Experiencing Web Globalization by Traveling Abroad

On a recent trip to Italy, I was a bit surprised by some globalization usability issues I ran into while trying to navigate web sites and applications as a foreign visitor. But before we get to all of that, a little background first.

I’m a bit passionate about web globalization. I began being stirred by global issues like poverty and the environment more than 20 years ago as a late teen – right around the time I was really getting into technology and software in my college coursework. My eyes were opened through several different events to how vast and diverse our world really is. Those interests along with a few international experiences have collided with my decade-plus long career in the web and resulted in a strong personal concentration in web globalization, or as I like to think of it, web usability on a global scale.

Fast forward to Italy. It’s fair to say that I felt pretty confident in my web-user abilities before embarking on the trip. While there, I was accessing various Wi-Fi hotspots using my notebook and all was going just fine for a few days. Then I became a victim of geolocation coupled with poor global navigation.

Usability issue #1: Geolocation forced me to a localized site I didn’t select. Geolocation is the process of redirecting a user to a localized (in my case, Italian) version of the site they are accessing based on their IP address. It’s all done “behind the scenes” and the user is not in control. Since I was tapping into a local IP through a Wi-Fi spot, I was assumed to be a “local” in the purest sense of the word.

By and large, geolocation can work well when it’s coupled with other best practices like clear global navigation elements so the user can change the localized site. But as an international traveler, I found geolocation to be annoying. I frequently found myself viewing a page in Italian with no clear way to change the language.

Usability issue #2: There was no evident global navigation. A site’s global navigation system can be made up of elements such as a gateway used to display available localized sites and the site selector mechanism. John Yunker, a leading expert on web globalization, defines the global gateway as, “the elements that Web sites use to seamlessly direct Web users to their localized Web sites and content.” The global gateway allows the user to change their location should they need or desire at any time of their choosing.

In the best of situations, it should be easy to identify the gateway as a globe icon in the site header (preferably the upper right corner). Even when coupled with the word “Change” in another language, the globe icon is a distinguishing standard that provides context to the terms around it. Ideally, the globe or an associated element is clickable or some action results even on hover to provide the user with options to navigate to other localized sites.

Country flags are popular in the global gateway but they are not recommended. Flags don’t always tie directly to a specific language and a localized site doesn’t always maintain a direct country affiliation. For example, one of my stops in Italy was the gorgeous town of Bolzano in the Italian Alps, a well-known cultural cross-point between Germany and Italy within an autonomous Italian province. You’ll hear a lot of German spoken there – pre-World War I the town was 96% German-speaking before being annexed by Italy. Country boundaries change frequently in many parts of the world so it’s never safe to assume geography is the driving force.

Usability issue #3: iTunes presented its own global navigation challenge. One evening, after a long day of walking around the medieval city of Lucca in the Tuscany region, I wanted to search for and download a movie from iTunes and relax. From what I could tell, the iTunes application must have resolved against the Wi-Fi’s IP address because it defaulted to Italian. After a frustrating hunt, I finally found a round flag icon in the lower right of the application window with no visual indication that it was clickable. It was indeed a clickable button which brought me to a country selector page where I could choose United States and return to English. While I never had reason to look for a global gateway mechanism in iTunes before, I was surprised that this very popular tool had some pretty serious globalization usability issues. One, that the gateway link was buried at the bottom and, two, that they were using flags to denote language.
Usability issue #4: Browser default language settings on a public computer. At one point, I had a very weak Wi-Fi signal in my Milan hotel room so I resorted to using the guest computer in the lobby to do a quick email check. The Firefox browser was defaulted to the Italian language setting which essentially crippled me as a user right from the start (my Italian is limited to the five most common tourist words). I was trying to log in to an email service and couldn’t remember the order of Firefox’s remember password buttons which were displayed in Italian. (I’ve since made a point to memorize them: ‘Remember’, ‘Never for This Site’ and ‘Not Now’.) I was nervous about clicking the wrong button and storing my user credentials for anyone to access. I quickly abandoned the attempt.

Granted, with each of these issues, I was in Italy where Italian is the official language so a bit of “when in Rome” applies. And I recognize that travelers are not the dominant audience to consider. But the usability issues that were exposed to me while traveling abroad caused me to stop and think. Why is it okay to assume the user speaks Italian just because they’re physically in Italy? The same holds true for the United States and English. Isn’t it better to let the user choose? It was a good wake-up call and food for thought for this unilingual person.

Of course, with most things, it all comes down to cost. Not every business can localize their web sites for every person. There needs to be a sound business reason and then an element of planned targeting to the most common users. So I understand that some of my experience was fluky and won’t be a common issue for others. But it offers an example of why usability is so central to a sound web globalization strategy and why it’s important to always lead with a strategy first. 

At Aware we hold to nine strategic recommendations for a sound web globalization strategy. We’ve provided recommendations to clients within this framework ranging from a well-planned international domain strategy, purposeful translation plans, crafting wireframes for a global navigation and gateway, assessing WCM platform capabilities and hosting needs to create the most stable implementation, even creating proposed workflows that can eventually drive WCM processes with or without a translation management vendor. It’s no doubt a tall order to implement and won’t happen overnight.

Yet, the strategy becomes a roadmap for enhancements to various web properties as you execute larger, enterprise-wide globalization processes. For example, businesses typically don’t just need to translate web content, but a larger scale of content of which the web is just a portion. A web globalization strategy will help put you on your way to achieving a consistent user experience from anywhere in the world. Don’t just pursue translation and “slap” up multilingual options. Think about how users will access the site and from there, navigate it.

And that’s what web globalization is all about. Sometimes it just takes a little dose of reality or walking a few steps in someone else’s shoes to see why usability on a global scale is truly important.

website globalization, website localization, website usability, global website strategy


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