When designing for a global audience, think small

Credit: Joshua Rawson-Harris
Credit: Joshua Rawson-Harris

Digital experiences must be localized to convey that a brand is meeting people exactly where they are — wherever in the world that may be.

I’ve had the privilege of working in three diverse markets — Europe, Asia, and the Americas— on global brands like FedEx, Cathay Pacific, Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts, Avis and Budget. When designing for a global brand, there is a temptation to think big, but I’ve learned that the real key to going global is to think small.  

We often think of global brands as the big ones like McDonald’s, whose Big Mac is now available across the globe, or Nike, which has told the whole world to ‘just do it.’ But in today’s digital world, far smaller brands also have the ability to go global, too. 

It’s never enough to translate something designed for people in the US and expect it to do well in another market, no matter how successful it is here. Localization requires understanding the nuances of life in different places. 

A few small things can make a big impact. 

What devices is your audience using? 

In the US, we take for granted that everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, but this is not the case in developing parts of the world. Will people access your experience across devices, or specifically on desktop? Will it be mobile-first? In some locations, device adoption is the key driver for digital strategy. Internet access is also an important consideration. Where access is slow, limited or expensive, digital experiences must be simple and quick to load.

What payment channels are big in that market?

In the West, we are familiar with integrated payment across social media. But not every social media or payment channel scales globally. Marketers should use country or region-specific channels to offer local users convenient ways to transact. In Asia, WeChat and AliPay are a must.

Know the language and the lingo. 

Localization is not the same as translation. English in the US is not the same as in Britain or Canada. We’re familiar with the term “package,” but this may not resonate with a European audience that more often uses the term “parcel.” If you’re offering customers a way to track the goods they’ve ordered, you’ll need to know this distinction. 

Tailor the user experience. 

To globally scale digital experiences, you need to be able to dynamically serve correct questions and field sets to users. This means that whether someone is shipping their parcel or their package, we only provide contextually relevant address fields. Asking some in Hong Kong for their zip code, for example, would be a red flag. 

Localize the design. 

Language is not just about what the words mean, but how they look. A truly global brand will need to account for languages that are read from right to left. A local understanding of what pictures or icons will work (and which could offend) is very important. 

Think about the color. 

Associations with colors vary across the globe. In the West, color meanings are generally quite broad, but in Eastern and Asian cultures, they can be more specific. While red in the western world is most often associated with something negative, in Eastern and Asian cultures it can communicate happiness and luck.  

Don’t assume your experience will work well in one market just because it did in another. Test early and often. If testing in other markets isn’t feasible, partner with a testing specialist or use platforms like usertesting.com or trymyui.com.

Digital experiences must be localized to convey that the brand is meeting people exactly where they are — wherever in the world that may be.  

Sunjay Morar is design director at Tank Design.

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