In an ideal world, we could personalize our websites for each of our markets’ unique interests and preferences. But not even the biggest companies have the time or budget to redesign each user experience from scratch. The question is: is it possible to create a global website design (one that serves most users regardless of their location), rather than design, engineer and localize the entire experience for each market?
The short answer is no: there is no one-size-fits-all solution you can easily tweak for particular locales. Though some preferences don’t differ much across countries, others diverge quite significantly.
In ecommerce, for example, US and French markets favor images of people and a variety of colors. But then compare the US and Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabian websites tend to have far fewer colors and images of people. And while Americans prefer to see pricing up front for digital products like courses, Saudis prefer to get lots of information about courses before they subscribe—meaning the buying journey for those two groups of users should be totally different.
Customizing your website for these preferences is arguably important, but time-consuming and costly. So, if you can’t localize your UI for every target country, you can keep costs low by localizing for the most important ones or for groups of markets with commonalities. In the meantime, you can serve the most people on the least budget by making your main site as “usable” as possible on an international scale. We’ll show you how.
First, let’s clear up a couple terms:
- User experience (UX): Factors related to how users perceive and feel about a site.
- Usability: Factors related to a website’s functionality, independent of the country.
We make this distinction because it’s surprisingly common to see issues regarding site functionality—tasks that a user can’t complete, for example, or pages that won’t load—but perfect functionality is a critical first step to cross-cultural user experience design. Usability is part of (and heavily impacts) the user experience, because if basic functions don’t work as they should, the rest falls apart.
Thankfully, usability applies universally. Here are three key usability issues to address if you want to ensure your UX functions for all users. In other words, these are things you can do to make your UI work as best as possible across all markets—without localization.
1. Goal completion
Users should be able to achieve their goals independent of where they live or who they are. So the first question to ask yourself is, “What is the main goal of our website?” This is always followed by, “Can users do what they’re supposed to do?” and then, “How easy or difficult is it for them to reach that goal?”
Whether your site encourages people to buy, download or be informed, the path to that goal should be:
- quick to load
- easy to navigate
Take search and filter UIs as an example: no one would find these functions unusual on an ecommerce site that carries thousands of products. But for a three-item product list, search options would only confuse. Most users would instead expect to compare product descriptions or features. So, focus on meeting those expectations.
Bonus tip: Whichever path makes sense for your users, stick to it. Consistency in layouts and interactions spares users the hassle of learning new ways to complete each goal.
Thanks in part to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), accessibility standards apply globally. W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the most widely accepted set of UX best practices, map out a UI you need only create once to give all users equal access to your digital content—regardless of their location or ability.
(Accessibility standards don’t only refer to people with disabilities. Those of us getting older know well that abilities like sight and dexterity can deteriorate with age).
Per the WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 standards, there are many ways to make your website accessible. Basic questions to ask yourself include:
- Is there a good color contrast between the text and the background for people with visual impairments?
- Is the text large enough to be read on the devices your users prefer?
- Have you added alt text to describe images and heading tags (H1, H2, etc.) to divide sections of content for people who use screen readers?
- Are shortcuts available for people who don’t use a mouse?
Here’s a quick-reference checklist of everything else you need to cover to make sure your content is accessible to all.
3. New and returning visitor behaviors
These are two distinct groups—no matter where they’re visiting from—with unique patterns of behavior.
On most websites, returning visitors tend to spend more time and look at more pages. They’re more likely to be serious buyers than new visitors. By contrast, between 70% and 96% of those first-time visitors will never return.
So, think about ways to make your user experience relevant to each segment. For example, you could drive new users to their own landing page via a call-to-action like “Start here.” Returning users usually prefer quick links to pages they’ve visited before. To new users, you might show exit pop-ups (sparingly) to encourage them to complete goals, while returning users would only find them annoying.
Bonus tip: Don’t just optimize for the typical behaviors above—look at your own data. For example, evidence of new visitors spending more time on your site might indicate they’re struggling to find the information they need.
What if this is not enough?
Yes, localizing for separate markets is costly in terms of development and management—and it’s certainly not necessary for every market. But that doesn’t mean you can gloss over their unique needs.
At a minimum, you need to make your website easy for all humans to use (usability) and provide a good experience (UX). This might be enough to start. But the reality is that one global site might alienate part of your audience, since cultural nuances do impact their experience. Once you’ve built the foundation of a cross-cultural site, it’s time to turn to analytics or user testing to reveal which areas of design need localizing.