Design for the World: Cross Cultural Web Design

For a company to successfully tap into a new market it requires a bit of research and localised content, meaning different websites for different countries.

In order for website to reach its full potential in a foreign market a few steps are necessary: navigation strategy, color of the website, the right tools for the right website, suitable images, professional translation of the website, and last but certainly not least: localised content.

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Design for all the World

When it comes to web design, one size really doesn’t fit all. Research has shown that people from different cultural backgrounds process information differently, and as such have different preferences when it comes to website design.

Furthermore, while the internet is a global market place, the key to online business success is to localise your content – most people want to shop online in their own language (85% of people, according to Common Sense Advisory), so if you go monolingual and mono-cultural with your online presence then you’re cutting off hundreds of millions of potential customers.

The figures show that businesses ignore the potential of e-commerce at their own risk, with this year’s sales for retailers with both online and store locations up by 22% on 2009, while physical stores saw only a 6% rise.

To be a ‘global website’ in 2010 is a whole different ball game to what it was even a few years ago. While having ten localized websites for different languages and countries once qualified you as global, these days the baseline is more than 20 local sites.

It may seem an expensive undertaking, to have more than 20 websites in different languages with different design templates that need constant updating, but the potential for profit is vast – the Localization Industry Standards Association found in 2007 that each dollar spent on localization yielded a $25 return.

So how can you tap into the enormous purchasing power of online shoppers around the world? Below are some simple but essential tips for creating websites that will be accessible and relevant to any target culture.

Navigation Strategies

instantShift - Cross Cultural Web Design

Your main sticking point when it comes to navigation is ensuring your site is navigable for languages that read both left-to-right (like English) and right-to-left (like Arabic and Hebrew). There are two things you can do to ease your navigation worries. The first is to either install a horizontal navigation bar, rather than vertical, so you won’t have to move your navigation bar from one side to the other. The second is to make your web design as symmetrical as possible, so flipping the script on your page won’t knock everything else out of order.

Color Matters

You know that color is crucial for your visitors’ first impressions of your site, but how will visitors from different countries react to different color schemes? Color wheels such as this one can help, but the best research you can do is to ask test subjects from the target demographic how they respond to a range of prospective color schemes.

Then again, the color combination of dark text on a light background never go wrong – and blue is the most universally positive color, while pink and purple are best avoided.

Choose Your Tools Wisely

instantShift - Cross Cultural Web Design

What you need is a web design tool that will allow you to switch your text and images quickly and easily between your localised sites, without having to rebuild each new page from scratch. This is where cascading style sheets (CSS) come in handy, as you can keep your content separate from your design.

Language scripts are another sticking point for multilingual website design – even if you’re building websites that will use mostly Latin characters, you still have the problem of unique symbols, such as the German umlaut (Ü) and eszett (ß). That’s not to mention the troubles you’ll have finding the right encoder for scripts such as Arabic, Japanese and Simplified Chinese.

You’ll need to use a character encoder that covers a broad range of languages – luckily, just such a thing exists. Unicode UTF-8 covers every character in over 90 scripts, and its efficacy is proven by it being supported by all the major browsers and adopted by all the big players, from Google and Microsoft to Apple and IBM.

One tool you might want to avoid is too much Flash – besides slowing down your load times (which affects your viewers in countries with slow internet, as well as your search engine rankings), any keywords embedded in Flash files cannot be read by search engine spiders, which makes them useless for search engine optimization (SEO).

Use the Right Images

Besides the obvious – such as avoiding images that could be considered offensive by conservative cultures – it’s important to make sure that your imagery is relevant to your target audience. So if you’re developing a site for a Chinese audience, you’ll want to have images of Chinese people using and enjoying your product. If you’re going for a universally accessible website, stick to general images, nothing specific to any culture. Coca Cola gets their image localization spot on in their sites for China and Spain, as an example.

Localise Your Content

instantShift - Cross Cultural Web Design

It’s not just your imagery that needs to be angled towards its target demographic, though – your copy is even more important. The required tone and style for effective marketing material changes drastically between cultures – in the USA hyperbole and effusiveness is practically encouraged, but in Germany that kind of behaviour will turn visitors right off.

Writing effective marketing copy for a particular culture requires an in-depth knowledge of the culture itself, to get the right blend of nuance and shared understanding. If you’re creating localised sites for different cultures, then you should really have your copy either written from scratch or edited by a professional copywriter and translator who lives in the target country.

If you’re going for a general site that will be accessible to people from all around the world via machine translation widgets such as Google Translate, then go for very simple, plain copy, that avoids any specific cultural references or in-jokes and uses simple sentences (one thought per sentence) and simple language.

For example, avoid slang, colloquialisms or words that have multiple meanings – instead of ‘tube’, ‘box’ or ‘telly’ use the word television, for instance, as machine translation engines may not understand the other terms in context.

Translate Your Content

If you’re creating localized sites, then it goes without saying that you will need to have the text translated. Languages are fluid and tricky, and getting the right tone is essential for trust – if a reader is visiting your site with the intention of buying a product, or trusting your content, and your marketing copy has poor grammar, spelling mistakes, or just doesn’t make sense, then they’re going to be clicking away before you can shout ‘skimped on translation’.

It may even be necessary to create localized sites with specially translated content within the one language group. For instance, within the French language you have the lingo they speak in France itself, and Quebecois in Canada. Then there’s Latin American Spanish and the Spanish spoken in Spain, or Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese. For instance, if you’re after a tram in Portugal, you’d need to ask for the nearest ‘eléctrico’, but if you’re looking for the same in Brazil, you want to ask for a ‘bonde’. Similarly, in Spain a ‘coche’ is a car, but in many Latin American countries, it means ‘baby stroller’.

But Don’t Translate Your Keywords

instantShift - Cross Cultural Web Design

This brings us to the final essential point, and that is to not translate your keywords. If you were selling baby strollers (or prams, pushchairs or buggies – other keywords you would want to investigate) to the Colombian market and you used a direct dictionary translation (for instance, from Google Translate) of the word baby stroller as your keyword, then your keyword would be ‘cochecito de bebé’. However, as Google Keywords reveals, ‘cochecito de bebé’ was searched for only 1,300 times in Colombia in the past month, while ‘coche bebés’ was searched 40,500 times – only a tiny difference in phrasing, with the removal of the diminutive, but a huge difference of 39,200 searchers and potential purchasers!

This is why you need a three-pronged approach to your foreign language keywords. Firstly, make a list of the keywords you use on your English language site, then have them translated by a linguist who lives in the target country, who can suggest alternative keywords that may also be used in that country, to catch out such variations as ‘cochecito’ and ‘coche’. Lastly, you should research your full list of translated and brainstormed keywords using a tool like Google Keywords to see how often each term is searched for in your target market.

You want to compile a selection of the most popular keywords and ‘long-tail’ keywords, which are more specific, up to three words in length. These are searched for less frequently, but will be more likely to bring you direct traffic, for instance ‘Colombia coche barato’, or ‘cheap baby-stroller Colombia’. By using a combination of ‘short-tail’ and ‘long-tail’ keywords that are specific to your market in your URL, page headers, intro text and PPC campaigns, you should have no trouble appearing in your target country’s Google rankings (or the page rankings of whatever the most popular search engine is in your target market – for instance, in Japan, Yahoo is the leading search engine).

By following the tips above you can develop a truly ‘global’ website, and reap the financial rewards that come with having a world-wide customer base!

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  1. you should have no trouble appearing in your target country’s Google rankings (or the page rankings of whatever the most popular search engine is in your target market – for instance, in Japan, Yahoo is the leading search engine).

  2. Thanks for this! One interesting read was the 4-Hr Work Week which covers being lean and only focusing on the 80/20 principle. Sometimes adding more countries not necessarily brings in more revenue but also brings in more headaches. 20% of your customers would give you 80% of your income but 20% of your customers would also give you 80% of your problems.

    So I guess choose wisely?


  3. very informative article.

  4. It is a great post. Thanks for your valuable information. It will help new designers to achieve success.

  5. Thanks for u r information

    its very useful

  6. Great post! Thanks for the post!

  7. productive article for designers.

  8. Your information is good…..
    its very use article

  9. great posting… very useful…

  10. The article is very good.

  11. This is very informative for cross cultural branding of a web site . It is very useful to us because for our business model, sky is the limit and we can apply this information to our advantage.

    Beautifulmingles’ associate.

  12. Thanks for this resourceful post.

  13. nice and impressive posting…

  14. Very good article, it goes through all important aspects of setting up a well succeed and profitable international business over internet. The biggest mistake It’s sometimes to appeal to internet translation tools as google translate instead of professional translation services . Bad translations don’t generate trust on visitors and just 1 out of 5 is available to buy any product within websites with bad translations.

  15. Really i impressed to this design….

  16. Also submit all your regional sites to local directories for higher visibility amongst local searches.

  17. I must say it is very informative article and right on target about the localized websites and language issues. Many product based keywords like sofa, mobiles, etc are understood across all languages and cultures but if a website really wants to target niche customers then they should go for professional human translation services. For example, company like is 15 years old in translation industry and dealt with top brands like Siemens, Huawei, etc when they approach international yet niche markets.

  18. I am a web designer . This will be the greatest things i have founded here.
    So, helpful article.

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