Are flags a bad idea?
In various comments on How to design a multi-language website?, several designers voiced their concern for the use of flags as a symbol to represent language switching on a website. Here are some great points of criticism by @Phil:
- Harder/slower to process than text.
- Harder to highlight the current selection.
- How do users know that it's a language and not a country switch? (flags are used for that as well).
Despite these arguments and warnings by the W3C, using flags as icons to denote internationalisation remains a common practice. Phil picked up on this one too:
And I also think it's just not very elegant. Take Switzerland for example: It's common to have websites in 4 languages, so you'd have a UK, a French, a Italian and a German flag. On a Swiss website. It just doesn't make much sense.
Some websites solve this problem by having flags expand into a dropdown menu with languages written out in text. So then the flag is used to denote a country, and grouped by country are languages. This works okay, but clearly it's not ideal.
The case for flags
Flags are symbolic, unique, and easily identified due to being made up of bright colours. They remain easily identifiable when displayed at very small sizes, a requirement for icons and symbols when used in user interfaces.
It's not surprising websites continue to use them as users likely respond well to them in most situations. But in cases like Switzerland, with multiple languages, obviously other solutions must be created.
Are we over-thinking things as designers when we try to optimise our design for every situation? What can we learn from user behaviour and how can we change it?
Ideally, what pattern can we design or introduce that makes internationalisation options clear without resorting to using flags?