Scrub Your Windows When Designing for International Users

By Lulu Xiao, Senior Strategist

As part of their global strategy in the late 1980s, Whirlpool designed and built a washing machine for emerging markets: the “World Washer”. In Brazil and Mexico, the World Washer did very well. In India, however, it was another story. Despite intense marketing efforts, sales remained dismal. Millions of dollars were lost and it took Whirlpool several more years to reclaim the goodwill of the Indian consumers. In contrast, Gillette (a P&G brand) introduced the Guard razor to the Indian market in 2010…and it was remarkably successful. Within three months of the product launch, the Guard was the best-selling razor in India. Within six months of the product launch, the Guard represented over 50% of the Indian razor market share.

So, what was the difference?

Culture-sensitive research and design. Although Whirlpool made some modifications to the World Washer based on cultural preferences, they neglected to anticipate that traditional South Indian clothing such as lungis, dupattas, mundus, angavestrams, saris, etc. – which are made of long yards of cloth – would get caught and shredded in the one-millimeter gap between the washing machine’s agitator and drum. The World Washer was effectively unusable for many Indian consumers. In contrast, Gillette sent 20 employees to India to observe how Indian men shaved. The group spent 3000+ hours with over 1000 Indian men, learning their processes and habits, and testing designs. This thorough understanding of the end-user enabled Gillette to design and build a razor that resonated with the Indian market.

We should let history be a lesson here. The consequences of overlooking cultural nuances when designing products and experiences are abundantly clear. And, with the user base for digital products becoming increasingly global (think video games and the iPhone), it is now more important than ever to design them for international users. In fact, there are several things we, as UXers, can advocate for and do.

  1. Localize the language and terminology

This is the first and simplest step. Don’t just rely on Google Translate, however. It is important to ensure that the content is also grammatically sound, uses the appropriate idioms, and makes sense to a native speaker. Data elements such as currency type, date and time formatting, units (pounds vs. kilograms), and so on, are part of a country’s language and should be localized appropriately as well. A new language may mean acquiring new fonts and/or character sets, which is another factor to consider.

Abbreviations are not totally off-limits, but it’s usually better to assume that non-English speakers won’t recognize shortenings you think are common. It’s safer to leave “LOL” and “Dept” at home. Even when it’s the same language, spelling may also need to be changed. For example, it is color or colour?


  1. Be aware of the how people read and mirror interfaces accordingly

While English is read from left to right, some languages are read from right to left (e.g. Arabic and Hebrew), so interfaces will need to support Bidirectional (BiDi) script. In some cases, entire interactions and UI will also need to be mirrored. The American Facebook sign-up page, for instance, shows the form inputs on the right side of the screen, but the Hebrew Facebook sign-up page aptly shows the form inputs on the left side of the screen.

International FB

The mirroring issue can be applied to iconography as well. It’s better, for instance, to use the image at the right where the text is justified, because then it can be used for all situations.

Text icons

(As a sidenote: Mirroring does become more complicated for touchscreens, because a majority of people – even if they read right to left – are still right-handers. In those situations then, decisions to mirror or not mirror will need to be carefully evaluated.)


  1. Build in buffers for longer text

In the UX world, we understand the value of white space. For international products, there’s even more reason to preserve space buffers on screens; it allows us to accommodate languages with long words. Imagine if you were designing an app for a Welsh client and needed to include this town name on a screen: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

This particular scenario may be unlikely, but if you don’t prepare for the possibility of longer words in another language, you may end with something like the example below and spend extra time completely redesigning a screen.

Long text

  1. Choose colors and icons wisely

What colors and icons symbolize vary drastically for different countries. Though we as Americans associate red with danger or stop, the Chinese associate it with happiness and celebration. The “okay” symbol can be misinterpreted as a vulgar expression in parts of Germany. There are numerous examples of how colors and icons convey something different in various parts of the world (or have no meaning at all), so it’s essential that we reconsider our color and iconography decisions when creating a product for international users.


  1. Scrub your windows to reveal true meaning

The above list is a start, but not comprehensive by any means. Ultimately, we must remember to “scrub our windows”. As Issac Asimov once said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” Too often, however, we design with already dirtied windows – that is, we try to modify a product that was originally built for an American audience. We wipe the windows a little by making some tweaks (e.g., changing the language), but don’t finish cleaning the windows to fully reveal what an international user would find meaningful.

This is not to say “global templates” or some assumptions are not valuable, but to truly create products and experiences that resonate with international users, we must be proactive and conduct research to understand their values, needs, motivations, fears, etc….even their history, religious roots, and other cultural traits. Then we must test with those international users. It is exactly the process we should follow when designing for any consumer.

Because when we design for international users, it’s not just about localization, but the culturalization of products and experiences that will make it meaningful.


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