Taking Your Business Global with Cross-Cultural Website Design




As soon as your website goes live it technically has a global reach. Anyone from Toronto to Tokyo can access your little corner of cyberspace, but that doesn’t mean they will. Distances might not mean much online, but linguistic and cultural differences remain. It takes a little forethought and planning to successfully reach across these divides.

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Localization or standardization?

English remains the single most widely used language online and can often serve as a lingua franca or working language. But it still only accounts for around a quarter of total usage. Research shows that users put far more trust in sites written in their own native language, even if they speak English as a second language. A recent survey conducted across the European Union found that 48% of internet users would use English language sites on occasion, but almost 90% said that when given a choice, they always visited a website in their own language. Almost half reported they would never use foreign language sites to search for or buy products online.

Good translation is a must when it comes to reaching new markets, but you might also wish to go beyond simply translating your content. Fully localizing your sites for different target markets is a more involved process that can include transcreation – retaining your core message but adapting it to the cultural expectations of your new audience – to readjusting the whole look and design of your website.

Use the right tools

Using the right tools from the start can give you a measure of flexibility when it comes to adapting your main website for different target audiences. Using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), for example, allows you to keep your content and design separate. This in turn makes it far easier to translate content or alter elements of the design without having to start the whole page again from scratch.

You will also need a flexible encoding tool. Unicode UTF-8 is ideal as it is compatible with over 90 written scripts and is supported by most common browsers. You can easily switch to non-Latin scripts such as Hebrew or Arabic, as well as incorporating ‘non-standard’ Latin characters such as the German Ä, Ö, Ü and ß.

Navigation strategies

In languages such as English, which are read from left to right, navigation bars are often installed vertically on the left hand side of the page. This isn’t the best position for languages which read from right to left, such as Hebrew or Arabic. One option is switching vertical menu and navigation bars from the left to the right of the page. But you can save a lot of hassle if you build in horizontal bars at the top of the page from the start. CSS also allows you to simply switch from left to right (LTR) to right to left (RTL) scripts by setting the ‘dir’ attribute as [dir=”ltr”] or [dir=”rtl”].

Cultural differences 

Anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall advanced the theory of low-context and high-context cultures. Low-context cultures, such as North America and Germany, do not draw much information from the context of a situation. They require clear information and explicit instructions.

High-context cultures, such as much of Latin America and Asia, take more information from the context of a situation and cultural expectations. Things that are left unsaid can often be equally or more important than things that are explicitly stated.

In web design terms this can mean providing clear and unambiguous written text for low-context cultures compared to a more intuitive and interactive graphical alternative for high-context cultures. Consider the difference between Coca Cola’s German and Chinese sites.

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The German site is almost tabular in form, with clearly defined boxes and relevant information.

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The Chinese site, meanwhile, features a more intuitive, graphically-oriented design with hardly any text on the landing page.

Use of images

As well as the differing weight given to images and interactivity depending on the target culture, there are a number of further issues to take into account. Firstly, all images should be culturally sensitive. Even where images are neutral and unlikely to cause offence, viewers may connect better with culturally relevant symbols or images of people of a familiar ethnicity and dress. If your target market does not have wide access to high-speed broadband connections or is highly mobile-oriented, be wary of using too many high-resolution images and animations that can affect loading times.

Color connotations

Color Wheel

Different colors can have different connotations depending on the culture of the viewer. Red can mean ‘danger’ or ‘passion’ for western audiences for example, but is more connected with ‘celebration’ or ‘good luck’ in China. Similarly, white is associated with weddings in the West but with funerals or mourning in much of the East. This doesn’t mean that certain colors will automatically be assigned a meaning regardless of context but it can help you create the right feel and tone if you are aware of the general color connotations within the country you’re targeting.

is the founder of Lingo24, Inc. translation companyLaunched in 2001, Lingo24, Inc. now has more than 200 employees spanning four continents and clients in more than 60 countries. Follow Lingo24, Inc. on Twitter: @Lingo24.





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