Cross-cultural web design

Web design for the world

The second you launch your brand new, painstakingly thought-out and designed website onto the World Wide Web, you’re instantly global – anyone in the world (with a web connection) can and may stumble upon your site. It’s worth considering, then, that 78% of the 1.8 billion current web users do not speak English as a first language (Internetworldstats.com).

So if your website is designed solely with an English-speaking, western audience in mind, that’s less than a quarter of your potential online audience who’ll be interested in visiting your site. Crucially, for those sites with business in mind, research also shows that 85% of consumers will not buy from a website if they can’t read about the product in their own first language (Common Sense Advisory, 2006).

There’s more to designing a website that can successfully transcend borders than just offering automatic language translations, though. Extensive academic research into the topic of cross-cultural communication, especially as it applies to the online realm, concludes that different cultures can have very different ways of communicating.

High Context vs Low Context

Theorist Edward Hall posited that cultures can be defined as either ‘High Context’ or ‘Low Context’, High Context cultures being ones where communication is often implicit and governed by societal rules, such as in Japan or the Middle East, while Low Context cultures (such as Germany) communicate explicitly – the meaning is in the message, not in the body language or the social relationship between speakers.

What this means for website designers is that different cultures will have different preferences in design and content, in terms of what they perceive as credible and reliable. There is no one simple rule for design across all cultures – it’s a matter of studying similar competitors in each target market to establish what the rules are.

Practical Issues

Beyond the purely theoretical realm, though, there are also practical issues to consider when designing sites for several different cultural audiences, which should be considered before even undertaking the first stage of design, to avoid hassle further down the line.

Navigation

For instance, working with different languages will mean different line lengths and widths, not to mention the navigation issues raised by switching between left-to-right and right-to-left languages. Keeping your navigation bars horizontal should keep those navigation issues to a minimum.

CSS

On a technical level, using CSS will allow you to switch your content’s language between sites without redesigning each page from scratch, as you can keep your content separate from page design. Similarly, Unicode UTF-8 is highly recommended for character encoding, as it can handle the scripts of over 90 languages.

Colours

Colour is another important consideration, as different colours can mean vastly different things between cultures. Black or white text and  green or blue backgrounds have been found to be the most universally appealing, but you may want to look into the cultural connotations of your chosen colours in each target market before launching the site, for instance, orange in Northern Ireland (Protestantism) or green in the Middle East/Africa/Asia (holy colour of Islam).

Content

When it comes to the content itself, it’s important to ensure that the copy for each language and cultural group is researched and written with that specific audience in mind, and not simply a direct translation of the English version. You don’t want to inadvertently offend any potential readers with your tone, choice of language or, especially, a dodgy translation.

Translation and cultural background

The potential for confusing translations is huge – that’s why it’s crucial to use a professional translator working into their own language, to make sure you capture the correct local idiom and phrasing. You don’t want to end up like baby food manufacturer Gerber, who can’t sell their product in France or French Canada, since ‘gerber’ is the French word for ‘vomiting’.

Language translation isn’t the only area for potential confusion or embarrassment, though – the cultural, social, economic and political climate of each market should be taken into account as well. Take, for example, the mess that Pepsi got into in 2004 when it was sued over an advertising campaign by the Indian city of Hyderabad. The advert featured the Indian cricket team celebrating a win while being served Pepsi by a young boy; it may seem innocuous to a western observer, but to the Indian audience it blatantly glorified child labour.

By thinking of your potential global audience before starting the design of your site, you can devise a basic template that is innovative and has strong branding but is also flexible enough for you to copy it across a range of localised domains and tweak each one to the language and preferred colour scheme, imagery and design of each market. Why restrict your online presence to just the 22% of native English-speakers when you could be truly global?

Gary Hartley

Gary Hartley is The Floating Frog. A seasoned freelance web designer with skills in UI/UX, CRO design, WordPress, branding, PSD-HTML conversions and more. Got a project you need to start or take to the next level? Please, get in touch!