Inclusivity on the Web: Internationalization and your Website

Originally published Jan 19, 2019. Updated Jan 8 2024 to clarify language and to add section on emojis

Crafting an Inclusive Web Experience

Have you ever stumbled upon the term “Internationalization” abbreviated as “i18n” and wondered what it actually means? It’s more than just a jumble of letters and numbers; it’s the backbone of making your online space welcoming and accessible to everyone, regardless of their location, language, or cultural background.

Internationalization, often shortened to “i18n” due to the 18 letters between ‘i’ and ‘n’, is all about breaking barriers and ensuring your website speaks a universal language. It goes beyond mere translation; it’s about tailoring your digital presence to fit seamlessly into diverse cultural contexts.

Think about it – when someone visits your website, should it not adapt to their language and cultural nuances, much like a warm welcome in their native tongue? That’s where localization swoops in. It’s not just about language; it’s about adjusting date formats, currency symbols, and even naming conventions to resonate with your visitor’s world.

Localizers

Did you realize that your website can transform itself to suit the preferences of your visitors? It’s like having a chameleon for a website – adapting not just the language but the entire cultural feel to match the target audience. And guess what? It’s not just about translating words; it’s a whole immersive experience tailored for inclusivity and accessibility.

This magical transformation, known as localization, isn’t always done with magic spells but often through the use of cookies. These bits of data help your website recognize where your visitor is from and adjust accordingly. Think about it: when someone in France visits your site, they might see different content or formatting than someone in Japan or Canada. It’s not just about geography; it’s about catering to their preferences.

Localization isn’t just about language; it’s a symphony of tweaks – from date and time formats to currency symbols and even the way addresses or phone numbers are displayed. Imagine seeing prices in euros when browsing from Paris and dollars when checking from New York – that’s the magic of localization!

But how does this wizardry work? It can be based on various clues like your IP address, server location, or even your device’s operating system. Remember those cookie pop-ups you encounter on websites? They’re not just a nuisance; they’re often the gateway to this customized experience.

And here’s the kicker: localization isn’t just a fancy feature. It’s a critical tool for businesses targeting specific markets. If you’re selling products available only in Europe, someone browsing from Canada might not even see them in their search results – a blessing for both the seller and the buyer.

So, the next time you visit a website and it feels oddly familiar, like it’s speaking your language – quite literally – remember, it’s not a coincidence. It’s the marvel of localization, making the digital world feel a little more like home, no matter where you are.

Localizer Date Elements

internationalization and your website, calendar date format examples
See the map referenced at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/map-mondays-wtf-is-wrong-with-canada-s-time

19/01/19 vs 01/19/19

The only reason you can figure this out is because we’ve passed the 12th date of the month.

Let’s take just one of those technical elements. Date alone can be enough to make you toss your desk contents in frustration. I published this article on January 19, 2019. So which date format above looks right to you?

If you’re in the US, congratulations. You’re one of the very few countries who use MM/DD/YYYY (month/day/year) as a standard format.  Side note: please tell me you’re not using the MM/DD/YY format as I did above for 19/01/19, which is even more confusing.  So, you might say I published this article on 01/19/2019.

In most of the rest of the world, the day is written first and the year last (DD/MM/YYYY) – ie., this article published on 19/01/2019 – although in some places like China, Korea and Iran, this order is flipped (YYYY/MM/DD) – or 2019/01/19.

Another side note: Americans themselves can’t decide which format to use, and have waffled back and forth throughout the last 250 years.

First name, last name? Last name, first name?

Naming conventions in the West vs in China.

And names? The simple “first name, last name” combo might not sit well in cultures that don’t follow this structure. It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

A pretty standard form in North America asks for first name and last name, and we often make those fields “required”. We don’t even really think about it – and we often have good intentions around collecting that information, usually so we can customize our communications. But in some countries, for example Indonesia, the Western naming practice of a given first name and a family last name isn’t used. So, faced with a contact form that requires them to enter something in the “last name” field is confusing and even rude.

And colour of those field entries should be another concern too. Even something you might think is harmless could create unintended discomfort. While red might be a bold choice for your font color, in some cultures, it symbolizes negativity or even death. In some countries such as China, Japan and Korea, you should never write the name of a living person in red ink.

Don’t ignore this advice just because your website doesn’t target people from those countries. What about people from China, Japan, Korea, or other places who might visit or move to your area and see your website?

Left-to-right and right-to-left

Language structure is another maze. A sentence constructed seamlessly in English might lose its coherence when translated into a language with a different syntax.

For example, in the Japanese translation of “Page 1 of 34” all elements in the phrase would be in reverse order. Your application must not restrict the order in which these elements can be combined.

Specifications for technologies such as widgets and voice browsers should also avoid locking developers into an English-biased syntax for such things as composing messages or firing events associated with text.

Graphic illustrating order of words between English and Hindi.
Graphic illustrating order of words between English and Finnish

Now, some of this is beyond what you might get into if you’re working as a designer using pre-made platforms like WordPress or Shopify. But you need to check and make sure those platforms are doing as much as they can to ensure these accessibility practices are being followed.

Using symbols on your website

And let’s not forget symbols. It’s a world of interpretation that can’t be taken for granted. For example, the check mark means “correct” or “OK” in many countries. In some countries, however, such as Japan, it can be used to mean that something is  incorrect. Japanese localizers may need to convert check marks to circles (their symbol for “correct”) as part of the localization process. 

image showing a green circle beside a red check mark

Open to interpretation: A circle may represent ‘yes’ in Japan, and a check mark ‘no’.

Emojis

Emojis, those adorable little characters we use to add flair and emotion to our messages, might seem harmless, but they can pose significant challenges when it comes to web accessibility.

Firstly, emojis might not mean the same thing to everyone. What seems happy to one person could be confusing to someone else. This is true for both cultural differences as well as age differences, and these interpretations can change over time even within each group too. This can make it tricky for people using tools that read out text on the internet, as they might not understand what feeling an emoji is supposed to show.

Also, emojis look different on different phones or computers. A smiling face on one device might look totally different on another. This makes it hard for the tools that read out text to describe what an emoji looks like, causing confusion for people who rely on these tools to understand what’s on a website.

Plus, emojis don’t have words to describe them. Tools that read text out loud can’t explain what an emoji is showing because emojis are just pictures without any words. This means some people might miss out on what the emojis are trying to say in a message or on a website.

While emojis are fun and can express feelings, they can be tricky for everyone to understand. Finding other ways to show emotions or information without just using emojis can make websites easier for everyone to use and understand.

Make your website welcoming for everyone

The crux of the matter is this: the design of your website or application should be pliable enough to accommodate these variations. Whether you’re a DIY web designer or using pre-built platforms, ensuring these accessibility practices are integrated is paramount.

Making your digital space accessible isn’t just a checkbox; it’s a commitment to inclusivity. The fusion of internationalization (#i18n) and accessibility (#a11y) is what makes your website not just globally visible, but universally welcoming. So, let’s decode i18n and ensure our online realms speak a language of unity, diversity, and inclusivity.

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