Challenges To Overcome When Designing for International Audiences

by Tomas Laurinavicius

posted on 06-08-2017

Today, we are more connected and intertwined than ever before. The internet has served us with a priceless opportunity to reach international audiences within seconds, opening the doors for new business opportunities and challenging new markets.

The key to successfully harnessing this opportunity lies in translation and localization. However, the challenges faced when designing for global success go beyond the common mistake of simple translations. Not all templates will be received positively in different cultures and designers that have abandoned text expansion and contraction in the designed stage will end up with a butchered end result when translated in a different language.

International audiences will demand undivided care and attention, so what are the challenges and common mistakes to avoid when designing for global success?

The World Speaks More Than English

Although Mandarin and Spanish surpass English as the world’s most common languages, we continue to design, write and curate our websites in English. In fact, 70% of all internet users are not English speakers and sites that translate to 25 other languages reach 90% of all internet users in their native tongue.

The most common mistake with website translations is failing to consider every language in the design stage. Although text length and word count are strict in design, allow 40% text expansion for translations to ensure enough space for texts in other languages. Think about how translation will affect widgets installed on websites, such as the Facebook like button. It can expand from one line in English to three in Japanese, so ensure you allow enough space to avoid text getting clipped.

Keep Flexibility in Mind

A single most important lesson in achieving a global template that functions well across the world is by listening to your global audience and their needs. Many issues arise from trying to force a template that is popular in the West to succeed somewhere else, like the Middle East. For example, using images of people don’t always work well – the ethnicity, pose, and clothing can be offensive and lead to unintended negative consequences.

Although most languages read LTR (left-to-right), your design must work just as well with RTL (right-to-left) languages. Use building blocks in your design stage for easier website flipping and avoid overcrowding the pages. Straightforward and clutter-free websites will allow flipping with fewer changes.

Understand Audience Needs by Researching Culture

When designing for a global audience, ensure you research and understand the cultural differences and the impact your content, choice of color and design might have. Some cultures have a much higher tolerance for ambiguity and others prefer a more direct and straightforward approach where it is clear what they are expected to do.

In France and Germany, an individual is usually the core of the subject, but in Japan, the group they are in provide their identity. Use images of groups rather than individuals for more group-oriented cultures as they will resonate better. Also, research which browsers and operating systems your Asian markets are using. Koreans and Chinese are notorious for using outdated browsers due to their reluctance to upgrade, long after the West has moved on. In fact, Internet Explorer has around a third of the Asian market, so ensure your website is optimized for the right browsers to provide great user experience.

Avoid Political and Strategic Discussions

Culturally sensitive sites consider the possible political and strategic discussion that may arise from the design and context distributed on the site. Different cultures will dictate the functionality and design of your site in the most surprising ways, so carefully consider the navigation, organization of information, icons, and colors. Imagery is another balancing act – bear in mind the different connotations they might have in different cultures. For example, the A-OK gesture is vulgar in Brazil, even though it has positive connotations in the West.

Leave Space for Localization

Loading speeds are critical regardless of your audience, but to reach an international audience consider the varying internet connections your audiences may have and how you serve your content. Increase loading speeds by using a collection of web servers around the world (Content Delivery Network) to serve your international audience faster. Also, improve the shopping experience by providing localized shopping through your cart by allowing buyers to check delivery and taxes charges before checkout, multiple payment options and the option to convert the total into their currency.

Choose Typography Wisely

Your selected font and size may not travel well between different languages, so ensure you understand and test how the font works with various scripts. Latin-based fonts are easier to work with, and there are far more options to choose from, however, opt for the standard size ten font for all Latin-based languages and a point or two larger for all Asian scripts. Avoid major setbacks by incorporating this aspect in the early stages of your design to see if your website requires changes to accommodate the different texts. There is a limited selection of fonts that work well with the Japanese language, but the Kanji used online is an excellent choice of well descriptive symbols.

Be Careful With Color Meaning

When going global or wanting to hit the international waters with your web design, you must consider every detail of your site. Tread carefully with the color yellow – although it’s associated with joy in most of the Western countries and Egypt, in Germany it’s the color of jealousy and envy. Although the color white is associated with purity and peace in the West, in Korea it is traditionally worn at funerals and is associated with death and bad luck. Even though, don’t get too fussy with the colors you use – identify your target and market and go from there.


Remember, first impression counts and you don’t get a do-over when things don’t work out. Although designing with an international audience in mind will require more work, your audience will appreciate that.

Keep in mind that translation does not just mean translating the words, you must recreate the same meaning, intent and context in every language you serve. Every culture has its own richness, so carefully research how your content will contribute to those cultures. Make your users comfortable and you’re halfway to success.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

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