22 November 2006

The global web - a challenge for the web professional

As long as I've been writing professionally - for over six years now - I've been aware of the need to write for people who don't necessarily have English as a first language. Whether it's writing for an international intranet for a pharmaceutical company or for a regional website recently in the news for initiatives on migrant workers, there's always been some reason to bear that in mind with what I do. It's not just about internationalisation - the average UK reading age is apparently 9 years old. Factor in dyslexia and learning difficulties and the non-written aspects of web deisgn and build suddenly become incredibly important.

What's been an interesting challenge recently is working on a website which isn't in my native language, but in Italian, which I don't really know a word of. It really drives home some of the things you need to think about with the language you use and the way people use visual cues on a site. In the research stages of the project I'm working on I've found myself muddling through several sites simply with what little GCSE Latin I can remember and the images the sites use.

It's taught me a lot - especially about the assumptions we make regarding design:

  • Photos are at first sight a lot less ambiguous than most stick-figure diagrams might be - but there's so much detail in them you never know what's the important bit. There's a photo of a man wearing a pilot's uniform. Does the section it links to relate to men? Men of a certain age? Professionals? Pilots alone? Strip all the distractions and present a representation of an action, a profession, a type of person and things become clearer. Subconsciously we know that if a detail is present in a simple diagram, it's probably there for a reason.
  • You can often muddle by with words which are similar in several languages. Useful for European languages with similar roots, but of no use with other languages.
  • Big chunks of text suddenly become even more daunting. They're bad enough at the best of times but in a different language you switch off immediately and start looking for pictures, numbers, anything you can relate to. Use this - make contact numbers, email addresses, maps, names, prices, anything internationally recognisable - stand out by using bold formatting and bullet points.
Working with bilingual sites is actually quite easy, if you have the money - there are plenty of content management systems out there with multi-lingual support, and if you can afford someone to do the translation for you it's not a problem. It's when money is tight but you still want to open your market internationally - or even multi-culturally across one small area - that you need to address the way you write, design and build your site.

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