The explosion of the internet has made business more global than ever before. In theory, even if you run a very small business, you can connect with customers and partners almost anywhere in the world for very little money, thanks to the power of the web.
That’s why it’s so important to put a lot of thought into designing your website, including how it will appear and appeal to international audiences.
The Tools of the Trade
Careful planning is the key to successfully designing a website for international audiences. Choosing the right tools from the very start of the project will help you to design your website well for a global audience.
For example, because using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) keeps the content of a website separate from the design, this makes it easier to adapt the content for specific target markets, even at a later date. You’ll be able to tailor the content to a particular language or country without having to recreate each page from scratch. You can even change the direction the text reads in, which would be useful if you’re translating into Hebrew or Arabic, for example.
Character coding tools such as Unicode UTF-8 are also useful. Compatible with numerous different languages, these tools allow you to easily switch between different scripts and characters without creating extra work.
There are some color ‘rules’ which apply almost anywhere – for example, white text on a yellow background would always be a no-no because it is not clear enough and could cause eye strain. Anyone who sees that on your site, wherever they are from, is likely to close their browser pretty sharpish.
However, there are also cultural considerations to bear in mind when it comes to color. In some cultures certain colors will have different meanings which should be borne in mind. For example, whilst in western cultures the color white is associated with weddings and cleanliness, in some Asian cultures it has strong connotations with death.
Similarly, red represents ‘danger’ or ‘passion’ in North America and Western Europe but it can mean ‘purity’ in India. Orange is often the color associated with the fall in the US, but in Northern Ireland, for example, it holds religious connotations.
It is best to consult an expert on the culture you’re targeting so that you do not make any faux pas and have the best chance of impressing international visitors.
As with color, it’s important to consider the cultural connotations of images and text on your website and a straight replication between one country and another is not necessarily appropriate. For example, a thumbs-up gesture is a positive sign in most western cultures but it can be very offensive in parts of West Africa, South America and the Middle East.
Again, the best thing to do is consult someone who is an expert in the culture that you’re targeting – they will help you avoid making an embarrassing and potentially costly mistake.
Whatever countries you’re targeting, it always helps to get a second opinion on your website. You can get so involved in the details that you miss the glaringly obvious. Take the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin, for example – their acronym used to be WTF until they wisely changed it to TFW.
Whilst graphics and animation can often improve a website, experts agree that it’s best to avoid Flash due to t problems such as SEO disadvantages and usability issues. It’s also a good idea to bear load speeds in mind – in many countries there is limited access to fast broadband connections. In some parts of the world, web access is still billed by the minute so websites that are slow to load will lose you visitors.
Images will also be a consideration here. Whilst images undoubtedly make a website more appealing, they do take longer to download. Consider limiting the size and number of images, especially when targeting countries with slower internet connections.
You should bear the navigation of your website in mind carefully if you’re considering adapting it for right-to-left languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew. Moving text and image boxes from one side of the page to the other each time you need to make a switch can be a lot of work. You can avoid this by keeping your site design symmetrical and using a horizontal rather than vertical navigation bar.
None of this means you should necessarily build a different website for each of your target markets – it just means it pays to be wary of cultural connotations and issues at the design stage of your website and use the right tools. This gives you the flexibility to adapt your web presence for different target markets.
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