my husband and that we really do have a great partnership.

Working on this website challenged me to sit in a place where I wasn’t comfortable on day one.  With a willingness to learn and trust the experts, my comfort increased over time. It wasn’t always easy.  There were moments early on in the web development journey that I felt like I was backpacking in India again, wanting to be able to drink water from the tap without an episode.  LOL!  But those moments, as the journey went on, decreased.  When we are willing to learn a new space with an open heart and mind, we all can grow. (I like to think the team I worked with did too.)

The new website will launch in November 2013.  I am thrilled beyond words at the evolution of our little Melibee hive and how we will represent ourselves via the new site.  I hope you will provide constructive feedback so that we continue to learn and grow in this virtual space.  I cannot think of a better way to roll into Melibee’s 4th anniversabee of having a website, which takes place on Sunday, October 27th!  🙂


    • Hello! Apologies for the delay – I don’t get to the comments as often as I would like. I do keep in touch with past writers and value your feedback. Thank you again for writing!

  1. Gerry Botchoukova says:

    Thank you for the recognition Missy! I am humbled and could have never done it without the amazing work of the rest of the incredible “bees”. 🙂

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