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A client has the requirement to provide translation options on their website, most likely using an automated solution like Google Translate. A colleague and I have been discussing the best way to present that control and are both of the opinion that it makes sense for it to appear at the top of the page (so that it is immediately easy to find when arriving on the page). The client has suggested that it should appear in the footer.

Based on a quick look around the web, translation options do indeed frequently appear in the footer, so there is an argument that we should follow that convention.

EDITED to include some examples of sites with language options in the footer:

Why are language options frequently presented in the footer? Is is purely to save valuable space above the fold? Ultimately, my question is, where is the best place for this control to appear from a usability perspective?

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Obviously in the top - I thought when reading this question. But if you're right, that there are equal distribution of placement in top and bottom - why chose? Use both if it's important! –  Benny Skogberg MCSA Nov 15 '12 at 14:23
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Benny's comment came in while i posted my answer. Agreed on use both. This is good redundancy not bad. –  Bryan Robinson Nov 15 '12 at 14:24
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@msanford Oh I'm a passionate defender of life below the fold, believe me. The best place for an important control like switching languages is however debatable. –  Matt Obee Nov 15 '12 at 15:32
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@BennySkogberg Facebook, Flickr, Vimeo and YouTube were a few of the high-profile examples we found with language options in the footer. –  Matt Obee Nov 15 '12 at 17:46
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To msanford, I don't know that this is a good place for below the fold/above the fold. It's about the scenario. If they have enough of a percentage of users that need to change the language, they shouldn't have to search for this function (as searching an English site is difficult for a non-native speaker). Above and obvious makes sense. If it's a secondary piece, then below is fine, but my preference is still both. –  Bryan Robinson Nov 15 '12 at 20:52

5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Stock reply: It all depends on the users of the site. :D

Non-stock reply: I'm with you and your colleague. If you're of the opinion the user needs the option to translate, make it high on the page, so that a non-native speaker doesn't have to hunt for as long. I'd also make sure it doesn't have huge visual weight to detract for native speakers.

There's a reason why at the beginning of an automated phone call menu system, they have the translation option - it's the easiest place for that user to find it.

So, make sure translation is necessary for the use cases, first. Then, tell the client, if it's important enough to be on the site, the best place for it to lower the barrier to entry for the non-native speaker is near the top of the page

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+1 for Stock reply! :-) –  Benny Skogberg MCSA Nov 15 '12 at 14:25
    
I'm also voting for the top. I think automated translation is good but still not as good as a human brain. So if this site will be switched to other language automatically and the result of the translation will not be so good as original version it may become very handy to have a language switcher at the top for those who knowns english well. –  alexeypegov Nov 15 '12 at 15:42
    
+1 for the eye-opening idea to compare entering web pages with the beginning of an automated phone call –  Wolf Nov 11 at 11:47

Top of the page, please. I do not want to scroll down to the very bottom of a page just to switch from X to X. It's inconvenient, unnecessary (as you could just place the options at the top), and makes me not want to bother, and instead just spend the extra time searching for an alternative that is in my native language. :)

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+1, Top makes sense since you choose the language before you start reading anything. –  ssg Nov 15 '12 at 20:10

Placement as a minor control or link on the top-right of a website is standard. If users land on a site in an incomprehensible language they will, at most, scan the visible content for a language option. It is likely they will assume that translations aren't available and/or won't spend time poring through a site for the option.

Automated user interfaces generally ask for a language selection up-front for the simple reason that you need to understand the interface in order to use it.

A more elaborate solution would be to could detect the language preference of the browser and, in that language, prominently ask the user if they would like to switch to the translated version.

As for sites that place language controls in the footer: this is simply cosmetic.

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Why not ask the users? You could set up a closed card sort for all the navigational elements and 2 buckets: "Header / Top of the page" and "Footer / Bottom of the page".

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It would certainly be interesting to test. I'd probably use live A/B testing or just interrogate the analytics rather than a card sort though. –  Matt Obee Nov 20 '12 at 20:30

If a site is dominated by broadcasting-style text, then subsequent language selection is pointless.

This might be the reason for the sites you referring to to put the language selection into the footer: here the contents itself has barely text, or its texts address a limited audience (or are even translated automatically).

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