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Why international web sites fail

Why international web sites fail - medical translation"Build it and they will come" is an apt description of how many organizations design Internet sites for international users. This approach isn't overly concerned with cultural or national nuances and instead tends to ask the question "Why can't they all just speak English?"

And, in fact, many of the same rules of good web design apply, regardless of who the audience is, for example:

  • design for lowest common denominator in browser and screen resolution
  • make important functions easy to find
  • develop templates to help build consistent pages
  • ensure that pages print legibly in black and white
Unfortunately, regardless of language or market, many sites fall short of "good design" principles. Plus, when going overseas, a number of additional pitfalls are regularly encountered:

1. Making sites too personal
In much of the world, business interactions tend to be more formal than in North America. For example, in Japan, you wouldn't address people by their first name. This has an impact on web design where personalized sites are all the rage. Personalized greetings like "Welcome back, Frank" also don't work well in most parts of Switzerland - in fact, Frank will probably take his business elsewhere.

2. Running afoul of local laws
In Europe, privacy concerns loom large. For instance, some countries have strict rules to govern the use of browser "cookies". In addition, there are trade rules (you cannot sell an Dell PC to Cuba or Nazi paraphernalia on European sites) and health laws (the U.S. Agriculture Dept. bans the import of raw-milk cheeses) to contend with.

3. U.S.-centric world view
Many sites fall into this trap when the original developers did not know that foreign-language versions of the site would be created down the line. Commonly, problems exist with:
  • measurements (the metric system is the worldwide standard)
  • paper format (most of the world uses A4 when trying to print documents)
  • dates (the international norm is ISO 8601:2004(E))
  • time (most countries use the 24-hour clock)
  • a lack of internationalization, i.e., translatable items are not separated from the code.
4. Poor foreign-language support
Nothing says to an international visitor that this site isn't built for Europeans than a square box being displayed (instead of the Euro symbol) because the page was built with an incorrect character endoing. Similarly, many sites don't check (or don't know how to check) that their forms can handle double-byte input, and that overseas email messages aren't garbled by the company's servers.

5. Difficult-to-use international gateway
After going through the expense and hassle of providing international sites, it is astonishing how many organizations make it difficult for the user to find their non-English sites. Sometimes access is buried in an "international" text link at the bottom of a page or access to foreign-language pages is via country flags, which may or may not represent the visitor's language. For instance, does the flag of France represent all French speakers worldwide?.

The upshot: there is no universally perfect way of handling this but you want to make sure that you make your international site easy to use - for most of your users, most of the time.

6. U.S. look and feel
Designers beware: some icons don't travel well! A common example of this is the ubiquitous shopping cart. It is easy to forget (or never to know) that the shopping experience in Korea or Switzerland is quite different from that in the U.S. and that if I live in one of these countries, my shopping container looks very different.

Japanese and Westerners have fundamentally different design tastes. Be sure to scrutinize colors, GIF designs, and American symbols and expressions for their appropriateness overseas and develop international sites that meet local needs.

7. Pages that are too heavy
Nothing turns off users quicker than slow-loading sites. Heavy pages are usually caused by too many large, high-resolution graphics. But designers love graphics and many forget that in some regions of the world, getting a modem connection is a challenge. If you are going to create a heavy, slow site, you better make it worth the wait.

Going global gracefully
The key to successful marketing has always been to speak to your customer's needs. When entering foreign markets, you must first speak your customer's language. A multilingual web site represents a critical step toward cementing your company's international presence.

By combining best-of-breed globalization technology and translation services, companies can enhance their international brands, improve their market positions, and make their global Internet presence a resounding success.

Three more to read:
ForeignExchange Translations provides specialized medical translation services to the world's leading pharmaceutical and medical device companies.


  1. Joshua Mcshane said...
    Nice article here, I am not a fan of international gateways. I've found that its much better to setup a separate domain with a local domain extension instead of just providing a sub-domain.

    This is not suitable for all cases; but it is worth considering especially if you're investing a lot in a region.
    ForeignExchange Translations said...
    Hi Joshua - That's a really good point and a tricky subject.

    For instance, if you look at Google Germany, searchers have 3 choices -- "Global" "German Language" and "Germany".

    Like you indicated, one size doesn't fit all but it's really important to think about topics like site expansion, usability, and branding before you select an approach.

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