How to "Internationalize" Your Website

Experience Design

December 19, 2013

One of the best things about the web is that users anywhere in the world can buy what you're selling just by visiting your website. But if your web presence isn't “internationalized” for your foreign audiences, you'll have a hard time closing the deal.

Changing the language on your site is a start - visitors are much more likely to buy from websites in their language. But there's a lot more that goes into internationalizing your website than translating the copy. Here's a quick overview of some key considerations.

Design your site for easy adaptation.

If you know you're going to adapt your website for different countries and language, there are a few things to keep in mind during the design.

  • Design to accommodate different text lengths. Depending on the language, text may take more or less space. European languages tend to take up more room, while many character-based Asian languages take less. If your site is designed to work properly and look its best with text that's set at a fixed length, the user experience will suffer when copy is translated into different tongues.
  • Separate images and text. This is especially important with text that's embedded as images. Whenever possible, your design should avoid using graphics that have text as a design element. As text lengths change from language to language it will make the process of translating the site much more difficult. And when you do have text in graphics, be sure to keep the text layer of the source image easily accessible so it can be adapted quickly.
  • Use a CMS for easy adaptation. Maintaining your content within a content management system (CMS) can help both with keeping text and images separate, and simplifying the translation process.
  • Design for speed. Building your site to load quickly onto any device is always important for a good user experience. But it's even more critical for your internationalized website as Internet speeds vary widely from country to country. If your user experience depends on lots of graphics and flash animation that suck up bandwidth, you may end up turning away millions of potential customers who are unwilling to wait 15 or 20 seconds for each page to download because they lack broadband.
  • Design for mobile. In many countries the primary mode of internet access is via mobile phone or device - optimizing for the small screen is essential. Is a responsive design the best solution, or a dedicated mobile site? Explore the options given your site, budget and audience.

Consider cultural differences in the user experience.

There are many cultural differences to be aware of as you design a positive user experience for users in another country. Adapting your site takes a great deal of research and, ideally, a lot of input from expert web designers and potential customers. Some key differentiations to remember are:

  • Different cultures see color differently. Colors have varying significance and emotional resonance in different cultures. Red, for example, is often used as the color of danger in the US, the color of mourning in South Africa, the color of purity in India and the color of luck in China.
  • Symbols must be translated too. Symbols are not all universal. Hand symbols especially have different meanings in different countries - one culture's “okay!” gesture can easily be a vulgar insult in another country. The shopping cart symbol is easily understood in North America, but may be a foreign concept in countries where one usually shops with a basket or bag. Formats change too - weights and measures, calendar systems and formats for dates, time and numbers all may vary from country to country.
  • Formality vs. informality. Addressing users casually by their first name works well in the US. But in Japan, a screen message such as “Welcome back, Akihiro!” might be considered rudely informal, whereas a message such as “We're grateful for your return to our website, Mr. Nakamura” might be considered more respectful.

While these suggestions are some of the more important considerations in internationalizing your site, they are just the beginning. While many companies assume that some of the previous culture characteristics are the same across the board, it's much safer to assume that your potential global web users are all different. Deep research can identify the differences, and robust planning and design can help mitigate mistakes while keeping costs and timeframes under control.