Something was gnawing at me as I observed our last several rounds of international usability studies. Many of the websites we tested around the world had uncommonly low quality — not unlike what we saw in the United States during the 1990s.
Reflecting on this observation, I realized that the worst sites were usually not the truly local sites designed by local businesses or government agencies. Instead, the offenders often came from huge multinational corporations that fielded country sites with horrible usability.
Australia Country Site: No Information Scent
Consider this sample category page from Sony Australia:
Our Australian test users failed miserably when attempting the simple task of finding a suitable Sony TV. As one Melburnian study participant said, "Maybe I am missing something — maybe I'm stupid."
You really don't want to make your prospective customer feel stupid.
As the screenshot shows, Sony Australia provided the following product descriptions to help users narrow their choices:
The Definitive Internet TV Experience
Breathtaking. A must have Full HD TV
Home Entertainment Powered with the Internet
Matchless quality and a world of possibilities
Monolithic Design and Immersive 3D Technology
Full HD 3D Equipped with Network Capability
The Ultimate TV and Web Surfing Experience
Network Capability with High Picture Quality
Vibrant images, seamless network capacity
Superior Image Technology & Energy Efficiency
All-round Entertainment and Enjoyment
What's the difference between "breathtaking," "matchless quality," "vibrant images," and "superior image technology"? If you really care about image quality, which of these 4 TVs should you buy?
On the other hand, if you're most concerned with your TV set's Internet connectivity, you might surmise that "definitive Internet TV" is better than "network capability," but it's less clear whether "definitive" is better than "seamless network." (Presumably, the networking for TV #6 isn't seamless — that's all we can logically conclude.)
Sony Australia's copywriters clearly like superlatives, but they don't understand the basic concept of information scent: the goal of blurb lists is to help users navigate the site. And, if everything is the best at everything, then why offer 11 different products?
(As a smaller point, the site's copywriters clearly hadn't attended the Writing for the Web course to learn about things such as parallel presentation and consistent capitalization.)
Are Australians Incompetent?
Let's get one thing out of the way: Australian country sites are not bad because Australians don't understand usability. 1,792 Australian user experience professionals have attended our Usability Week Australia training events so far, with another 340 attendees expected this August. Relative to the country's size, this is twice the number we get in the United States.
There's a huge usability talent pool in Australia, and we see a lot of great local sites when we test there. Also, 5% of the Intranet Design Annual winners have been Australian companies — pretty good for a country with 0.3% of the world's population.
If Australian designers are good, then why are Australian-designed country sites often bad? It's not Australia's fault. It's because multinational companies' country sites tend to be bad. We see the exact same thing in all the other countries where we run usability studies.
From HQ to Local Branch = Lost Usability
There are 3 problems inherent in having a big company's country office design a localized website:
If the local staff is concerned only with sales, they might not understand the company's product strategy or the true purpose of different products. This leads to a superficial presentation of the product line.
Local marketing staff members typically don't understand Internet marketing and are at the mercy of any advertising agency hired for the account. Rather than follow a user-centered design process, such agencies focus solely on glamorous appearance-design.
The local folks want to showcase their independence from headquarters and deliberately produce a local site that differs from the global site's more thoughtful design.
This third problem isn't found only with lumbering multinationals. NIH (not invented here) is a universal human feeling, even though it often degrades usability and causes inconsistent design. In our work on non-profit organizations' websites, we often see that local (city or state) groups have websites with substantially worse usability than the national organization's site.
Brand Damage from Poor Country Sites
When they're fed substandard websites, local customers notice. In our testing of B2B websites, we often hear business customers express contempt for international vendors' localized sites. Users suspect that these sites have impoverished product information that's been translated without an understanding of their particular industry lingo. They also assume the site is outdated compared with the main global site.
Here's another example — this one from our testing of Chinese users in Hong Kong, who were trying to get information about credit card offers from various banks:
Bank of China screenshot: Looks " local " according to Chinese users.
HSBC screenshot: Looks " international " according to Chinese users.
The Chinese test participants said that one bank's site looked "local" and the other looked "international." Users are highly attuned to catching such differences as soon as a page loads. The Bank of China's slightly garish design had an immediate impact on the users' perceptions of the bank.
Solution: Treat Local Design as a Design Project
How can multinational companies solve this problem and get better country sites? By reversing the causes of the bad design: Don't let your local office throw away money to advertising agencies that don't understand Internet marketing. Instead, consider local sites as part of a global Internet strategy. Specifically:
Document the design rationale for your website and your product line strategy, and ensure that local teams understand why the web team at headquarters does things in particular ways.
Train local staff in web usability, Internet marketing, and other topics that will empower them to say no to inane design ideas from advertising agencies. (Even better: build up local web skills so that your main country organizations can produce the local sites in-house instead of suffering under agency-produced sites.)
Recognize that local offices will resent dictates from headquarters. You can generate buy-in for a worldwide web strategy by including country representatives throughout the design process. (And, if you've followed the advice above and established local web expertise, the local folks will be able to teach you a thing or two as well.)
In essence, all of these bullets amount to one thing: recognize that a localized website is a user interface design project and treat it as such.