Web Page Design for International Audiences

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85% of all Internet users may be non-English speakers by the year 2018. Is your Web site ready to take advantage these new international markets? It will be - once you consider language differences, color expectations, basic cultural assumptions, and tweak your shopping cart to be sure it can handle international orders.


It's Not What You Say, But How You Say It

Don't assume the visitor is a native speaker of your language - or is even in the same country as you. Slang and advertising copy shouldn't be specific to a particular culture if you're trying to attract international visitors.


But the difficulties aren't limited to movies and popular culture. You even have to be careful with the different "flavors" of English! Just consider the difference between the dialects spoken in the United States, Australia, Great Britain, and the rest of the United Kingdom. Recently, the director of movie filmed in Scotland actually added subtitles for the benefit of American audiences even though the Scottish actors were speaking English!


In the United States, a jumper is a type of dress worn over a blouse or sweater. But in the United Kingdom, a "jumper" is a sweater. An American audience is apt to be somewhat puzzled if a British clothing Web site advertises a sale on "men's wool jumpers."


Say It Quickly Please!

Some webmasters use images to sidestep the language barrier. It is a good idea to use images to emphasize your copy. The American visitors would instantly understand the difference between American and British jumpers if the site includes a picture of the product with its description.


But there's a problem: images increase page download time. That's a problem with any audience, but surfers in the United Kingdom are apt to be particularly sensitive to slow-loading pages. Not because they're more impatient than other users, but because slow pages cost them money!


Consider these connection statistics from a government study of UK Internet usage:


  • 35% of connections are based on a flat fee, with no limit on online time.
  • 19% of connections are pay-per-minute calls.
  • The balance of connections use a combination of flat fee and pay-per-minute, so the user gets some number of minutes free and pays for extra minutes used.

Keep your UK visitors at your site by using HTML Toolbox to identify slow-loading pages and slim down your images using GIFBot, a free image optimization tool.


Careful With Those Colors

Your color choices may also make an international audience wonder about your intentions. Although the color white symbolizes purity in the United States, many Asian countries, white is the color of death and mourning!


Color is a consideration for all audiences, whether they're local or international. A particular color combination that attracts one demographic group may repel another. It's always important to know what segment of the audience you're targeting.


Define The Cultural Expectations

We recommend you study this terrific article by Aaron Marcus at the New Architect Web site titled "Are You Cultured? Global Web design and the dimensions of culture." Marcus takes the results of research done by Geert Hofstede and discusses how to apply those results to achieve truly global Web design.


He urges Web designers to consider important cultural characteristics when designing sites for global audiences:


  • Power distance: social hierarchies and political structures
  • Individualism: is it valued by the society?
  • Gender roles: traditional or egalitarian?
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Long-term versus short term goals



This is no simple matter. In some cases, cultural differences are so huge that large, global Web sites create different Web sites for different cultures. Marcus spotlights two Web sites developed by the Siemens Corporation that reflect the long-term versus short-term focus in Pakistan and China.


The Pakistani site "...shows a typical Western corporate layout  that emphasizes crisp, clean. Functional design and text aimed at achieving goals quickly. The version for China typically uses more pictures of people, emphasizing personal relationships."


A small or medium-sized site probably doesn't have the luxury of designing and maintaining different sites, but they can learn from the large sites that do. Find out where your visitors and customers live:


  • Study your server logs to see where the bulk of your visitors are coming from.
  • Use an online poll to ask visitors where they live.
  • Review your shipping records. Do you get any international orders?


Then take it slowly. If you have mostly an American audience now, it's not difficult to make some changes to appeal to other English speakers in Western nations. Then branch out. Submit your site to international search engines and study those server logs to see who visits, how long they stay, and whether they return.


Modify Your Shopping Cart

Don't forget this last step. International visitors may love your site and be intrigued by your products, but can they actually purchase them?


Check your shopping cart order form for country-specific form fields and make them more inclusive. Specifically, check your form validation script to see if you're requiring certain form fields that international visitors can't complete.


  • ZIP Codes: don't exist outside the United States.
  • State or Province: some countries aren't divided into states or provinces.
  • Country: add this field if you don't have it and consider making it mandatory.


A few other changes will make your site more attractive to international visitors:


  • Phone numbers: Add your country code. International customers need it to call you. Even if you have a toll-free number (an 800 or 888 number), include your regular number too. Visitors outside the country usually can't connect using the toll-free number. 
  • Shipping options: Always make sure international visitors can select a carrier that actually handles overseas shipments! And remember that all visitors want to know how much shipping costs before they complete the transaction, so make sure to prominently display shipping options and costs. 
  • Currency converter: International customers want to know how much the product costs in their own currency, not yours. Link your site to an online currency converter like the one at XE.com so visitors can instantly calculate total costs.


You may never create a single site that appeals to the whole world, but a little research and minor changes will help you create a global Web site that doesn't offend your intended audience.

e-Business Holdings Group