When developers create software applications and websites for international audiences, they can take steps to ensure their products are not culturally misunderstood. Major players in technology do an excellent job of culturally internationalizing or localizing their products, and they regularly share their successes and failures publicly to help other companies.
Here are 10 of the best cultural adaptation tips from global technology companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Google, Adobe, Oracle, Mozilla and IBM.
Culture-specific images can be helpful visual cues for application users who understand them, but they can be very confusing for those who do not.
"In earlier UIs (user interfaces) a U.S. rural mailbox was used to indicate mail," explains Microsoft in its Globalization Step-by-Step guide. "This was acceptable for use in the United States because many people had grown up using these types of mailboxes. However, when the image was introduced in Europe, most people wanted to know what a breadbox sitting on a pole had to do with mail. A much better choice would have been — and still is — using an outline of a postal letter, since most people who understand the concept of mail would understand this image."
Microsoft shares additional examples that illustrate this point well. For example, an application "wizard" that helps U.S. consumers to do something difficult might be associated with a wizard's pointy cap or magic wand. However, other cultures might not associate those visuals with wizards or they may associate wizards with very negative connotations.
As previously mentioned in this column, colors have different meanings and connotations in different countries and cultures, and that affects how people react to a website or software interface.
"For example, in the U.S., the color red often implies danger. However, in China, red connotes prosperity," says Adobe in its JRun Programmer's Guide. "You would display warning messages in red for a web application that targets a U.S. locale; in China, you would choose a meaningful color for that culture."
Adobe provides many interesting examples of cultural color meanings in Samartha Vashishtha's 2011 presentation titled, "Localizing Images: Cultural Aspects and Visual Metaphors."
Body language and human images are not universally understood. Confusion can arise from gesture meanings or even the gender and ethnicity of the human figure. For these and many other reasons, interface designers try to avoid potential misunderstandings by excluding most human images from their products.
“The problem with human figures is manifold,” says Oracle in its OpenOffice.org globalization guide, excerpted from previous Sun Microsystems guides. “The only acceptable human figure is a stick figure with no clothes, no hands with fingers, and no hair. With body parts, the difficulty lies not only in which body part is being represented, but what position it is in, where it is cut off, and how it is cut off. Hands — don't even try. There's not a hand position around which isn't offensive somewhere. And there is no hand position with universal meaning.”
Images of plants and animals are regularly used to symbolize other ideas. Just as a word can mean different things in different languages, these symbols can have different meanings across borders and will not be universally understood in global applications and websites.
“In North American culture, the owl symbolizes wisdom, but in some Asian countries, the owl symbolizes stupidity,” explains IBM in its lengthy list of globalization guidelines. “The red maple leaf flag stands for Canada as a whole, while the lily (or fleur de lis in French) has a very powerful patriotic meaning in the province of Québec in Canada. These symbols can arouse strong emotions.”
Since political passions can be strong among consumers and government approval may be required for international sales, software companies must avoid politically controversial references in text and images.
“Software has been banned in some countries and regions simply because a map showed that a disputed piece of land belonged to another country,” explains Microsoft, having learned from experience. “Maps are very graphic and obvious statements about a government's sovereignty, so a user associated with the disputed piece of land would know very quickly if the maps are accurate or not. In addition to maps, flags can be a very sensitive piece of content. For example, a flag in a UI that represented an unrecognized country was very upsetting to a nearby government, causing that government to ban a product on the basis of the unrecognized national flag.”
Religious symbols can of course be very sensitive. Designers must be careful how they use not only obvious religious symbols, but also how they use other images and characters that might be confused with religious symbols.
“Mythological and religious symbols require that the translator and the user understand the subtleties of the language, culture, and religion of the icon designer,” states IBM in its very thorough Guidelines to Design Global Solutions.
“Some countries use a five-point asterisk instead of the six-point version because the latter can be misinterpreted as the Jewish Star of David.”
In the United States and many other countries, we read text and sequential images from left to right, but other cultures — particularly in the Middle East — read from right to left. Websites and applications must be able to accommodate these changes.
“Watch out for … images designed for left or right, like arrows or backgrounds, light sources … and animations: These may require being swapped and accommodated for in the opposite directionality,” explain Google employees Jens O. Meiert and Tony Ruscoe in a recent blog post.
Audio and video can also be culture specific. Video can require cultural adaptation for all the same reasons that images require adaptation, but also because of what is culturally appropriate regarding movement and eye contact. Audio experiences the same challenges.
“While the game show buzzer sound for incorrect answers is well known to people in the U.S., it is simply an unpleasant cacophonous noise with no meaning to those in other countries,” explains Oracle. “In Japan, making a mistake on your computer can be personally embarrassing; broadcasting that mistake to your co-workers via a buzz or beep may cause shame. This does not boost product sales.”
Ambiguity does not translate well into other languages. If an image or text may be understood multiple ways within a program, it should be duplicated so translators and localizers can adapt it appropriately for each different scenario.
“Sometimes you have to write it twice,” according to Mozilla Localizability Guidelines. “If the same English string (or sentence) is used in differing contexts, multiple string resources should be created. Even if the same phrase, in two different contexts, is identical in English, this may not be the case in another language.”
Mozilla also notes that adding comments to explain special meanings is helpful to those adapting the application for another language. Be explicit.
All these culture-specific images and text will be adapted most easily if they are easily separated from the code that makes up the software product or web application.
“The first step in the development of an internationalized application is to identify all culture-specific information in your application,” says Apple’s iOS Developer Library. “Scour your user interface for culture-specific text, images, and sounds and put them into resource files.”
Companies that are trained on technical and cultural internationalization will build websites and applications that are much more easily adapted to global markets. Fortunately, because global technology companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Adobe, Oracle, Mozilla and IBM are sharing best practices in internationalization, these successful practices are becoming much more common worldwide. Companies wishing to take their websites or software applications global will be wise to read up on what these technology giants have already written.