Designing for the Global Market

What does it take to make your website global? I mean technically people can already access it from anywhere if it’s a public site, so all you need is a little bit of translation from babblefish right? Wrong.

Believe it or not, there is much more to a global site than the language it is written in. Even with language there are many considerations aside from rough translation. For example think about when you talk to a new English speaker. Notice how they seem to mix up certain verbs or tense and even meaning. That’s because language is unique to its culture and does not always directly translate to an equivalent word in other languages and cultures. This is why you should use not just a method of translation, but also back translation.

Back translation is a process where native speakers of the language you are trying to translate to, translate the text back to English. This is best done by a group of separated people to accommodate for varied interpretations. If you don’t get back in English what you expected, then your original translation is probably in need of modification.

Along with correct translations, and data formats like international addresses and money, it’s also important to keep in mind that not all cultures view the world in the same way. Each culture comes with its own set of beliefs, values and interpretations. These are things that must be considered when designing a global site. When learning about user experience its important to think critically about what you learn and remember that the majority of UX standards and research are done specifically on a western audience and do not take into account the preferences of various international users.

…remember that the majority of UX standards do not take into account the preferences of international users.

Take color for example, in western culture white is often associated with cleanliness and purity. You may design a white website because you feel it conveys a clean open design; however your intentions won’t necessarily translate to all cultures the same, some cultures prefer black backgrounds and others prefer more features and “stuff” on the page to show a more established company with many offerings.

For another example of white, if you are designing a wedding site where you hope to sell wedding dresses around the world. You may want to keep in mind that the purity of white associated with dresses in western culture is conversely associated with mourning and death in China. There red is the traditional wedding color associated with joy and prominently featured in the wedding including the wedding dress.

Imagery is another important consideration. The ok hand sign in western culture translates to money in Japan, an insult in Brazil and means zero in Russia. A important thing to be aware of in application design is the use of icons. Images can be very tied to cultural history and experience. Many basic western images don’t translate well in other cultures.

Aside from graphics, layout and design there are also cultural considerations with beliefs, privacy, disclosure, process, business values, expectations, personal expression, individualism, motivations etc. For example Germany has a higher value of privacy, so a site geared for this country may need more privacy features than a typical westerner would request. Japanese are also much more collectivistic and tend to place higher value on social interactions where as the high level of individualism in America suggests a preference to automation.

Core Cultural Beliefs and Differences
Different cultures have different concepts of what makes something usable. It’s important, as with any user experience evaluation, to consider the customers of your site. Who exactly are you targeting? What are the primary locations and subcultures of those regions? It is also important to consider the context, where will your customers use this site? It this a business centered site that people will use at work, or a personal site for fun at home? For a business site it’s important to take into consideration hierarchy and privacy in various countries. For example a company in China may prefer a much stricter access policy to information by hierarchy than in the U.S.

But is this really that important, aren’t the lines of culture are beginning to blur? While there is some truth to a greater acceptance of other cultures over time, this is a very slow movement that has just touched the surface. It can be seen more in the younger generation, but is by no means an indication that your customers are willing to ignore their culture for yours.

Targeting your site to meet the needs of your customers, and specifically take into consideration your international audiences will greatly increase your reputation. People are much more likely to use a service they feel is “made” for them, versus one that ignores or discounts them.

Learn More
A great resource for evaluation of other cultures is Hofstede’s cultural Dimensions site. Gathered through years of research across the globe Geert Hofstede has created an index to help explain many of the major cultural differences between different countries. This index includes Individualism, Power Distance, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance and Long Term Orientation.

As always, test test test!