The world is a big place. Its size, however, is made far more palatable thanks to the internet. The World Wide Web is a labyrinth of networked computers connecting people from all four corners of Earth, enabling real-time communication irrespective of a person’s time-zone.
The very second you launch a website into cyberspace it’s global. Traditionally, the Web has been very English-centric, due in part to most of the internet’s biggest-players being US-based, but perhaps also due to the fact that English has emerged as a sort of default language – it is, after all, the world’s most commonly spoken ‘second language’.
But consider this: Asia accounts for over 40% of the world’s internet users; China has 30% more internet users than the US; 75% of the world’s population speak no English at all; web-users are four times more likely to buy from a website in their native language.
Ultimately, people prefer to search the internet in their native tongue – which means there’s a strong case for making a website as accessible as possible to international, non English-speaking audiences.
However, even if your initial plan is to target English-speaking markets only, you can still build your site to be as flexible and adaptable as possible, so that any future development plans can be implemented with ease.
There are a myriad of linguistic, cultural and technical considerations to be made when crafting your pages for the web. Global web designers, read on…
The international language of Unicode
Well, Unicode isn’t a language, it’s a standard developed by the IT industry to help with the handling of texts across many different writing systems.
The Unicode Standard has over a hundred thousand characters (107,000, to be precise…) covering 90 scripts (written languages), meaning that the likes of Arabic or Hebrew – which read from right-to-left (RTL), can be displayed correctly across a multitude of browsers and platforms.
More specifically, UTF-8 is a variable-length character encoding for Unicode, which can represent any character defined in the ‘Unicode Standard’. It is also backwards compatible with ASCII. Crucially, UTF-8 has been embraced by most of IT’s biggest players, such as IBM, Microsoft, Apple and Oracle.
The bottom line is you should design your website whilst adhering to the Unicode Standard – it’ll make your life a lot easier further down the line should you decide to translate your website.
Bells and whistles: don’t be a flash in the pan
Broadband is pretty standard across most of Western society and the dawdling days of dial-up are, thankfully, consigned to sepia. However, many parts of Latin America, Africa, Asia and even the Middle East aren’t yet switched on to high-speed internet.
This means you should go easy on the bandwidth-sapping graphics and Flash animations. Or, at the very least, you should give the user the option of a text-only version – the chances are they won’t want to hang around 20 minutes for an image to load.
Don’t be color blind…and avoid green hats!
Everyone – web designers included – will have their favorite colors. During a website’s design phase, it’s normal to play around with different color combinations before arriving at something that’s pleasing to the eye and fitting with the theme of the website.
But remember, it’s not what the designer thinks that counts, it’s the end-user that matters – and that could be anyone from London to Lahore. As a general guideline, light-colored backgrounds, in conjunction with dark text, have proven to be the most popular and universally liked colors for internet users, and it’s certainly the easiest to read.
And whilst color preference is entirely subjective, some colors also hold cultural significance which should inform your final decision.
Black is the color of death/mourning across most of western society, but in many eastern cultures the color is white. Similarly, red denotes ‘danger’ or ‘love’ in most western countries, but it means ‘purity’ in India.
And whatever you do, don’t upload an image of a green hat to your website: in China, this means a man’s wife has been unfaithful to him.
A design for life
The layout of a website is a key consideration in the design phase. Having a standard template aids consistency across your various web pages, but it shouldn’t impede your website’s dexterity.
The template must facilitate the use of longer texts, tables, graphics, images etc. A good example of this is German, which typically uses longer words than English, so you may need additional space when converting your English text into tongues such as German. Whatever template you use in your site it must be flexible and expandable.
Now go global…
These tips should set you on course to build a flexible, adaptable and – crucially – culturally sensitive website. Good luck…now go global!