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I wanted to see what tips other designers with more experience designing for web applications and sites that must handle multiple language might have.

I know the basics, like expect the length of labels to grow by 1/3 (or more) depending on the language, etc. (reiterating those tips will be helpful too)

But are there particular UI/UX patterns that you stay away from because they have the potential to "blow up" depending on the language?

For example, fixed sized tabs can easily lead to a problem, but I am sure there are ways (other than truncation) to handle tabs on, for example, a German site, where the word "Cart" becomes "Einkaufswagen" and triples in size.

What issues have you run into and how did you handle them?

What examples of sites do you think handle the problem well, or don't?

I'll offer up Amazon as an example, where, faced with the above Cart problem, they decided to remove the Wish List button because it no longer fits. This seems to me to be a consistency nightmare, and is not the proper way to handle the issue.

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closed as too broad by JonW Mar 17 at 10:59

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Good question! Apart from cultural sensitivities, I wonder if there are some UX/UI patterns that would need a reversal of verb-noun to noun-verb (and vice versa). – Erics Oct 9 '11 at 23:44
Not so much UI but still UX: You should be very careful to not accidentally end up with Blind Idiot Translation, you should let a native speaker check the translation with context - personally, I consider a bad translation much more of an offense than simply not translating at all. – Tobias Kienzler Aug 14 '12 at 13:28
@TobiasKienzler Agreed, once as an intern I was asked to finish translations based on a file where only the first time a word appeared would it be translated. I had to then finish the translation via search and replace, etc. Obviously for languages like German this doesn't work well because words get combined and for all languages context is key for translation. I knew none of the languages that were being translated. Let just say, the resulting translations were probably all along the lines of "All your base are belong to us..." or worse. – Chris Janssen Aug 16 '12 at 22:00
@ChrisJanssen Or worse: Do not want – Tobias Kienzler Aug 17 '12 at 6:15
up vote 11 down vote accepted

As a UX analyst for multinational companies in the Arab world (where we have designed the same sites with an English version and an Arabic version) the UI elements are pretty much the same. There is no difference between using a drop-down combo box here or there or whether radio buttons work somewhere but don't work for others.

We have noticed however that if there is an element that starts being used en masse on mainstream websites, that it takes time for the Arabic users to grasp them because it takes time for these elements to disseminate in Arabic websites. For example, I remember the first time I used a tag cloud in a video application: [some of] the Arabic users didn't recognize that the size of the tag is an indication of how often it is used, because they had not encountered a tag cloud before.

As for layouts, etc, our company switches everything from Right to Left, including the logo and the menu. I believe Jacob Nielsen has some research done about right-to-left layouts in which it is stated that the layout of websites for right-to-left languages needs to be flipped from their English counterparts, but as a whole, the behavior remains the same, just switched left-to-right.

Irrelevant to your question, but I figure I'd point out, is that error and success messages and text in general is completely different. A message such as "You do not have access to this item" would in no way be acceptable in Arabic in Saudi Arabia for example. It would have to be softened down, because not having permission would sound offensive and insulting. However, in a place like Lebanon, the same error message in Arabic would apply. Obviously like the people above said, a lot of research has to be done about the culture of the country you are dealing with.

Hope my two cents help.

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"You do not have access to this item" + "It would have to be softened down, because not having permission would sound offensive and insulting." → Wow, that's interesting! How would you translate such a message? – unor Sep 1 '12 at 4:52
Hi! I'm so sorry, I just saw that you asked that. Yes, culturally, saying you don't have permission to something is like belittling the person or pointing out that their level is lower than others. The message would have to be rephrased to something neutral like "This item is currently not available. Please refer to IT for more assistance." I actually was forced to almost lie in some messages by a client to do this!! Again, this is more an issue in the Arab Gulf than the rest of Arab countries as hierarchies and seniority are a lot more respected and considered there. – Tarek Nov 22 '12 at 10:02
Thanks for your answer :) That is really interesting. I guess they probably know that it's a permission they don't have, when they read such an error message? So everyone knows what's going on, but the tone has to be adequate? Also, are foreign/English sites (that don't follow this special message formulation) considered "rude" by Arab visitors, or does this rule only apply to Arabic sites? – unor Nov 22 '12 at 11:20
Well the messages we had to deal with, for example for a Saudi intranet, had to do with both English and Arabic languages. I guess with English you can be slightly tougher, but for example, I had to actually lie once (in English) and say "The system is being restructured, please try again later" for a "You do not have access to this portal. Please request access from Ebusiness," because it was requested that it be done that way from the stakeholders! – Tarek Nov 22 '12 at 11:50
This UX article supports Tarek's answer.… We build multi-lingual applications and we find the most difficult area to be grids, so my one comment would be to make sure that these are dynamic by language and also permit word-breaks in the column header and content wrapping. For example, in German, we hide more columns by default and make them available in a "Column Manager" as needed by the user. – user3083791 Mar 17 at 12:04

What a good question - this is less of an answer, and more of some possible answers, for others to think about. I would agree that changing the layout of the page because the language causes size problems is a bad solution - surely there must be some form of abbreviation in the German, which could fit into an enlarged button. There should be consistency about the style and layout of sites.

The challenges are languages where they don't read from left to right. I don't know if any studies have been done on whether Arabic or Hebrew readers scan the pages differently, but I am sure some of the positioning norms might differ, if people start on the right. However, I think I remember reading that even for these languages, menus on the left are appropriate - I think this is to do with the fact they are accessed by the mouse, at least initially.

Chinese and Japanese may also differ in their page scanning, and many of the same issue will probably apply. There are more issues that are raised by these cultures about colours - once again, I am not an expert, but the norm of Red, Amber, Green - even the Red as negative and the Green as positive - are not universal. While they can be learned, identifying the appropriate colour schemes, and the meanings of colours, can be important.

A related matter is that mourning or wedding colours are not universal. So, for example, a site that has a strongly purple theme, may be seen perfectly OK in the West, but in countries where Purple is the mourning colour, this will be seen like a predominantly Black site would be seen in the west.

I also know - from those HSBC adverts - that numbers are sometimes culturally significant. So taking people through various steps may hit lucky or unlucky numbers. The fact that 13 is unlucky in the west means thsi is often not reached, but this indicates that many lower numbers have significance in China. So having 4 steps may not be considered auspicious.

As a general rule, I think it is important to know the culture that the UI is being developed for, and the way that the features may be interpreted. It is about applying the same rules that we apply to anythign else in UI, but coming from a different cultural perspective. It means understanding what rules are cultural, and re-interpreting them.

Which is sort of what you are asking. But I hope this might have opened up the meaning a little.

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Cart/Einkaufswagen: I can't think of a shorter german word for it, and if it exists, it is not commonly used. I mean, part of the problem is also that "cart" is a really short word ... not only that Einkaufswagen is a long one. – giraff Aug 26 '11 at 20:21
Warenkorb is a commonly used for cart. I would say it's even more common than Einkaufswagen. It translates to basket, so you won't find by using a dictionary, just as sbwoodside mentioned. – Kapep Nov 20 '11 at 0:44

In terms of UX conventions the structures are fairly universal.

For language issues, always talk to a local expert in the country that you're translating for. Also, survey popular local sites for that country. The dictionary translation of a word may not be the correct term to use. In a case like Einkaufswagen there might be a common shorthand in use in germany that's not in the standard dictionary. A local expert would know that.

The area of significant divergence is in graphic design. Colour palettes, style of imagery, grids, fonts, graphical complexity, and many other factors are at play in each country's graphic identity. For example, Japanese sites feature lots of icons, cute characters, and superbright colours. Have a look at this popular shopping site: (make sure to switch to the japanese edition). China or Germany by comparison are more sedate. Etc.

To learn the design conventions, go to a bookstore with a well-stocked graphic design section, they will have books and magazine covering international styles.

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