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International Usability and User Interface Design

Inspired by an entry from Jakob Nielsen’s newsletter on usability

Pick up any major book on usability and user interface design and chances are that it stems from the ethnocentric standpoint of western civilization. This is understandable considering western countries, case in point the USA, have largely developed and shaped the web. As such our current user interface design conventions all stem from this standpoint. It is, after all, only recently that URLs can now be written in alphabets other than Roman, such as Chinese or Arabic. The question that remains is whether, and if so how much, our current user interface design conventions apply to other cultures and the like? Is there a need for the consideration of international usability and user interface design? International usability is the effectiveness of a user interface design when it is used in another country other than the one in which the UI design stems from.

To get to answers to questions like this usability guru Jakob Nielsen ran a range of usability studies of websites, mobile sites, apps and intranets in United Arab Emirates, China, and Australia. For the most part the findings show that the principles of Human Computer Interaction remain the same, thereby requiring the same user interface design conventions. An example is given with regards to the user interface design of e-commerce websites. An e-commerce website with a tiny product line (for example 5) doesn’t need a search bar as this only adds to the noise of a user interface design. On the other hand one with thousands of products would need one, along with filtering options, for the sake of usability. User interface design conventions such as these are valid whichever language a user interface design is presented in.

What are some examples of things to consider when optimizing a user interface design for international usability?

Languages written in the Roman alphabet are read from left to right. This is the reason why the left pane of a user interface design is often used for navigation. With languages such as Arabic the opposite is true requiring a mirroring of the user interface design and not just merely swapping out the text. The usability tests showed that users experienced no trouble going back and forth between English and Arabic websites despite the user interface design being effectively reversed. When designing a global site for all users the traditional left to right layout should be consistently applied to all pages. Naturally a right to left layout should also be applied consistently. Another big consideration is inherent lengthiness of a particular language. Arabic, for example, tends to encourage lengthy writing in comparison with English. With regard to user interface design this means that UI design elements such as dialog boxes will need to be made bigger to accommodate translations.

Search is also another big consideration for international users. The usability tests showed that international users often searched in both English and their native language. In fact with specialized websites, such as B2B platforms, many users were more familiar with the English terminology than that in their own language. Furthermore there were some who used British English while others employed the American variant. Furthermore there is the margin of error to consider as all participants from the UAE made English spelling mistakes. What international usability boils down to is the decision of whether to pursue internationalization (which is one global website for all users) or localization (which is offering a local site for each important market). In effect an internationalized global site is always important to have simply because it is too costly to localize for all countries. In some cases, such as with Arab users, an international website is deemed more credible than Arabic websites whereas Australian users strongly prefer localized ones. – Interface Design, Wireframe, Wireframes, Wireframe Software, Online Wireframe Tool, Wireframe Tool, Interface Prototyping, Clickable Wireframes, Usability Testing and Digital Paper Prototyping. User centered design for improved user interface design.