In 2000, at the height of the ‘Dot-com Bubble', only 6.8% of the world’s population was online; by 2015, that number had grown to 44%.
This influx in international users created an unprecedented opportunity for many companies. Enterprise that had expanded handily in its homeland was now presented with the chance to test its viability in new markets in various countries with significantly less overhead than immediately opening an outpost.
Yet entering a new market poses many challenges for businesses large and small. While a website or application may find great success in one country, there are a number of stylistic nuances that may unwittingly repel a customer in another. 38% of users will stop engaging with a website if the content/layout is unattractive — a troubling number when stylistic preferences can vary so widely between cultures.
There were nearly 80,000 corporations operating transnationally in 2006, and many of them have found a way to adjust their designs and messaging to appeal to the new market, however many others have been tripped up by frustrating cultural differences.
When entering a new market, one of the most important things you can do to ensure success is to meet expectations. With only seconds to make a first impression, it is important for your site to communicate to a potential user “you belong here” by incorporating visual trends and cues of the websites they are already using. A user interface and experience that fits their expectations will subconsciously validate it to be trustworthy and worthwhile.
Using “Design Localization” — the adaptation of user interfaces and user experiences to more closely align with the customs of a specific market — many enterprises have bridged the gap between diverse consumers to build a wholly international customer base.
Localization in its many forms
Localization is neither a new term nor new web concept. It is most frequently associated with the translation of web pages to match a user’s location. However it also extends to altering numeric and date formats, currency, keyboard shortcuts, and adjusting text to align with the user’s cultural norms as well.
With 86% of localized campaigns outperforming English campaigns in both click-through and conversion rates and a documented 47% increase in search traffic from localizing content, we can easily conclude that the benefits of geo-targeting are striking.
Design localization is common in terms of product design. Corporations long ago discovered that certain products will sell better in different markets depending on that country’s culture.
“A big reason for why we released the gold iPhone is because many Chinese consumers like the color gold,” Tim Cook told Bloomberg Businessweek.
Following Apple’s release of their gold iPhone, sales in China skyrocketed. Similarly, companies like McDonald’s have launched country-specific menu items catering to the unique tastes of each culture — items like McAloo Tikka and Cheese Katsu Burger which have performed incredibly well in their respective markets — though may cause some confusion if found on a US menu.
Web Design Localization
Web design localization is the natural next step in the evolution of these other localization trends.
Design localization goes beyond merely translating and text-aligning to specifically designing for the cultural trends, values, and norms of a group to connect with different markets.
Yoast writes about their experience and reflections upon designing for cultural differences. Based in the Netherlands, they examined the differences between dentists’ websites in the Netherlands vs those in the United States.
Their findings are a model example of design localization. US websites prominently featured galleries of smiling people with brilliantly white teeth, whereas the Dutch sites lacked the pictures of white teeth (since white teeth are not considered the epitome of a healthy smile there) and took a much more business-centered approach.
Had the dentists’ sites for the Netherlands featured galleries of smiling people, Dutch visitors may have deemed the site unconvincing or unable to meet their standards of oral health.
The Dutch and American sites may be in the same industry, but they are separate companies who are excelling because they are aware of their home countries' preferences. The new development seems to be occurring when the same company has two different experiences to account for those preferences.
French web design employs very neutral or monochromatic palettes in their aesthetic, while their US counterparts apply high contrast, bright color schemes to entice American audiences.
While the two versions both design with tiles, the French version’s muted colors interspersed with pictures is meant to purposefully draw the eye to specific examples and the American version fits into the current Material Design trend. These motifs reappear repeatedly between the two countries.
Perhaps one of the most striking differences in web design exists between Japan and the US. Heavily text-based and information focused, Japanese websites look drastically different from many other countries’.
“Logographic-based languages can contain a lot of meaning in just few characters.” writes randomwire. “While these characters can look cluttered and confusing to the Western eye, they actually allow Japanese speakers to become comfortable with processing a lot of information in short period of time / space.”
Comparatively, alphabet-based languages often need entire sentences to convey a single meaning — making images a much more effective means of displaying information and emotion.
A website emphasizing imagery would come across as uninformative to a Japanese consumer whereas a text-centric website would seem mundane to an American user.
Design Localization examples, clockwise from top left: Yahoo! Japan, US, South Africa, and France.
Many companies are already investing in design localization, Yahoo! (shown above) is one of them. Their content, colors, and layouts are tailored to the cultures and ideals of specific markets.
In an increasingly globalized world, one with increasingly more competition, more advertisements, and more people vying for our attention, only the targeted, personalized, and localized content will break through the noise to win market share.
Design localization may only be starting to catch on today, but in the future it will be a requirement of companies looking to expand internationally.