International Usability: Big Stuff the Same, Details Differ

by Jakob Nielsen on June 6, 2011

Summary: User testing on 3 continents confirmed that the main usability guidelines hold worldwide, but many other considerations exist to better support international users.


Earlier this year, we ran a range of usability studies of websites, intranets, and mobile sites and apps in Australia, China, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Of course, we've always done lots of international testing (in 13 countries total), but this latest round — which covered 3 very different parts of the world — offered a good opportunity to step back and consider the big picture of international user experience.

(Definition of international usability: the effectiveness of user interfaces when used in any other country than the one in which they were designed.)

The highest-level conclusion? People are the same the world over, and all the main usability guidelines remain the same. After all, usability guidelines are derived from the principles of human-–computer interaction (HCI), which are founded on the characteristics of computers and the human brain and the many ways the two differ.

For example, if you're designing an e-commerce site for a 5-item product line, you shouldn't confuse users by offering search or filtering options. Focus on brief descriptions that clearly differentiate the products, facilitating comparisons and choice. Conversely, if you carry 100,000 products, you do need search and filters. You also need to introduce a new level in the IA: the category page, which further helps users compare and choose.

Such differences between small and big sites are the same whether the UI is presented in Arabic, Chinese, or English. Similarly, users' desire to search is universal, although it's obviously easier for them to enter queries in alphabetic languages like Arabic and English. Our Chinese users had to struggle through an additional level of character choice, which entails its own usability problems. But they still searched a lot.

As another example of the universality of usability guidelines, consider one of the mobile sites we tested with Chinese users. The site's topic — gossip about Korean pop stars — was of particular interest in Asia. But the findings about which design elements worked well (or poorly) would have been the same if we had tested a EuroPop site with German users.

Reading Right-to-Left

Most languages are read left-to-right, and this reading direction is implicit in many of the usability findings I've discussed in previous Alertbox columns, such as "Horizontal Attention Leans Left" (in English, that is) and "F-Shaped Pattern for Reading Web Content."

Conceptually, we saw exactly the same behaviors with the Arab users. But of course, their attention is focused on the right side of the page, since they read right-to-left. Similarly, they exhibit a mirrored-F reading pattern, scanning down the right side of the main content column, not the left side.

If we're overly literal, we might say that Arabs behaved the opposite of Americans and Europeans. But in terms of interaction design, the behaviors are identical: Web users pay more attention to the beginning of the content, and their engagement quickly peters out. (This is why the first few words of headlines and links are so important.)

If you're designing a site in a right-to-left language, the guideline is to mirror-image the design patterns from left-to-right language sites: that is, you swap left and right. But the basic principles remain the same.

Users had no trouble switching between Arabic-language sites and English-language sites, even though the layouts were reversed. Thus, if you're designing a global site (a single site to be used in all countries), I recommend sticking to the traditional left-to-right layout. The important thing is to stay consistent within the site and not use a mirror-image design on any of your pages.

Differences in International Use

Although the guidelines are conceptually the same, there were still many nuances and differences in the details.

For example, Arabic seems to encourage more flowery or lengthy writing. As one of our test participants said, "English is one word or two. Arabic is more talking, more words." On a similar note, German is notorious for its long and convoluted vocabulary. The usual guideline when designing application components such as dialog boxes is to leave room for labels and hints to grow by at least 50% if the app will be translated from English into other languages.

Even so, users in all countries prefer concise sites. This simply means that writers and editors must work harder when they're producing content in more verbose languages.

Search for international users should ideally be multilingual, letting them search both in English and in their native language, even on monolingual sites. This is obviously hard to implement, but we did see users attempt searches in both languages, partly depending on which terms came to mind first for a particular topic. For specialized B2B content, such as advanced computer products and services, many customers are more familiar with the international (English) vocabulary than with their own language's terminology.

At a minimum, your search should accommodate both American and British English. Australian users obviously used British spelling, but we also observed users spelling words in the British style elsewhere, even when searching American sites.

Also, while it's always good to be forgiving of typos in search, this is crucial when supporting international users, who're obviously weak spellers when entering queries in a foreign language. In our UAE studies, for example, every single participant made spelling mistakes in English.

Should You Have a Local Site?

The most basic question when supporting international users is which strategy to choose: internationalization (I18N), which offers a single global site to support all users; or localization (L10N), which offers local sites in each important customer locale.

The easy answer? You always need an internationalized site; not even the biggest companies can afford to localize for every country in the world (about 200 in all, depending on how you count). So, even if you localize for important countries like Australia and China, plenty of small countries will be left hanging.

But should you go the localization route to the extent you can afford it? Our testing provided slightly contrasting answers.

The Arab users often felt that international sites were more credible than Arabic sites. In fact, they exhibited a distinct lack of trust in local sites and were afraid that their credit cards would be stolen. This might reflect the Arab Web's relative immaturity: users' attitudes might change if a large number of trustworthy sites emerge in the future. However, for now, an international site might be preferable to a localized site in Arab markets — as long as you're targeting a B2B audience that speaks some English.

(Interestingly, in judging credibility beyond the first Arab-vs-international assessment, Arab users turned to the same design elements we recommend in our seminar on Credibility and Persuasive Web Design. For example, they deemed sites to be more credible when contact info was readily available.)

If your site targets a broad consumer audience, you should obviously localize it for countries in which the local language isn't English.

And even in English-speaking Australia, users strongly preferred local sites to foreign sites. Although they could read both American and English-language European sites just fine, Aussie users felt that foreign sites weren't as relevant to their needs. For example, some sites stated measurements in strange units (inches etc.), or described different product lines than those offered in Australia. When scanning SERP listings (search engine results pages), Australian users exhibited a strong preference for URLs with a .au suffix.

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