The Cultural Significance of Design on International Commun ication

Considerations for Connecting with a Global Audience

red keith bradley

Slippery Rock University Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania

Abstract — Researchers have found 200 million web pages with a corrseponding 1.5 billion links [1]. Accordingly, there are now an estimated 514 million global Internet users representin g less than 9 percent of the population [2]. Another appreciable trend is observing who Internet users are and their country of origin. Currently the United States and Canada account for 35 percent (Figure 1) of the total number of online users [ 2]. The 2000 World Economic Forum report noted that "Market-oriented policy reforms, local entrepreneurial efforts and the support of the international community have combined to significantly increase the deployment and usability of telecom munications, Internet and related technologies in many countries across Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East" [3].


Connectivity issues, linguistics, culture and physical design are all important aspects of communicating with this global audience. The major concerns addressed here may seem common place. In practice, however, designers and usability experts continue to overlook basic communica tion considerations as noted by selected examples throughout this paper. Research conducted by the author indicate that 40 percent of developer have internationalisation training. Furthermore, less that 20 percent of development teams have receiv ed such training [4].

It is hoped that this presentation will serve to inform or remind those involved in t he development of global sites that booby traps exist. Studies of site development by seasoned professionals help to support the premise that is it difficult to consider all the design factors regardless of expertise.

Index Terms — Internationalisation, usability, Internet, design, culture, digital divide.


  1. Connectivity: Technical Issues
  2. Most Internet site development involves project teams working together to create visual messages that inform, interact or to sway visitors to purchase commodities. In many cases, however, elements of visual entertainment are infu sed with textual messages that are packaged without consideration of the technical issues, cultural practices, religious heritage or symbolic interpretation of that content. It appears, at times, that the audience is secondary to the " one size fits all" design mentality of internationalisation. In other words, content and localisation issues are overshadowed by elements of technological feats of programming and visual elements that may be unviewable in developing co untries. Perceived design objectives, if there are any to begin with, may be lost as users move to sites that are user-friendly, localized and attentive to the needs of the audience. The site that is savvy to the idiosyncrasies of localisat ion can attract users regardless of intent — commercial or otherwise. Approximately 90 percent of users go online to search for information of some type, including news, product information, weather, statistics and travel, because the information is current and accessible anytime [5]. With a projected number of users doubling every 100 days, the potential exposure for those who consider localisation grows astronomically [1].

    Each layer in the technical design process has the potential of generating a set of problems. Technical considerations like the use of p lug-ins, large images, animation, video clips, and dominant colour selections are just a few of the potential considerations designers face. The problem is compounded by hardware, bandwidth and connection speed. To illustrate the point, dow nloading a 3.5-minute video sampler at 28.8 Kbps will take 48 minutes or longer if the connection speed is slower [6]. Connection speeds internationally are problematic when coupled with complex site designs. In Spain and Italy, half the on line users are limited to 33.6 Kbps connections or slower [7]. In Germany and Denmark, only 60 percent of those online have connection speeds of 56Kbps or greater. John Roth, chief executive officer of Nortel Networks, in his address to the Telecom ’99 audience, noted that Nortel researchers found that 2.5 billion hours were spent waiting for pages to download in 1998 [8]. As the data attest, designing technically complex sites may have an adverse effect on delivering co ntent, even in developed nations, if downloading time exceeds user patience.

    Moreover, the num ber of turns (hops between routers requiring an out-and-back trip to create a page) is increasing. In 1995, an average page required 22 turns, today that number has doubled resulting in slower downloading and increased user waiting [9].

    According to the Organisation For Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) only ten OECD countries have unmetered (unlimited) Internet access for a flat rate [20]. Many developing nations, however, are charged on an hourly rate — a rate that sometimes exceeds the average hourly salary of its residents. This rate can vary from a low of $1.08 per minute reaching upwards to $1.44 [20]. The monthly Web charge in Argentina is $50 (all monetary figures measured in USD) or 17 times the average hourly salary of its residents. In Kenya the monthly fee is $100 ( email-only service is available for $10 per month), in India the cost is $82 monthly and in Armenia an astounding $121 per month for Internet connection [10]. It is easy to understand the international implications of the designer’s wo rk when placed in the context of the expesnive connection costs. It is also worth noting that many national telephone monopolies have begun to expire under pressure from the World Trade Organization and others. The result is lower connectio n costs as competition begins to enter the marketplace. This was the case in Mexico where in 1996 Internet connection costs were $250 and now averages approximately $25-30 per month due primarily to competition [11].

    To illustrate this point ArchiText a localisation service company based in the United States advertises its localisation services globally (Fig. 2). The corporate homepage, however, is heavily dependent on large graphics and an animated, three-dimensional cube that notes the company’s qualities. Downloading this page takes one-minute using a T-1 connection translating in to a 20-minute wait for those using a 56.6Kbps modem. This problem is annoying in situations where older technology, coupled with excessive connection costs, may serve as a deterrent in effective communication.

  3. Not everyone in the world speaks English
  4. Internationalisation and localisation have recently begun to take on added significance as we begin to tap into the rich online resources and vast audience potential. For a modest investment, anyone can join the online world and become an international participant. The fundamental obstacle for most institutions, however, is th at more than 50 percent of the 147 million Internet users are non-English speakers [12]. Furthermore, industry predictions are that within three years, 60 percent of the one billion estimated global Internet users will be non-English speake rs, according to International Data Corporation [12]. English as the predominant Web language continues to erode, even though data suggest that 85 percent of the current Websites are based in the United States [13]. One in five non-English users are fluent in Japanese. Spanish (15.4%), German (14%), French (9.9%) and Chinese (9.9%) follow Japanese in commonly used Internet languages [14]. As developing countries begin to expand their reach into cyberspace, accommodations in localisation will need to be made on both ends of the line. The essential understanding of one's audience and how to clearly communicate with that audie nce will determine the effectiveness of online communication outside one’s own borders.

    Ar e visitors more likely to stay and peruse Websites if the site is in their native language? Research conducted by Alison Toon, the worldwide localisation program manager for Hewlett-Packard’s IT Resource Center, found that less than 5 percent of its Korean customers would be happy if English were used instead of the local language [15].

    Research conducted by Pro Active International of Amsterdam also found that Europeans preferred the use of their native language on Websites. In both France and Spain, 80 percent of respondents acknowledged knowing enough English to navigate a Website, but preferred those sites in the French or Spanish language. Similar results were found in Scandinavia, although the number dropped to 60 percent of online users [15].

    Another critical design problem in translating text into various languages is text swell — the difference between the width of text be tween various languages. Accommodation in design and layout needs to be considered during the design process allowing for this occurrence. Typically, German translations require 40% more space that English and while browsers can accommodate some swell depending on monitor resolution, it is much easier to design for the user’s lowest common denominator. Contrary to English languages, Arabic and Hebrew run right to left, while Japanese and Chinese character sets run top to bottom, creating a different set of design problems.


  5. What is the key to internationalisation?
  6. What are the implicat ions of communicating globally? Most acknowledge that language, religious heritage, date and time formats, iconography, writing system (Latin, Semitic or Asian), cultural subtleties, scripting accommodations and character formatting (two-di git formatting known as double byte character sets or DBCSs required for Asian characters versus the one-digit scripting for English and European languages) have the greatest implications when designing for a culturally diverse audience. Likewise, pricing, payment structures, methodical currency exchanges, shipping costs, exchange policies and customer support may further complicate transactions with customers on the other side of the globe.

    It is also likely that the majority of designers have little experience designing in Arabic scripts that are bi-directional (right to left, except for numbers and fo reign-language words that run from left to right). Far Eastern languages require twice the space of English for each letter because of DBCSs. Localising a site requires special attention to these design considerations.

  7. Designing for the global audience
  8. Most designers have little, if any, training that addresses localisation issues, although numerous articles and special issues focusing on internationalisation and localisation have recently appeared. The majority of these articles have, however, centered on language with little attention given to the larger issues of globalisation. The lack of formal design training (focusing on designing for global audiences), special programming needs req uired for various linguistic groups and content interpretation in cross-cultural applications allow design firms to bypass a true internationalisation effort, thereby affecting content and possibly message reception. The majority of these i ssues are either overlooked or ignored in an effort to visually enhance a site with state-of-the-art feats.

    "The desire to become a cool site is often detrimental to good design. Certainly, boring or confusing sites will not attract many users, but the use of advanced design elements simply for the sake of adding more stuff to the page will discourage users from re peat visits to a site," said usability expert Jakob Nielsen to the 1998 gathering of the Association of Computer Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction [16]. With the rapid growth of the Internet, the need to ef fectively communicate globally challenges designers to adhere to the principles of simplicity rather than those of technical complexity. The classical role of designer is becoming that of information architect/information designer by encomp assing the tools of design aesthetics with user interfaces and navigation tools that promote, rather than deter, usability. Neilsen’s statement has added significance when applied in the global context.

    The Federal Express site for Brasil demonstrates a business-to-business localisation attempt that may fall short of corporate strategy (Fig. 2a). Gains made by the conv ersion of navigation aids into the national language, the placement of the flag in the design and inclusion of local contact numbers may be offset by the representation of an Asian carrier. Moreover, visitors to the site have a one-in-four chance of seeing this particular carrier and a one-in-three chance of seeing a woman.


    The aforementioned problems were compounded in the design of the United Arab Emirates site using the national language, local charter set, and reading preference while using the same carrier image as noted above, although it has been r eversed to follow the text flow (Fig.2b). The cultural problem here, however, is the use of not only the Asian carrier, but that of a woman with exposed arms — a cultural taboo in the region.

    Both of these Federal Express examples adequately illustrate the problem of site development for an international audience. To be fair, however, Federal Express maintains 216 separate sites one of the largest online localisation efforts. Federal Express has recently started to update their sites correcting some of their localisation oversights (Fig. 2c). This new effort by the company underscores their continued commitment to the practices of globalisation.


  9. Theory versus practice
  10. Two other noteworthy examples using the Federal Express site illustrate the complexity of glo bal design. The site for Hong Kong, ignoring any associated political aspects, uses double-digit coding rendering the text unreadable in the United States. This problem is potentially resolved by the use of Unicode and its 65,536 character combinations, although it is not necessarily a catchall fix for the problem. The Unicode site itself has its own problems in translating "About our services" page into Arabic. The translation error occurred employing Internet Expl orer v5.0 in the International translation setting. While formatted for the geographical area (right-to-left) the Arabic words did not display correctly.

    Three other considerations wo rth noting in undertaking international translations:

    Spelling varies between countries that share similar dialects. In the United States, "color" is different from its counterparts in the United Kingdom and Canada where it is spelled "colour."

    Variations in colloquialisms are also important to consider during localization. The use of eleva tor versus lift or apartment versus flat are equally important in accommodating your audience. Attention to detail leaves the user with the impression that time and care was taken during the process. This process should also take into account special accent marks used in various languages.

    If computerized translation services are used, they should be manually checked for accuracy. While the use of the service certai nly speeds the translation process, the service is not error free. For example, the translation of browse from English to French will return Regardez or watch, whereas in German it will return Blättern Sie or page (

  11. Narrowing the Digital Divide
  12. The cost of hardware, software and modems, not to mention ISP service fees and telephone charges may continue to thwart the progress of most developing countries. In Tanzania, the average professional pays three times h is monthly salary for the luxury of owning a computer [10].

    A significant problem that contributes to the unavailability of online services is the lack of telephone service in rur al areas of many developing countries. According to figures, 60 percent of the people in developing countries live in rural areas while 80 percent of the telecommunications infrastructure is located in urban areas [10].

    Nor is the problem strictly limited to developing countries. In the United States it is estimated that telephone accessibility in rural Native American households is 18 percent below the national average, while access to computers lags by 15.3 percent behind the national average [17].

    The apperception of the digital divide has recently become a subject of paramount concern. The World E conomic Forum ("a global partnership of business, political, intellectual and other leaders of society committed to improving the state of the world") in July of 2000, submitted a proposal to the G-8 Kyushu-Okinawa Summit 2000 [3]. The 40-page report outlines current disparities between developed and developing nations and offered the G-8 a series of proposals containing both governmental and private sector endeavors, that will speed the upgrading of technology infrastructure to developing nations. The forum notes that "The internationalisationof this process (global digital opportunity) presents developing countries with an unparalleled opportunity to significantly accelerate and spread the benefits of economic development."

    It is apparent that the segmentation between the "information haves" and "information have-nots" will continue until the d igital divide is eliminated. Singapore, with a population of 3.7 million, has a thousand times as many Internet hosts as the 60 poorest countries that account for more that 3 billion people. Iceland, with a population of 250,000, has 20 tim es the number of Internet hosts as 100 of the world’s poorest countries [10]. The World Economic Forum suggested in their report that "the digital opportunity will not be realized fully, and indeed could be squandered, unless deve loping country governments take decisive and enlightened action" [3]. Without assistance and persistence of the "information haves", however, it is likely that this opportunity may pass.

    It is apparent that the Internet has a significant impact on the lives of those that have the opportunity to connect with the online community. The notations here suggest that there are numerous considerations that must be made in order to adequately provide information globally. Whether it’s the construction of a national infrastructure for access or the physical design made during presentation, the problem is complex and multivariate. Information and access to it serve as a first-step in the understanding and complexity in delivering content.


  13. The role of Culture

Two distinguished and often quoted researchers in the field of intercultural communication are Ed ward T. Hall an American anthropologist and international business consultant, and the Dutch born Geert Hofstede of the Institute for Research on Intercultural Cooperation/University of Limburg at Maastricht, The Netherlands.

Hall ‘s work primarily focuses on the individual interpretation of written, oral and non-verbal communication. His wor ks include The Silent Language (1959), Beyond Culture (1976) and Hidden Differences: Doing Business with the Japanese (1976). Hall’s research has been in use for decades, but has taken on a new perspective with th e expansion and use of the Internet as a means of communication, commerce and research.

Starting in 1978, H ofstede conducted a five-year survey of 166,000 IBM employees in 50 countries and three regions. The survey was conducted using employees from the sales and service departments at each local IBM office and was conducted in 20 languages making it the largest institutional study ever undertaken. The survey allowed Hofstede a reasonable comparison between cultures (without consideration for various cultures found within the national culture) performing similar tasks. Hofstede’s work, however, also has several skeptics who suggest his research may lack some validity (or at least skewed data) owing to the similar "corporate culture" both in terms of the industry (high-tech) and a single multinational corporate entity .

It is this author’s opinion that much of the work by these researchers may fall short of an applica tion in the design and presentation of visual information. Both researchers focus their attention specifically with non-technical delivery methods, possibly a limiting factor, although not necessarily grounds for dismissing the application of their work in international communication.

There are three relevant factors, according to Hall and Hofsted e, related to the transfer of information regardless of audience, location, or method of delivery, the focus here, however, is the electronic delivery of information via the Internet. These three factors are:

  1. The sender or producer of the information who encodes it for its intended purpose i.e. sales, transfer of knowledge or as a communication tool;
  2. The information itself including the medium, format, layout, purpose and timeliness of the message; and
  3. The recipient of the information who needs to be able to decode the message and interprete it according to his background and cultural heritage.

Of these three factors the decoding of the intended messa ge is the most relevant, particularly in the cross-cultural setting, on design issues that attract rather than repel the audience. As previously noted, numerous factors may inhibit a viewer’s ability to decode messages if the formatting is c ulturally unacceptable to the audience.

There has been considerable discourse recently reviving interest in both Hofstede’s and Hall’s work in cultural influences and communication methods. The assimilation of this research may aid designers in approaching templates for internationalisation projects. They do not, however, completely address all the considerations needed in global design. Remaining issues include the linguistic, content and technical design aspects - equally meaningful in the design of an international site.


  1. Conclusion

Many of the land mines in communication design have been noted in this paper. With roughly 5,000 languages and dialects used globally (approximately 100 are used in busi ness, academic or technical communication) one can begin to understand the immense task undertaken when considering the internationalisation of ones site. It has, however, been adequately addressed that translation is only a small portion of the overall process. Issues related to text, colour selection, cultural preferences and technical issues also play a pivotal role in the process and have been summarized in Fig. 4.

Not everyone uses the same browser internationally. Moreover, users are likely to not be using the same version. Most localisation consultants suggest "dumping down&qu ot; to the lowest common denominator. In other words, a site should be usable by the greatest number of people. Ben Shneiderman noted that "Skeptics caution that accommodating low-end technology, low-ability citizens, and low-skilled users w ill result in a lowest common denominator system that will be less useful to most users." These same skeptics note that attempts to accommodate the lowest end of the user spectrum may compromise the development and innovation on the higher e nd [16]. While this form of Internet apartheid has its adherents, the broader gains made by accommodating

the largest number of potential users may force researchers to consider a wider range of possibilities in design and usability.

Other considerations that were not included, but worth comment:

  1. Values associated with direction. Power and righteousness are associated with the right hand in Western cultures, whereas in Chinese traditions honor dwells in the left hand while destruction is on the right [4];
  2. Carefully consider the use of icons for communicating concepts. The mailbox, standard in the United States, does not carry the same interpretation in other parts of the world;
  3. Attention should be paid to national differences in graphical representations. A power plug in the United States has different physical features to those in Switzerla nd, the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe;
  4. Limit the use of alphab etic characters that have little representation or comprehension by cultures that utilize a different alphabetic system;
  5. When picturing people, be sensitive to the customs and practices of other cultures. Nudity in one country may be acceptable, but not in others. In some Asian cultures, bare feet or the sole of the foot send an entirely different message than in the United States, where the practice is common. Showing women with bare arms is prohibited in Islamic countries, where only the eyes and hands are shown;
  6. Avoid hand gestures to illustrate a point. They may not be interpreted the same way internationally; and
  7. Use the proper representation for time, currency, weights and measures.< /FONT>


There are numerous considerations in developing a site for internationalisation or localization. While the suggestions noted here give a brief checklist of considerations, it is advisable to utilize the services of local usability experts when preparing sites for an audience outside ones own borders . Nor is the author suggesting that all sites need to be translated. At a cost of 40-60 cents per word [18], translating every page and word could become cost prohibitive and unnecessary.

< FONT FACE="Palatino" SIZE=2>

The author closes this treatise with the following design considerations:

  1. Content should account for 80 percent of the usable window space acquainting the user with as much information as possible about your site. This, however, may va ry on the homepage to allow for navigation aids and corporate identifiers and/or text accommodations;
  2. The strict use of "websafe" colours is no longer a significant obstacle for designers. It is estimated that the majority of users can now view thousands of colours on their monitors opposed to the rest rictive websafe palette of 216 for Windows machines and 256 for Macintosh;
  3. Page size should be kept to 34 kilobytes for optimum downloading by modem users. Proven Edge’s research suggests that users will bailout (leave the site) if pages exceed 40 kilobytes at the rate of 25-30 percent. This is in sharp con trast to a bailout rate of 7-10 percent where pages are 34 kilobytes or less [19];
  4. Let your users know who you are as soon as they enter your site. While this suggestion appears elementary, there are instances where this practice was not undertaken;
  5. Leave some white space for the user — it allows the designer to control the flow of information. It also allows the user some space to absorb the content without overwhelming the user with wall-to-wall graphics, text and animations;
  6. The standard hyperlink colour is blue and most usability experts suggest its continued use. Most online users have become accustomed to its meaning and can instantly recognize its intended purpose; and

  7. When internationalizing, a staging page with language choices should be created to allow users the choice of language. The use of international flags is at best can be confusing — i.e. which flag would you use for English — the United Kingdom, United States or Canada? Most usability experts suggest that languag e choices should be spelled out including the use of special markings, spellings and symbols.


There is limited acknowledgement that the need exists to further study the emerging issues related to design as it relates to cross-cultural communication specifically. Barbara Mones-Hattal of George Mas on University made the following comment on Web design during an ACM/SIGCHI 97 workshop: "… [I]t becomes important to start to discuss and identify what successful Web design might mean, so that we may be more able to both recognize and utilize these spaces with greater confidence." The challenge remains in undertaking the task globally.




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[14 ] Lawrence, Stacy. (February 2000). "Behind th e Numbers: The Mystery of B-to-B Forecasts Revealed." [online] Available:,2799,11300,00.html

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[17] Levy, Kelly. "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide." July 1999

[18] Horton, William, (4th Quarter 1993). The Almost Universal Language: Graphics for International Documents." Technical Communications.

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