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Cross-cultural product semantics: a comparative investigation between the UK and Pakistan into the sociocultural meanings ascribed to digital images (a case study of manual wheelchair design)

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posted on 14.12.2020, 09:16 by Salman Asghar
The increased prevalence of disability and elderly people, globally, has resulted in an increased in the demand of products, they are using (formally termed as Assistive Technology (AT) products). In the Unites Kingdom (UK) alone, the social-care market, dominated by AT devices, have grown from £2 billion (in 2012) to £6 billion, by 2020. (The Institute of Export & International Trade, 2019). Internationally, these products (AT) are used within the context of a particular sociocultural environment. Growing evidence have shown distinct cognitive styles, those of; analytical and holistic, of members of collectivist (such as Asian cultures) and individualist societies (such as Western cultures), respectively. The growth internationally in the AT product market suggest that those involved in AT product design and development need to be aware of the influences that diverse cultures may have on the societal perception of an AT product’s meanings (formally termed as semantics). Unfortunately, little research has been published to evaluate the communicative component (specifically semantic) of an AT product by the social members of an individualist or a collectivist society. This has resulted in several well-documented AT product failures including the abandonment of those devices, internationally. This programme of research focuses on the mechanism of perception in relation to semantics of a visually represented AT product, when viewed by members of individualist and collectivist societies. A review of literature using multidisciplinary approach (involving sociology, product design, psychology and neurosciences) has been completed. The information gathered led to formulate research questions, leading to postulate hypothesis. The research questions were used to define a methodology as an approach to underpin the investigation. Three main studies were conducted to pursue objectives and research questions. An initial Semantics differential scale based survey with young adults, involving 1085 participants from the general population of the UK (individualist) and Pakistan (collectivist); a series of lab-based eye-tracking experiment involving approximately 30 young adults of each group; and, a final study using a combination of the questionnaire and lab based-experiment, using photo-elicitation semantic differential scale involving more than 200 adults, in total, from both societies. The analysis of the data collected from three studies provided a comprehensive set of insights with statistically validated results. The findings from these studies yielded cultural differences between the responses from collectivist and individualist societies. Studies (including preliminary and first study) had revealed differences of the opinion of both groups involved. These findings have shown that the members of individualist societies had perceived the AT product as negative with greater extent than that of their counterpart collectivists’ participants. The later eye-tracking based experiments (2nd and 3rd studies) have supported the highlighted differences through their viewing behaviours. This was also supported by the available literature. This PhD research offers design practitioners and design researchers with an informed approach to more effectively consider and manipulate elements of a digitally presented image of an artefact that may influence the viewer’s perception and ascribed meaning (semantics) for that product. The application of knowledge and theoretical principles of product semantics provide design practitioners with an informed approach to reframe the perception of AT products; and, ultimately, to the larger issue of disability within the context of two populations. Future research directions, including implications for neuroscience and marketing, associated with design interventions are suggested.


Faculty Development Program (FDP) Scholarship, UET, Lahore, Pakistan.



  • Design and Creative Arts


  • Design


Loughborough University

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© Salman Asghar

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.




George E. Torrens ; Robert G. Harland

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