International Differences: Language

by Luke Wroblewski February 15, 2005

When designing interfaces for international products, a number of localization considerations can emerge including best practice variations, socio-economic differences, and visual design (most notably layout) distinctions. The cultural differences that trigger these considerations can impact interface features and layout in significant ways. As a result, it’s a good idea to be aware of what might be around the bend. Differences in language, in particular, can introduce substantial layout and information architecture variability.

For starters, non-English content tends to be longer than its English counterpart. In French and German, character length averages 30-50% more than English and can easily be 100% longer for short phrases. Chinese and Japanese, on the other hand, are often shorter and require unique typographic treatments. This requires very flexible layout designs (to accommodate changing line lengths and heights) or unique layout solutions for different locales.

Right-to-left vs. Left-to-right reading variations between cultures also impact interface design solutions. Usability by Design recently pointed out that interface layouts that are simply translated from left-to-right languages to right-to-left languages introduce problems with visibility. Users simply don’t see (and therefore don’t consider) controls or options due to their positioning.

Labels can also be quite problematic as translation processes often lack the context behind content selections and thereby result in non-standard or confusing terminology for users. As anyone that has sat through a usability test or two can testify, confusing or non-descriptive terms on category labels and calls to action are some of the most common usability problems. This issue can be multiplied by out of context translations. Peter Van Dijck recently outlined some general translation problems that can lead to confusing categorization:

  • Culture-specificity: not all categories exist in all cultures
  • Semantic overlap: a lot of categories don’t mean exactly the same in different languages
  • Differences in granularity: Germans don’t have a word for skidding, but they do have two words, Rutschen and Schleudern, for skidding forwards and skidding sideways.

The right solution to translation, of course, is cultural experts that can inform correct action and category labels. Google has addressed this by allowing their international user base to translate products for them. Assuming a correct translation process: be prepared for the occasional organizational or interaction design change to emerge in order to better “fit” an interface design into a specific culture’s language.