Fresh: ask Doctor Usability

XIII.3 May + June 2006
Page: 8
Digital Citation

Lost in the localization forest


Authors:
Dr. Usability

Dear Dr. Usability,

I have been working on a Web project for the past six months. The design is almost complete, but my manager has just added a requirement that our site be accessible to a culturally diverse audience. I am wondering whether that is really necessary. He argues that every Web site is, by definition, international in scope—and he is no doubt correct—but our site was established to allow an end user to order Glühwein over the Web. Does it really need to be culturally diverse? I am about to invest heavily in the Server Language pack update and hire some Chinese and Indian translators. Can you help me before we start this enormous project?

Designing in the Black Forest

Dear Black Forest,

I may be making a big assumption here, but isn’t the audience that will be ordering Glühwein quite specialized? Perhaps expanding your "reach" is one of your site’s objectives?

By your name I am guessing that you may be working on site in the Schwarzwald, aka Black Forest, region of Southwest Germany. I am willing to bet that if you’ve done some user research of your target, it showed your cultural-diversity program must accommodate the region including France and Germany and other areas just beyond by providing French- and German-language versions of the site. If you do that, I think you can say you are covering all the bases in terms of cultural diversity with just French and German. (And I will bet you a beignet that the German translation will cost you some relayout time!) If you started in English, prepare for a late night or two.

Here in the US we often refer to "EFIGS"—English, French, Italian, German, Spanish—the most common languages into which software and Web sites must be translated. These are the most common European languages; Brazilian and Portuguese are likely the next to be included. But don’t forget double-byte languages: Chinese (traditional and simplified), Japanese, Korean. And many more. (I know taste is personal, but I just can’t see a double-byte audience for Glühwein.) Translating text strings into alternate languages often requires changes to layout. Simply put, if what you are developing in English needs to be translated into German, add 30 percent width once localization has translated the resource strings; for double byte, add ten percent height. And remember—very small font sizes are almost impossible to read in non-Roman characters, so there is a lower limit for all that "fine print." If you have the misfortune of dealing with bitmaps instead of resources, feel confident that you will have to create them over and over and over as you adjust size, layout, and oh, did you want text treatments for those fonts?

So back to the Glühwein. Oh dear. When and if you do get calls outside of Germany or France, my guess is that it will probably be from a homesick expatriate or at least someone familiar with German, French or English. So if you are already prepared to release in English, German and French, there is little point in translating this site into many more languages. Indeed, I think the Wine Bureau would even appreciate it if you didn’t. It is easy for anyone to stand on a pedestal and preach about the need for cultural diversity; your user population must determine to what degree you require it.

Lastly, if you really must reach out to other cultures, maybe you want to broaden your appeal and sell things that a wider audience might want to buy. Have you heard of any international parallels to Glühwein? I’m afraid you are going to need a more extensive user study to answer that one. Although, now that I think about it, it’s pretty cold out there. I think I will order some Glühwein myself; please send me your URL!

Mulled regards,
The Doc

Author

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