Website Localization: 3 Basic Principles

You’ve heard everything I’m going to say before. Don’t stop reading though, because what I’m getting ready to tell you is all new information.

See, here’s the trick—designing a website with the knowledge that it’s going to be localized or translated doesn’t really take more work than designing a website you know will only be viewed by speakers of a single language living in a single culture. It doesn’t require any extra principles. There’s no new skill to learn and there’s no magic wand to waive. You just have to design a good solid website from the very beginning. You already have the foundations down or you wouldn’t be taking your craft to the next level by reading User Experience magazine.

That’s because translation is like a prism: at any given point, a single piece of glass can be turned and a rainbow of beautiful colors are unlocked. So when localizers like me take your site and turn it, we shine the world upon the wall. However, we need a solid foundation to start with. If your glass is broken or dirty, if the glass itself is clouded, no matter how we twist it, we won’t get all the colors.

In this article I’m going to take the basic principles of web design and show you how to turn your one-language-only piece of glass into a multicultural spectrum with nothing more than a twist of hand. In other words, we’re going to discuss three concepts you’ve heard before, but we’re going to look at them through the lens of localization so you can prepare your site for users from any language, any culture, anywhere.


Principle #1: “Don’t make me think.” (I told you you’d heard this before.)

Steve Krug had it right in his book of the same title when he called this the common sense approach. But the sheer fact that currently 56% of websites are only available in English shows the simplest UX principle isn’t being applied.

We’ve all heard the stats before. Only 13% of all internet users are in North America. More people in Africa surf the web on a cell phone than own a toothbrush. In Latin America—the focus area for this issue of UX—internet access via mobile grows an average of 50% per year. Multiple platform e-commerce alone is growing at 156%. When Woodrow Wilson first proposed the League of Nations, he did it post-World War I with the idea of bringing the world together for peace. Seventy years later, every country of the world is united online. When English is the only language your site is available in, you not only make the rest of the world think, you make them think in a foreign language.

Just as “don’t make me think” pays off for monolingual UX, it pays off for multilingual UX as well. This is about more than being polite—it’s about booming business. In an eight country survey, 72.4% of consumers said they’re more likely to purchase if a website is in their native language. Of EU consumers, 42% never purchase products or services in a foreign language, even if they speak it fluently. In China this figure grows to 95%. Nelson Mandela once said, “If you speak to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Well, it also goes to his wallet. That’s why the same survey showed that global consumers were, in fact, unilaterally willing to spend more money if a website was in their native language.

That’s because people are people wherever they go. User experience goes downhill when people have to think. Make them think in a foreign language and you might as well not even bother.

So the first rule for localizing your website? Do it.

Principle #2: “Omit needless words.” Or, write cleanly.

The first step toward localizing your website for other countries and cultures is translating the user interface language. The second is to make the writing that needs to be translated concise. People skim. (You’re probably skimming this article now, aren’t you?) Krug’s scanning versus reading principles hold for foreign cultures too. Additionally, we have to remember that translation is billed by the word. So the fewer words your site has, the less money your boss has to pull out of your budget to pay for translation. Also, the more clearly you write, the less likely it is that you will have translation errors. That’s because, regardless of language, words don’t translate directly from one language to another. In Spanish alone there are more than 100 ways to say the English word “run.” (For examples, see 100 Ways to Say Run in Spanish.)

In part, this is because languages vary from country to country. Because I am a good gas-guzzling American, I keep a spare tire in my car trunk. But a Brit would put her “tyre” in the boot. Try to put a tyre into one of my boots and you’ll flatten a pair of Pradas. Language varies from country to country, so write clearly. And if you’re translating your site for Portugal, it is very likely you will have to translate it again for Brazil.

But even if you’re targeting a single country, there may still be over 100 ways to say “run.” Translators need context in order to pick the right usage.

To use a word from the UX world, when your user says she wants to go home, she probably means her home screen. But she could be using a map app and mean her house (Figure 2). If you send translators strings of words in isolation and don’t provide context, we won’t know which “run” to choose. There might be 99 wrong answers to choose from.

It may be easier to give your translators the user interface (UI) strings and expect them to take over from there. But unless you’re big on wasting money, leave in the context. This can be as easy as entering and leaving the metadata. Never give us strings in isolation. If your site is already up and running, share the live links. Make sure we can see your design, even if it’s still in development. Maybe your site won’t be live before translation because you want all language versions to launch at once. That’s okay. Just share screenshots of your work so far and tell us your plans. Never trust a translator who takes your strings and runs or you’ll run into your fair share of difficulties.

Principle #3: Logical design vs. confusing design.

In a way, logical design versus confusing design is still about not making people think. In English, there’s a reason why the trash can on your computer’s desktop screen is at the bottom right-hand side. Since English-speakers read from left to right and top to bottom it makes sense to put it in the place where, if you are reading your desktop like a page, it ends. But to someone who speaks Arabic, having a trash can in that spot is confusing because Arabic reads from right to left. so the trash can is now at the beginning.

There is a reason why people in my world talk about localizing a website as something succinctly different from translating one. Translation is changing the words from one language to another. Localization is about changing everything else. And when I say everything, I mean everything—colors, photographs, icons, and yes, navigation. To quote Krug again, “Navigation reveals content.” And we’re changing your content to suit a brand new country or culture. So navigation may need to change as well.

Where you place your action items affects the action your users take. When a language reads from right to left you cannot put “next” on the right and “back” on the left. That’s the opposite of how your user reads! What was highly logical navigation in one language becomes highly confusing navigation in another.

Which languages read from right to left? Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu, Farsi, Amharic, and Yiddish all fall in this category, as well as many others. Some languages, like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, read in multiple directions depending on the context.

So how do you plan for this? As a designer, you’re busy developing one website, much less having to plan for the possibility of developing for two. Plus I promised you limited extra work.

Vertical navigation is always an idea since it removes the need for a right or left start and helps set up your page for native mobile, a direction most websites are trending toward.

Another great trick is accessibility. As web design becomes more about optimizing and designing for mobile, accessibility has grown to include making sure left-handed users have an identical experience to right-handed users. Even though a left-handed English speaker will still read from left to right, due to the increase in mobile and touch screens, a fully accessible site allows equal access from the left side. If you create with the left-handed user equally in mind, you’ll already have a platform that’s easy to localize for left-to-right readers (Figure 1).

An image of an English website page beside the same page localized for Korean users.

Figure 1. An example of a website landing page that is designed logically with vertical navigation. The design makes translation and localization more effective and efficient.

As recently as 2000, English was the dominant language of the internet by a 26% margin. But by 2011, that margin had dropped to 3%. China has had more new web users onboard in the last three years than there are total users in the United States. People of the world are coming together online.

The basic principles needed to reach all of them are not new; everything I’ve recommended, at its foundation, is just a basic tenant of solid website design. As a professional, you’re used to considering UX as you develop. It just takes a little extra awareness to design knowing that your user may not think, look, or speak like you. But the glass is already in place. We just need to turn it to make your website shine in all the colors it can.

Bell, T. (2014). Website Localization: 3 Basic Principles. User Experience Magazine, 14(4).
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