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Creating a Website Design That Communicates Across Cultures

Online Marketing

The growth of ecommerce has opened up new opportunities for companies of all sizes. Small businesses are finding it’s relatively easy and cost-effective to reach customers around the world. And more and more people are looking outside their borders to find great deals. For example, millions of Canadian shoppers are logging on to US retail sites, enticed by cheap prices and wider selections of products.

Developing international websites can dramatically expand your customer base. But there’s more to cross-cultural communication than simply translating the site.  Some of the best opportunities are in emerging markets, such as Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. To reach them effectively, you might want to re-think your website design, from menu bars and navigation to images and colors.

A site that works effectively for your domestic consumers might look dull or confusing to viewers in China or Japan. An image or color scheme that resonates at home could be a major turn-off on the other side of the world. This doesn’t mean that you need a complete redesign – but adjusting a few aspects can make a big difference.

Major companies such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are skilled at adapting their sites, just as they adapt their products and menus. A quick look at Coca-Cola’s Chinese website shows a colorful, interactive design, with extensive use of images and videos. Their Swiss site uses a simpler more minimalist design.

But you don’t need their size and marketing budget to create a design that works effectively across cultures. If you’re considering targeting global markets, then here are five tips for getting started.

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Build flexibility into your site

If you’re thinking of developing international sites, build  flexibility into the design from the start. Choose a content management system, such as WordPress or Drupal, that is good at handling other languages.  Unicode, the standard representation of characters, supports more than 90 scripts, including Arabic and Chinese.

Remember that different languages take up different amounts of space on the page. English is relatively compact compared to many European languages – in fact, German usually takes up 30% more space on a page.  It’s especially important to allow extra space on menu bars and buttons. A symmetrical design, with horizontal menu bars, is the best choice for converting into left-to-right languages such as Arabic.

Choose a world-friendly design

Facebook and Google are just two companies that have opted for a simple template that works well on a global scale. Facebook’s blue color scheme and clean look appeal to users in most cultures. It can also be easily adapted to handle different languages.

Think about colors and images

Not every color scheme has global appeal, and a color’s connotations vary between cultures. While green is associated with the environment in the west, it’s regarded as a “forbidden” color in Indonesia. Red symbolises happiness and good luck in China, but is the color of mourning in South Africa.

Similarly, make sure your images resonate with the target culture. This involves everything from photos and videos to icons. For example, hand gestures can have different meanings – and even cause offense in some countries. A little research will help you make the right choices.

Think about cultural preferences and design

The example of Coca-Cola shows how a company adapts its marketing , while retaining its core message and brand identity. For small ecommerce businesses, it’s also a matter of finding the right balance when changing a site design.

Many Asian cultures, such as China, Japan and South Korea, tend to prefer websites with extensive use of videos and images, that can appear quite “busy” to American viewers. A sleek minimalist site might seem boring in this market. In contrast, Northern European users tend to prefer simpler, more text-heavy designs.

Don’t forget about mobile sites

The growth of mobile technology has changed the way hundreds of millions of people access the internet. In many markets, a high proportion of customers are “mobile-only” and rarely use fixed internet connections.  If you have the resources, the best solution is  a dedicated mobile version of your site. And make sure it displays correctly on a range of devices, including tablets.

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