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website localization tips

Working on a recent web localisation project with one of my customers brought home the importance of future-proofing your website to go global from the outset. Our client, when setting up their business, had not envisaged a time when they would need to reach customers outside of their own domestic market, and although their website had been updated a number of times within their 12 year existence, the site remained largely based on their original designs. Everything about the site – the architecture and layout, the use of graphics and formatting of text, made the process of localising the site a lengthy and time consuming experience. In the end our client decided on a complete redesign and refreshes of their site, one that would incorporate a global template (internationalisation at work here) and make the localisation process much more straight forward. The end result is a global site that works well in different locales. Foreign content can be added and our client’s web efforts can be effectively focused on providing targeted and relevant content.

From the start some websites are born to be global. They have enough initial investment to ensure that when they are ready to approach a new (foreign) market their structure is ready to be adapted to fit the needs of this potential market. They have planned from the outset their international marketing activities and have made compensation for this in their web design. However most websites (and businesses) are not this lucky. Most websites evolve over time and will incorporate a number of designs and redesigns, sometimes completely changing and adapting from their initial form (a great tool for seeing how sites evolve and change over time is the WAYBACK MACHINE at the internet archive).

If you’re a new business or are looking to start a new business you may not be thinking about going global straight away but it’s always worth making allowances for this provision in the future and making sure your web presence is completely adaptable to foreign markets. The key to this is ensuring your source design (whatever the primary language or location your site is built for) pays attention to design aspects that could work in other countries. Put simply, it’s all about culturally sensitive designs and making sure the elements that need to be changed, depending on location, can be done easily.

We’ve discussed issues about cultural sensitivity and design in other posts (and you don’t have to look very far to find examples of where global businesses and organisations have ignored this to their own costs) but as a recap here are our top 3 things we feel should be considered when designing a global web template:

Navigation icons: Navigation icons are a great way of simply indicating what a specific piece of information relates to on a website. A good example here is where a website with a multi-region offering indicates their global gateway (i.e. the point where you can select your preferred location/language from a list) by showing a map of the world or a globe. This works especially well as text saying ‘choose you language’ or ‘choose your location’ will make little sense if you do not speak English. If you’re choosing to use navigation icons within your global design you need to make sure those icons are universally accepted. The shopping basket icon for example is usually understood in most parts of Europe but maybe not so much in the US or Asia where a shopping trolley would have a greater level of understanding. Mail is another element that could be signified by many icons depending on your location (post box, mail box, etc) but is perhaps better universally understood by an envelope icon.

Photos and images: Photography and illustrations can help sell products and can enliven dull copy, however you need to make sure that any images you use can either be adapted to match their cultural setting or are universally accepted. Using images showing people on global templates can be risky. People’s faces, stance, clothes and ethnicity can make a big difference to people’s perception of a product or service. A better approach would be to stick to images of buildings or landscapes. If you are using images of objects or animals to enforce a sales message be aware that your chosen images may have a completely different (maybe even negative) connotation in other parts of the world. The OK symbol is often given as an example here (OK in Brazil is far from meaning OK), but perhaps a more subtle example here is of a computer hardware manufacturer using the image of an elephant in their global campaign to advertise memory sticks. In many parts of the world elephants are noted for having excellent memories, but in other parts they are not and the message is lost.

Colour: Most likely your colour choice for your global template will be largely dependent on your corporate colour pallet, however it would be worth considering what different colours signify to different cultures. Purple is a good colour for indicating how different cultures interpret colours. For example in the UK purple is often used in conjunction with royalty, whereas in Brazil it is a colour of mourning. In Turkey purple signifies nature, where as in Israel it can mean both divinity and also the sea. Purple in the US is often a colour closely related with bravery and nobility. As a general rule the colour blue appears to be the colour that globally has the most positive or neutral associations.

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Posted by Tom Wilson-Copp

Tom Wilson-Copp is a document design and production consultant who specialises in the project management and delivery of B2B services including design, localisation, off-line production and digital marketing.
With over 12 years experience working within the business services industry, Tom has worked for both large multinationals as well as bespoke service agencies.