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Global Positioning Systems

You've put a lot of work into accommodating the language needs of a broad user base. What are some best practices for ensuring that users can reach and appreciate the pages you've put together? Here are some tips to streamline the process:

  • Store your site's language- or country-specific content in separate folders or directories, one per language. The language or country code can then become an obvious part of your file or directory naming process. For example, http://www.ibm.com/fi/ IBM in Finland) or http://www.ibm.com/br/ (IBM in Brazil) provide ready indicators about the page's intended audience or language requirements. This will also simplify coding efforts to send users on to language-specific pages.

  • Consider letting visitors select their own language. Figure 1 shows how Electronic Arts displays a splash page containing GIFs that display the language names. In this way, users readily see the language options available to them before displaying content in languages other than English.

  • Figure 1 Web visitors click the name of their desired language on this navigational page. Images are used for the language names to display the native characters to all visitors.

  • On DataViz's site (see Figure 2), users can use a drop-down language selection spinbox that is prominently visible in the left-hand navigation to readily choose from four Western European languages (French, German, Italian, and Spanish) in addition to English. Once visitors choose a language other than English, links to additional pages within that part of the site replaces the spinbox with a link back to English.

  • Figure 2 Letting visitors choose a language or country preference via a drop-down menu eliminates the extra clickthrough that as separate language selection page (as shown in Figure 1) would entail.

  • Some graphical means for letting users choose their language preferences should be avoided: the first is GIFs of flags or maps showing country borders. Flags are fine for country-specific content, such as product pricing or information about specific events—but often can't be equated with a single language. You wouldn't want to use France's flag to indicate a link on a Canadian site to its French language version, for example. Similarly, the border conflicts that continue in nearly every part of the world can make it more trouble than it's worth to display graphical maps that users would click to hone in on a specific region—this was an ironclad part of ibm.com's design guidelines during my tenure there.

  • If you use a content management system to oversee your site's maintenance, definitely explore its inherent capabilities or enhancements that could be developed to dynamically enable the display of content in other languages on demand. For the human resources intranet I manage for Merrill Lynch, we implemented a basic customization of Vignette StoryServer to display articles in the user's preferred language wherever a translation is available; if no translation is available, the English version is served up. Similarly, Localizer is an open source product designed to make it easy to redirect visitors to Zope- or Python-based sites to an appropriate language directory (see the previous tip on creating folders or directories for your site, one per language).

  • Consider using content negotiation to detect the language of your visitors' Web browsers, and redirecting them automatically to an appropriate version of your home page if a version for that language exists.

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