[By guest columnist Frank Gaine, MD, Usability by Design]

When conducting usability testing in different countries there is definitely differences in the way people think. Differences don’t always come out, but they can certainly be there.

First, you have to consider language. There are some classic examples of where language has caused International product issues, take for example:

- Chevrolet's new Nova was released in Spain, before they realised that 'NO VA' in Spanish means "wont go".

- Ford's Pinto failed to sell as expected in Brazil. 'Pinto' translates there to 'Tiny male genitals'.

Although these are real-world products and not usability tests, we often see the same thing – product categories that are meaningless or confusing when rendered into a second language, buttons that don’t draw attention because they use non-standard or confusing terminology for this culture. It’s absolutely vital that you use local experts who speak the local language as their first language, to ensure these kinds of issues are identified and removed.

When in right-to-left reading cultures, we also see a lot of problems with visibility – controls or options that these users just don’t spot. In our left-to-right culture we know that the top right and bottom left of any screen are usually cold spots and that important controls in them can be missed. The opposite is true in right-to-left cultures, and even minor changes (like the order a row of buttons appear in) can radically improve usability there.

But in a sense, that’s the easy part. Next you have to consider cultural differences in usability/requirement, even for countries that speak the same language.

For example we’ve found that the US audience often has a subtly different set of requirements for a web site product than the UK market. Sometimes this can lead to minor differences in take-up, but at other times it has led to severe difficulties in penetrating that market.

A few of the problems we’ve noted here are:

1. Terminology. This is probably the biggest problem area. Even when countries speak the same language there can be huge differences in terminology – some of it very subtle – that can lead to different usability issues in different countries.

A shrimp is a prawn, a dustbin is a garbage can – when these kinds of differences slip into an interface, we usually see difficulties. Even if the audience understands what the word means, it can produce different subtle connotations or emotive responses that can have a big impact on the brand and usability.

2. Put me first. UK audiences are usually happy to have their name appear in a list of countries, though they react well to having UK appear near the top as a ‘quick choice’. They realize that the UK is just one country of many.

However we’ve found that US audiences often find this a complete turnoff – if US is not set as the default option, their reaction can be quite negative.

3. Preach to me. Sites that fall over themselves to make it obvious how something works can really frustrate UK audiences, and usually get a bit of a negative emotive response – UK audiences often comment that they feel these sites are being condescending, or are ‘aiming at the dummies’.

In the US, these sites often receive a much warmer response. They like the hand-holding approach (in general), and often have a much warmer emotive response.

4. Where are you? If a site does not expressly state the geographical region it relates to (for example stating that it sells to the UK if it’s an e-commerce shop) then UK audiences experience frustration and a desire to ‘go somewhere else’ relatively quickly. They know that there is a good chance this site might not sell to them, and that they will be wasting their time.

US audiences do not experience this issue, and usually accept that the site will be American (or will sell to America) if not expressly stated otherwise.


About Usability by Design

Established in 1997, Usability by Design specialises in improving the customer experience across all forms of interface, ranging from mobile devices to web and software applications.

The latest techniques in usability, accessibility and interaction design are employed to ensure ease of use and maximum ROI for clients. Usability by Design has experience in a wide range of sectors, from banking and financial services through to e-commerce, travel, education, Local Government and more.

With offices in the UK and Australia, Usability by Design counts as its customers a variety of high profile national and global organisations.


Published on: 12:00AM on 1st February 2005