How to design multilingual websites for your EU startup

Ultan Ó Broin
6 min readFeb 5, 2023

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Aweb design “101”, or “t-shirt sized”, piece on creating a web presence in different languages to sell products and services across borders. I wrote this on request as a handy guide for startups in the EU (or anywhere else, really) who wanted to design a customer-centred presence quickly.

DALL-E 2 generated image: “a painting of a group of Irish software developers working together on laptops in the style of edward hopper in a diner”. Source: Ultan Ó Broin

First things

1) Don’t build anything new; a big mistake. Take what’s already there from Shopify, Squarespace, Wix, and others.

2) You do not need to be a professional designer or translator. But, do keep it simple.

3) The goal of a successful website in any language is participation. That means that your customers must a) be able to find it (SEO, Social Media, and so on), and b) then get into the website product section and buy things fast (i.e., no complicated signup, or lengthy, horrible, processes to buy something).

4) Multilingual localization and internationalization support are now standardised and accessible. Don’t pay for any expertise about character sets, dates, time formats, currencies, sort orders, etc. Read up on it or get a freelancer with a passion to help you.

5) Know your users — create a few typical users on paper, give them a name, and list their consumer gains, pains, wants, computer expertise, and competitors (“personas)”.

“If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen!” Never a truer Wort gesprochen. Source.

What do I mean by multilingual?

A multilingual website is a site that supports different languages by a) internationalisation (or I18n) — that is the code is “neutral” and centralised for all languages, and b) localization (or L10n) — what the user sees reflects their everyday user preferences and cultures (that means language, date, time, currency formats, time zones, and more, and naturally, the local nuances, e.g., not images of the Empire State Building but the Eifel Tower, Brandenburger Tor, and so on). This multilingual support must be present across the entire customer journey (from search to shipping, and yes including any help or support you offer).

“Sign up for Google Analytics so you can measure and manage what customers are searching for”

Google language selection options (from Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day). Source: Ultan Ó Broin

Must haves

  1. The ability for customers to find your product online — that means Search Engine Optimization (SEO), for example with SEM Rush. It means localising those Google AdWords, your site’s meta descriptions and keywords, and so on. Get yourself a Google Search Console account. Sign up for Google Analytics so you can measure and manage what customers are searching for, how they get to your website, and then how they use your site to buy something (i.e., trace the steps).
  2. Architecture your site so you can easily extend and update it. Apply MLS (multilingual support) principles. That means “striping” (putting in columns) the content by different languages, each referring to a common coding base. Separating the code and the content also makes changes to branding and text easier and safer (a process called “externalization”).
  3. Language selection: Enable users to choose their preferred language or location, usually through a translated drop-down menu (some controversy will arise about flags, sure, so be careful about using them for languages as opposed to countries! ). You can also use detection to determine your users’ settings and location and then switch the language automatically. Try some best design practices.
  4. All UI content, branding messages, error messages, or help- words, images, and videos must be translated into any target languages supported. Yes, you can use Google Translate to populate your translations initially before release, and for testing. But, you must then have a professional local speaker review the content and tailor it. Create a choice list of your key terms and branding messages that you’ve approved (this is called a “glossary”) to keep the translations “on message”.
  5. Where translation becomes really expensive is when “extra” services are sold — such as project management, selling tools, and so on. Use Microsoft Excel as a translation tool — one column for the source text, and other columns for the target translations. If you can afford professional services, great. But always use a paid professional to do your SEO, ads, marketing branding, and customer-facing content translation, if you must prioritize on spending money on translation.
  6. For Multilingual websites, simultaneous translation release is a must. This doesn’t mean translating everything on the same delivery schedule, but publishing the translations on your website at the same time!
  7. On localisation into multiple languages— think smart and simple. Write short content, snappy, easily understood, and in plain language (remember words change length when translated!) Keep text off images (they’re expensive to translate), and use images widely recognised, if using videos, use a soundtrack and not a visible speaker with script synched to the motion (the speed and timing in different languages will need re-recording).
  8. Design consistently. Sketch your website on paper, find 4–6 users to review the design, and ask them to show you how they would perform a task. Use the Norman-Nielsen Usability heuristics (there are 10) evaluation methods to find most of the serious issues before you design ANYTHING and spend money on it!
  9. Users are critical. Find end-users but you must also remember their dependencies with other stakeholders —for payment, shipping, offering customer support, and so on. How will those touchpoints work? What about currencies and exchange rates, we all don’t use the Euro!
  10. One absolutely critical task flow to design carefully — is finding a product, adding it to your checkout basket, and then paying for it and having it shipped. Billions of Euros in revenue are lost by online retailers every year because purchases are abandoned at the last stage of check — out- usually because of unusable functionality, hidden charges (shipping, taxes), products not available when the inventory is checked, forced sign-up first, and so on).
  11. Get a short domain name for the main website (.com, .eu), and then leverage the MLS architecture of your database or content system to serve up the language content in different language folders (www.yada.com/FR), and so on.
  12. Ensure the website supports the language and locale settings (i18n) — language and locale example (French — France, versus French — Canada). There are ISO standards for all this, and the Unicode character set must be used (basically a giant set of worldwide letters using a common byte set). Test those dates, times, formats, currencies, language displays, sort orders, reading directions, and so on, and ensure they all work for different locales. To test, first some users. One tip is to create a “Dummy” or “Pseudo” language to try and “smoke out” problems first during testing or use Google Translate to populate three languages on the site (A bidirectional one, an Asian character-based language such as Korean, and a Western European one — French for example). This will cover 99.9% of technical issues related to delivering effective locale websites.
  13. Ensure your website and the app provides accessibility (A11y). That means equivalent usage by the community who use things in different ways — people with physical, visual, and cognitive challenges — alternative texts to images, no reliance on colours for functionality or decisions, can be used by a keyboard or voice as well as swiping or typing.
  14. Test the website on common devices — Mobile First during design and usage. Get Google Analytics feedback and interview users and read comments to improve after the site is used. Make changes.
  15. Accelerate a fast track to your multilingual website by writing the source content, branding, and other messages by using ChatGPT. Then humanize it!
Critical — make sure your customers can complete the purchase from end to end. “Shopping cart” vs “Shopping trolley”? Try “basket” — Source: internet fair use

Some reading or listening for more?

Designing for people

Internationalisation architecture (I18n)

Basic usability (a good start)

International branding and marketing in the world today

Summary

Know your users! Who is the market? Buy as little as possible, use the standards, and ask for free help. It’s all out there. You’ll get what you design for — or don’t. if you have your own tips and insights, then find the comments.

Read more of my stuff on UX Planet ... à bientôt.

Ultan Ó Broin is a localization head and UX designer from Ireland.

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Ultan Ó Broin

Parent. Dog person. Dub. Art school UX design layabout. Experienced in digital design. 80’s hair and music. Age against the machine.