Usability for International Web Visitors

People are the same the world over, and all the main usability guidelines remain the same, concludes Jakob Nielsen after another round of user testing in countries outside the US.  Nielsen notes, “usability guidelines are derived from the principles of human–computer interaction (HCI), which are founded on the characteristics of computers and the human brain and the many ways the two differ.”

Best practices in user interface (UI) are the same whether the website is presented in Arabic, Chinese, or English. Similarly, users’ desire to use search tools is universal.

Users in all countries prefer concise sites. This simply means that writers and editors must work harder when they’re producing content in more verbose languages.

Reading Right-to-Left

Most languages are read left-to-right, and this reading direction is implicit in many usability findings. Conceptually, the research showed exactly the same behaviors with the Arab users. But of course, their attention focused on the right side of the page, since they read right-to-left. Similarly, they exhibit a mirrored-F reading pattern to US readers, scanning down the right side of the main content column, not the left side.

Web users pay more attention to the beginning of the content, and their engagement quickly peters out. This is why the first few words of headlines and links are so important.

Based on the findings, Nielsen recommends that when designing a single site to be used in all countries, use the traditional left-to-right layout. The important thing is to stay consistent within the site.


At a minimum, search should accommodate both American and British English. Allowing for typos in search is crucial when supporting international users, who are weak spellers when entering queries in a foreign language. In Nielsen’s UAE studies, for example, every single participant made spelling mistakes in English.

Should You Have a Local Site?

The most basic question when supporting international users is which strategy to choose: internationalization (I18N), which offers a single global site to support all users; or localization (L10N), which offers local sites in each important customer locale.

You always need an internationalized site; not even the biggest companies can afford to localize for every country in the world. But should you go the localization route to the extent you can afford it? The testing provided slightly contrasting answers.

  • Arab users often felt that international sites were more credible than Arabic sites.
  • If your site targets a broad consumer audience, you should localize it for countries in which the local language isn’t English.
  • In Australia, users strongly preferred local sites to foreign sites.

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