Targeting international customers involves a lot more than just translating a website. Global companies, such as McDonald’s and Twitter, show the importance of adapting designs to reach different audiences.

It’s said an image can tell a thousand words, and a well-designed website can make or break an online company. But the message it’s sending can vary depending on the audience.

Communicating effectively with global customers can involve much more than simply translating the content. It also means thinking carefully about other design aspects, from choice of colours to navigation.

Why do we need different web design for different countries? 

The internet has created unprecedented opportunities for companies of all sizes to reach people around the world. With the Eurozone crisis and economic slowdown in the United States, more companies are looking to expand into global markets.

Translating and localising a website can be the easiest way to do this. But while the wired world may seem smaller, it’s still far from homogenous. 

Just as companies adapt their products for other cultures (soy sauce flavoured KitKat anyone?) the same is true of web design. A site that works well in South Korea or China might appear too colourful or “busy” to Scandinavian viewers, who are used to a more minimalist look. 

And switching the language from German to Arabic will involve a rethink of the layout, and navigational tools.

One company that is adept at changing its message for global customers is McDonald’s. Well-travelled fast food fans will notice that its Hawaiian breakfast menu features spam and rice (below), while fried shrimp sandwiches are on offer in Hong Kong.

But its websites also change. A brightly coloured Indian design features a father and son (clutching a Happy Meal) rushing through a crowded supermarket with the slogan “I’m Lovin’ It”. In contrast, the Swiss site features a woman listening to music alone, in muted colours, with the same tagline.

Some studies have supported the view that the way audiences look at a site is influenced by their cultural background. Research by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology found that Chinese and Korean users tended to register more “areas of interest” in a short time period, and were less likely to use a sequential reading pattern than American viewers. 

This is likely to reflect the web design trends in their countries. If you’re planning to target global markets, it doesn’t necessarily mean completely redesigning your site. But it can help to take a few factors into account.

Language and design

Most customers prefer to browse the internet and buy goods in their native tongue. But translating a site can create headaches for web designers.

Twitter had to overcome a number of challenges before launching in right-to-left languages, such as Hebrew and Arabic, earlier this year. Its technical team had to build new tools to ensure that tweets, hashtags and numbers were all shown correctly.

Another problem is the relative length of languages. Multilingual web designers know that German can take up around 30% more space than English, while Chinese characters are considerably more compact. This is a particular issue when designing mobile-optimised sites, where space is at a premium.

It pays to build flexibility into the design at the planning stage, using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to create a flexible template, and keeping images and text separate. Avoiding Flash and Java is best when targeting emerging markets, which often have slower internet connections.

Images, colours and meanings

Investors studying Chinese stock market reports might be surprised to find red is used to symbolise “up” and green “down” – the opposite of the Western norm. It’s just one example of how different colours have different meanings depending on the culture.

While green is associated with the environment and nature in the West, it’s known as the “forbidden color” in Indonesia, and is best avoided in this country.

A symbol such as the “thumbs-up” sign might seem easily understood, but it’s considered offensive in some cultures. The “V” sign means “peace” to many people, but can also cause offense. And an “open palm” is considered insulting in Greece.

It’s also important to take care with photographs, especially when targeting conservative cultures such as the Middle East. For example, a  company selling women’s clothing might choose to use more modestly dressed models.

Design and cultural preferences

McDonald’s is just one company which adapts its designs to reflect different preferences. The anthropologist Edward T. Hall theorised that “high-context cultures” (such as many African and Asian ones) tend to use symbols more, and expect people to interpret meaning from fewer words. 

“Low-context” cultures, such as America and Europe, tend to use more text, and spell out their messages explicitly. While these aren’t hard and fast rules, they are often reflected in website preferences.

Chinese, Japanese and Korean users often expect to see a greater use of images, videos and sidebars. compared to more text-heavy Scandinavian or German designs.

Global companies have to find a balance between presenting a consistent brand image, and adapting their design and message for different markets. Building a truly international web presence doesn’t mean designing a new site for each audience. But it can help to tweak the template to reflect the target customers.