You want to create a multilingual website so that you can connect directly with your customers around the globe. You understand that the first step in doing so will, of course, be translation of the content.
However, a multi-language website often entails much more than just content translation. There are the customer interfacing elements themselves that need to be re-considered. There are also design elements such as color, font, orientation of the website, visuals, etc., that are equally important.
In this post, we’ll look at seven critical factors in the design of a multilingual website.
1. A Global template or a completely localized design from the ground up?
There are two ways to create different versions of your website for different locales: create a global template and work off of that for each version. This way, you keep the look and feel of the site uniform across languages and locales. It conveys a unified brand voice and helps in creating a strong brand recall. Remember: your multilingual visitors may visit different language versions of your website. So, a global template gives them a consistent view, which can go towards creating trust in the brand and the quality it stands for.
At the content management system (CMS) level, too, it helps with many elements on the site like e-commerce plug-ins and themes. Everything can continue to be the same behind-the-scenes and not much re-engineering is required.
However, if you want to create a truly localized website, a global template has its limitations. Take, for instance, a website for the Japanese market. The Japanese sense of aesthetics is quite different from that commonly held in the West. The Japanese reader is used to a busier, information-filled look in newspapers and books. Online, too, it re-creates familiarity and ease in navigating the website.
In such a situation, you have to take a call on how you want to represent your brand: whether it must convey the “original” spirit or localize itself to the locale so that it can create a second home in the target market.
Sometimes, the choice doesn’t have to be so difficult or black and white. Starbucks created a Japanese website and an English website for the Japan market. The Japanese website design was completely localized. The English website was more for the expat customer and helped them connect with the Starbucks brand they were familiar with. Global businesses can take a leaf out of Starbucks’ global design and arrive at similarly creative approaches.
2. Display the global gateway prominently. Make life easy for your visitors and yourself.
After putting in all that effort to create translated websites for each locale, why would anyone not want to make it easy for their multilingual visitors to find the website in their native language? And yet, this happens far too frequently.
The button which helps people navigate to different country/locale/language websites is called the global gateway. The ideal place to position the global gateway is somewhere in the top third space of a website, but sometimes it’s hidden away at the bottom, taking many scrolls to get there.
Many a time, visitors may entirely miss your language offerings, and you then have no one to blame but yourself.
The global gateway must also offer choices listed by locale and not by language. This is because a language may be spoken in many countries. An Argentinian may choose the Spanish language option, but she would want to buy products available in her home country. So, she wants to navigate to the Argentina website and be able to transact in Spanish. Now, imagine if on choosing Spanish, she is directed to Spain’s country website.
Displaying flags to indicate a language is also not a good idea for the following reasons:
A flag represents a country, not a language.
A country may have more than one language. It may irk visitors to choose the Swiss website and land up on a French-language version, when they might actually be German speakers.
The flag icons may become too small on some gadgets, making it difficult for people to identify their country websites.
3. Browser-led language detection can work, except when it doesn’t
You can automatically re-direct a visitor to the appropriate country site, based on their location. You can get this information from the language or location settings of the user’s browser. However, this can work for and against the users.
If a user from Russia visits your website, it would automatically take them to the Russian website, but the user may not necessarily be a Russian speaker. In such a situation, it would help if a language/location overriding button would be available for the visitor so that they can make their choice manually.
4. Text expands and contracts in translation
When text is translated from English to most other languages, it can take up anywhere between 30%-300% more space. If you don’t provide space for this text expansion, it can look awkward on forms and other web pages.
On the other hand, some languages can take up much lesser space than English. For instance, in Japanese and Chinese languages, a single character can convey a lot of meaning. Then, the space for text has to reduce, else there will be too much white space on the page.
All this is taken care of in internationalization, a process that readies any website or app for localization.
5. Take care of formats for date, address, time
Even when countries have the same language, they may have different currencies. Or, they may display time and date in different ways. Addresses might follow different conventions, so may numbers and decimal figures.
Getting these right is critical for companies on their e-commerce platforms. Else, it can confuse customers and may make them leave the site. It might also cause serious errors in transactions.
6. Colors and visuals can make it or break it
Colors create strong connotations in our mind. Some cultural connotations are shared among the people of a region. For instance, you might not want to gift anything in red to your Japanese friends on the occasion of their house-warming, as they associate red with fire.
Visuals are used in marketing to create messages that resonate. However, when you are going across cultures, the same image may mean different things. Something which is considered casual in one culture may be offensive in another.
But it’s not just about pictures. You have to be sensitive about the icons you use, too. If an icon of a globe is prominently displaying the map of only one country, visitors from other countries can feel excluded.
7. Provide for right-to-left and vertical orientations
Languages such as Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, and Urdu are written from right to left. This changes the way every single thing is positioned on the site. Menu buttons, navigation elements, forms, graphics all have to be re-aligned to create a mirror image. It’s like you flip the interface completely. Many small details have to be taken care of, such as English text on an Arabic page. Both have to be displayed in a way that is not jarring.
Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (CJK) can be written horizontally as well as vertically. The orientation is chosen depending on the type of content. Usually, more serious, academic texts and business documents have a horizontal orientation.
A multilingual website has many moving parts. However, when well done, it serves your international customers efficiently and strengthens your brand in overseas markets.