A few years back companies could design a site for local audiences and ignore the user base which was beyond their expected demographic of users. However with companies expanding beyond their local demographic and moving their base of operations into multiple regions, there is an increasing demand to ensure that the site design can cater to the requirements of those regions. Designing for multiple regions with different cultural connotation and adopting best website design practices can be a daunting experience. Some best practices in a particular country might be a very offensive practice in another country, therefore requiring us to be extra careful.
Examples to reiterate this point are:
- A golf ball manufacturing company packaged golf balls in packs of four for convenient purchase in Japan. Unfortunately, the number 4 is equivalent to the number 13 because it sounds like the word “death”.
- When the US firm Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as in the US, i.e. with a picture of a baby on the label. Sales flopped and they soon realized that in Africa, companies typically place pictures of contents on their labels.
- EuroDisney made a major mistake when it created a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign using the color purple. For the Catholics of Western Europe, purple signifies the crucifixion, and it’s a color of mourning rather than a happy place as Disney sites are known to be. The end result was that EuroDisney flopped.
Due to multiple failures like this, companies are investing more time in understanding the cultural differences and best practices which should be followed while designing sites for international audiences.
Though it would be really difficult to ensure that all the cultural aspects are identified and analyzed before designing a site or application, there are some basic standards which must be followed before implementing a site:
Work with Unicode
Irrespective of the language which the site is going to be developed in, care should be taken that the development is done in Unicode. Unicode is a computing industry standard, designed to promote and facilitate the consistent representation of text, irrespective of the script. Thus any written language i.e. English, Hindi, Arabic or Hebrew irrespective of whether it reads from left to right or right to left will be catered for as Unicode. The Unicode has a repository of over hundred thousand characters supporting over 100 scripts. The complete list of languages and scripts supported by Unicode can be seen at the Unicode Consortium CLDR’s chart pages.
The most common character encoding for Unicode is UTF-8, which is a variable-length encoding representing every character in the Unicode character set. And, unlike UTF-16 and UTF-32, it is backwards-compatible with ASCII, meaning UTF-8 is increasingly becoming the default encoding system for e-mail and websites.
Understand Cultural Symbols and Their Symbolic Meanings
While choosing graphics for a site, we must stay sensitive about its meaning according to the culture where the site is going to be launched. While certain symbols might be accepted almost everywhere around the world, seemingly innocent and daily symbols might be a cause for specific spite in some countries. For example, the “thumbs-up” gesture is used in many countries as an affirmation of success or approval. As a matter of fact, Facebook’s “Like” symbol based upon the thumbs up gesture which has general acceptance. However, in modern day Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Greece, Italy and France this simple gesture can be considered as very impolite. In fact, it is often considered as the equivalent of the “middle finger salute” used in the US and UK.
Another example is the Swastika: most of us will associate it with the Nazi movement. But for Hindus, it is the symbol of good luck and well-being. The swastika is used in all Hindu yantras and religious designs.
Similarly while the color green is considered very lucky in Ireland, a green hat is considered very offensive in China where it symbolizes infidelity.
Understand Color Symbolism in Different Cultures
One aspect of design that can have far reaching and sometimes unintentional effects on readers is color. Colors have different meanings in different cultures and therefore designers must ensure that the color combinations used while designing a website do not affect local sensitivities.
Understanding color can be a tricky challenge and many color meanings can almost seem contradictory — particularly in the West, where color meanings are extremely broad. Also certain colors are strongly associated via culture to emotions and beliefs and even historical facts (e.g. Yellow in China is considered as the color of the emperor and hence considered as royalty). Some interesting color representations and their cultural symbolisms are given below:
Reference: Colors in different cultures
McDonalds is an excellent example of a global organization which designs their local sites to reflect not only the local design standards but also the culture. To show an example of their use of color to reflect their respect the local customs, take the example of the local sites for India and Kuwait.
In India, the color red is used as an example of purity and hence McDonald’s follows a color scheme which is very reddish in color as shown by this screenshot
There is an excellent article Color and cultural design considerations which should be read to get a deeper understanding of how color is perceived in different countries
Second installment of the blog is coming soon!
Lead UX Program Manager
Mervin F Johnsingh