How to Design Websites that Communicate Across Cultures

By Christian Arno. Filed in Web Design

There’s nothing as exciting as the theoretical possibility of reaching tens of millions of people all over the world with one single website.
In reality, chances are that, apart from some global phenomenon, most websites appeal to some countries but don’t appeal to others. Is there a way to create a website which appeals to all these different countries?

countries flags
(Image source: Fotolia)

The answer is yes. At the very least, there are some basic rules to follow, which will help enhance your website’s chances of attracting readers who speak different languages.

1. Define your Website

The worst mistake any content provider can make is to enter different markets with a product which doesn’t have a straightforward personality and hence, doesn’t deliver a clear message. If it doesn’t come across very quickly, that is, what your website is about, it’s quite unlikely that Internet readers from foreign countries will take the time to try to understand it. They will probably just quickly hit the "back" button. As soon as a visitor lands on your website, he/she must be put in the condition of realizing the essence of the website within a mere 30 seconds.

2. Define Your Target Markets

Once you know well what your product is, decide which markets to target. If your website is dedicated to French wine or Persian carpets, market research will provide you with precious information like which country your potential readers would be from. Or you can even go in as a pioneer, choosing to enter a market which is traditionally not very receptive to your type of content/product, but make sure that it is an educated risk that you are taking.

3. Keep the Language as Simple as Possible

The simpler the language you use on your website, the easier it is to be understood by an international audience. This point applies both to websites in just one language (English, most of the time) or to multi-lingual websites. Straightforward, non-idiomatic English that are not full of lingo or word play will be more accessible to an audience that does not have English as its first or second language. Even in the case of a website which provides multi-lingual versions of the content, a text written in plain English will be translated more easily, and at a lower cost.

4. Choose the Right Design

Design implies culture. To get a very quick idea of this simple statement, surf through the different versions of websites of multi-national brands such as the electronics company, Philips. The Dutch website shows a big picture of a northern landscape with soft colours and the presence of a middle-aged man pushing a bike in a park with a relaxed smile on his face: the message is one of tranquillity and a sense of wellbeing.

On the contrary, the Japanese version features two small Facebook icons on either side of the screen and a small central picture with a young Asian man wearing a white shirt and tie, holding an electric razor in a pose which communicates urban dynamism, determination and tight schedules.

It’s evident that the choice of the two different kinds of designs and messages has been made by Philips according to the two different cultures it is targeting.

5. Choose the Right Color

The choice of the right colour for a website is an important matter. We all know very well how colors can influence our instinctive reaction to places, products, even people. We know very well that, for example, many banks choose a blue background for their brand because it communicates a sense of trust. At the same time, we wouldn’t paint our bedroom black or bright red because we are aware that these are not colours which help us to relax, to say the least.

But when it comes to designing a website which has to tackle international markets, there are more considerations to be take in. Different colours have different meanings to different cultures. For example, while black in western countries is a sign of death, evil and mourning, in China it is the colour of young boys’ clothes. On the other hand, while white in Western culture represents marriage, peace, and medical help or hospitals, in China it stands for death and mourning. So, picking the right colour is not just a matter of appearance, it’s a matter of implicit messages and content.

6. Translation and Lengths

Targeting other countries with your website very often means providing your content in at least one other language.

In this case there are a number of important choices to make. The first and possibly the most important one, regards the type of translation: electronic versus human translator. The first choice comes with two great advantages: it’s quick and it’s free. Just download Google Chrome, a browser which features a built-in translation bar at the top of the page, and click "Translate". The drawback, however, is that mistakes and involuntary humour are a concrete risk. A (good) translator rules out these problems but might affect your costing.

However, there are less expensive options, such as the freelance portals www.peopleperhour.com or the translation website www.proz.com which offer translating peoples at competitive prices. Another possible solution is to start translating only some parts of your website into the second language, keeping the rest in your main language.

In any case, don’t forget that when content is translated into another language, the length of the text changes. So, keeping text separate from graphics is always a very wise move. For this purpose, I strongly recommend using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which allow the content to be kept separate from page design, and Unicode, the program with which you can switch between over 90 languages and thousands of characters.

A last consideration not to be overlooked is that not every country or every region has a fast broadband connection, so reducing the usage of Flash and heavy graphics to a minimum is recommended.

7. Promote your Website Locally

Social media is still the cheapest way to promote a website, but when your target is another country you might be surprised to find out that there are other options besides Facebook and Twitter.

In fact, there are many national top social platforms in various countries which you can use to promote your website on. Take your pick from the world map of Social Networks.

8. Mind your Tone

Just one more final small suggestion about communication. Apart from the actual languages, different cultures often use a different tone. An American website is very likely to use a much more approachable and direct style than an Arab or Japanese one.

Since you never know how different people from other countries could react to being addressed too informally, a good way to keep on the safe side is definitely to always be polite and respectful.

Conclusion

Keep in mind all of the above-mentioned points and your international adventure will start off on the right foot. When dealing with cross-cultural products, always try to walk in your client’s shoes and be sensitive of their views.

Editor’s note: This post is written by Christian Arno for Hongkiat.com. Christian is the founder of Lingo24, a multi-million dollar international translation and localization company with more than a hundred employees in over 60 countries.

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