This summer, my husband Chris and I took a vacation from our home north of Boston to Montreal. When we were preparing to go, I asked a number of people who had traveled there in the past if it would be a big deal that neither of us spoke French. They all told us that it would not be a problem, that everyone in Montreal speaks both French and English. They described the Canadian city as being “very European” but said it was accessible, that we wouldn’t have any trouble traveling there even with our complete lack of French-language comprehension.
After hearing their reassurances, I admit that I didn’t think that Montreal was going to be much different than the United States. So I was surprised when we got to the city. The language wasn’t a barrier, exactly, but it was a differentiator. Although everyone I spoke to in Montreal did speak English, it was usually evident that they all would prefer to be speaking French. Every street name, sign, menu and all the directions that we came across were in French (although sometimes there was an English translation). And there were other subtle issues that made us feel like we were away – the food, the fashions, and the intangible but definite feel of the town that was so, well, different.
For me, our experience in Montreal served to highlight how hard it is to “go global.” I don’t mean this in a technical sense, because it isn’t difficult to set up a Web site that will reach an international audience. What I’m referring to is the ability to create an experience on the Internet that feels local to an international audience. That is very difficult indeed.
Certainly this isn’t a new challenge, and there are some companies that have been working on their international Internet strategies for years. The Global by Design blog has a great analysis of the top 10 global sites. This list is comprised of both Internet companies (Google and Wikipedia) as well as more old-school technology companies (Cisco Systems and Phillips). Along with these leaders, there are a number of Web 2.0 companies that are beginning to effectively reach into global markets. Flickr, the community-based photo sharing site, offers eight language options along the footer of every page. The site also greets its users with a welcome in a different language every time they come (today my page says “Shalom 16thletter! Now you know how to greet people in Hebrew!”) in an effort to make the global community ”feel” part of its users’ everyday experience. Myspace.com announced in late 2006 that it would be extending its site internationally, and they now offer international options as part of each users’ account settings to allow people to customize their local experience.
But even though most companies have globalization top-of-mind when building their sites, it is still a challenge in the details. In this post from Angela Randall on allfacebook – the unofficial facebook blog, she lists the subtle issues that make Facebook annoying for her to use in Australia. Her complaints include issues such as the seasons (which are different in the Southern hemisphere), states (international states aren’t included in Facebook) and study levels (Australia calls different levels by different terms than are used in the U.S.). All of these issues create enough dissonance for her to write, “Yeah, we know Facebook was developed in the US and has evolved from there but it’s time to extend some of the usability to international users.”
And another example that I would offer up is Ikea. The Swedish furniture retailer is perhaps one of the most successful global sites today – the company’s home page features a list of countries from which to choose to customize my Web experience, and they do a good job when I arrive at the United States version of the Web site. But in a subtle way, perhaps because of that initial global landing page or maybe because of the slightly different design style that is the signature of the company and permeates the site, I am constantly reminded that this is not a U.S. company. This leads to the feeling that I am not “at home” on the site. It isn’t 100% comfortable and familiar.
And this is the heart of the matter – what does it mean that I don’t feel at home on the site because it isn’t 100% comfortable? That feeling, that experience – it’s not quantifiable or measurable by any scientific methods or usability testing. And it is just this type of intangible that we have to get right in order to effectively “go global” on a local level. And it is also what makes the process so difficult.
~ Today’s view: http://www.flickr.com/photos/13799608@N08/1432924547/
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