Dave Woods - Freelance Web Design Warwickshire

Perspectives on Cross-Cultural Web Design

It’s easy to get caught up in the design of your website. Transforming sketches and notes from the back of a napkin into a bunch of all-singing, all-dancing web pages gives a tremendous sense of achievement to amateurs and professionals alike: turning visions into realities certainly is satisfying.

However, those who are new to the game should remember that web design isn’t about you. It’s about the end user. Unlike penning a song, or painting a picture, which can give pleasure to the artist irrespective of the quality of the end-product, web design is all about the end product. And if you’re going to upload it to the World Wide Web (why wouldn’t you, after all…), it has to look good and offer something useful to the user.

With that in mind, you have to first establish who is likely to visit your site. Or more importantly, who you want to visit your site.

The thing with the internet is, it’s global. Anyone from London to Lahore can access your carefully crafted pages, and with almost two billion internet users across the globe, you probably can’t cater for all cultural palettes…but you can certainly make your site as widely appealing as possible.

Our culture affects the way we see the physical world. And the virtual world often uses metaphors to replicate the physical world, that’s why websites use familiar points of reference, such as menus, checkouts, shopping trolleys, buttons. If a screen’s display was made from ones and zeroes only the geekiest of geeks would ever bother to surf the cyber highway.

So how do you build a website that’s compatible with a cacophony of cultures? Well, let’s start with the very basics.

Cultural Sensitivity

A lady with liberal clothing may be acceptable to western audiences, but it may be well wide of the mark in appealing to the tastes in more conservative cultures. So it’s best to avoid any potentially divisive content, whether it’s sexual, religious, gender, age or nationality. We can hear the groans of ‘boorrriingg’ already, but if you want a professional site, you have to be professional.

Don’t be a Flash in the Pan…

So you have 20Mbps fibre-optic broadband, excellent, you can probably download music and stream video like turning on a tap. Unfortunately, many countries in Africa, Asia, South America and even the Middle East don’t yet have high-speed internet, meaning you should go-easy on the heavy graphics and bandwidth-consuming Flash animations. Surfers in more developing regions might hang around for 10 minutes for an image to load…but they probably won’t.

That doesn’t mean you build text-only websites. All it means is you give the user the option of your flashy, bells-and-whistles pages and a simple HTML version. Everyone’s a winner.

Colour Surround

Web designers, like anyone, will have their favourite colours. They may play around with different combinations before arriving at something they’re happy with. But remember, it’s not what the web designer thinks that counts…it’s what the end user thinks that counts.

Of course you can’t develop colour schemes to suit everyone, it is entirely subjective. As a general guideline, light-coloured backgrounds, in conjunction with dark text, have proven to be the most popular and universally liked colours for internet users, and it’s certainly the easiest to read.

But you can of course play about with different colours to find something that is visually appealing and accessible to the eyes. However, it’s worth noting that different colours can mean different things in different countries.

Whilst black is the colour of ‘death’ in western society, many eastern cultures use white to denote this. Similarly, red denotes ‘danger’ or ‘love’ in most western countries, but it means ‘purity’ in India.

Orange has religious connotations for Protestants in Northern Ireland…and whatever you do, don’t put a picture of a green hat on your website. In China it means a man’s wife is cheating on him.

Use Unicode

Even if you don’t have any immediate plans to appeal to international audiences, you may in the future. For that reason, you’re best designing your website in Unicode.

UTF-8 is a variable-length character encoding for Unicode that is compatible with over 90 scripts (written languages…) and 100,000 characters. Unicode has been adopted by most of the industry’s big players, including Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and is compatible with all the common browsers and operating systems.

Using UTF-8 means you will be able to use characters from many non-English alphabets knowing that they’ll almost certainly be displayed properly at the user’s end.

Speaking in Tongues

A visually appealing website is great…but it’s the content that’ll make people come back. Well over a third of the global online population is in Asia, and China alone has 30% more internet users than the US.

Moreover, only a quarter of the world’s population speak English, 94% of whom do so as a second language. Language is key to globalisation and it’s one of the last remaining barriers in creating a true global marketplace.

Even if you plan an English-only website, the various English dialects around the world are different enough to consider how you write your text. If you want to appeal to UK, US, Canadian and Australian demographics, you’re best going easy on the culture-specific references that someone in Manchester might understand, but someone in Massachusetts won’t. This includes watching what slang and colloquialisms you use.

If you’re translating your website, bear in mind the French in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada is decidedly different. And the Spanish in Spain isn’t quite the same as the Spanish in Latin America. You have to consider the dialectal differences between your target markets, even if they share the same language.

The golden rule of web design is you must consider the end user at every turn. And with almost two billion potential users, you sure have a lot of people to consider!

About the author
Christian Arno is the founder of Lingo24, a global translations company that specialises in website localisation. With 120 employees working across four continents, and clients in over sixty countries, Lingo24 achieved a turnover of £3.65m in 2009.