In order to attract as many users as possible, many startups make multiple language versions of their site available. In the diverse linguistic atmosphere of South East Asia, this is even more important. Most Thai startups have at least an English and a Thai version available, with other common languages including Japanese and Chinese.
But there’s a big problem with the user experience of switching between languages on most sites. The most common way of switching between languages is to use flags. Let me persuade you why that’s not a good idea.
Flags represent countries, not languages
Most people in Thailand speak Thai. Most Thai-speakers are in Thailand. That simple relationship is just not true for many other languages.
Even with English, we commonly see both United States (“The Stars and Stripes”) and United Kingdom (“The Union Jack”) flags used to represent English. This is confusing and perhaps even a little offensive – why should an American be expected to tap on a British flag to select their language? Not to mention the billions of English-speaking Indians, Australians, Canadians, South Africans, who are not ever included.
Let’s see how some local websites stack up:
Lazada – WRONG!
Bumrungrad Hospital – WRONG!
DTAC – WRONG! Notice also that while Bumrungrad’s UK flag means “You are in English’, DTAC’s UK flag means “Switch to English”. More confusion.
Techsauce – Yup, we also get it WRONG! We are unusual in preferring the American flag! It’s also unclear what the currently selected language is.
Of course, the new version of Techsauce rolling out in January 2017 no longer has this issue : )
HappyFresh – WRONG! They have invented some kind of mutant hybrid UK/US flag :S
And there’s plenty more that can go wrong with flags. So you’ve added Chinese to your site. Well done! Now, is that Traditional Chinese (used commonly in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau) or Simplified Chinese (used commonly in mainland China and Singapore)? Which flags are you going to use for those?
Planning to expand to Latin America, where many countries speak Spanish? That’s a significantly different dialect to Spanish speakers in Spain. Flags are political. Displaying a Tibetan flag could cause your site to get shut down in China. What flag are you going to pick to represent Arabic? Will you use the same Indian flag for Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam and Telegu?
If I’ve persuaded that flags are not the way to go, what should you do instead? How about two-letter language codes?
aCommerce – Better – but still requires a dropdown. Two-letter language codes may not be well known for some users – did you know “ID” meant Bahasa Indonesian?
ClaimDi – Same issue here, “TH” may not be intuitive to non-English speakers as meaning “Thai”.
Coins.co.th – Close, but no cigar. The languages are spelled out but the word “Thai” shouldn’t be in English.
The best practice is to write out the names of the languages in full in their native language. For example “English” for English, 中文 for Chinese, ไทย for Thai, and so on. This ensures native speakers will always be able to quickly spot the name of their own language, regardless what language the current page is written in.
This also makes it easy to clearly highlight the currently selected language.
SocialGiver – great! Using localized names, and the currently selected language is clear. Writing out “EN” as “English” would be even better.
Siam Commercial Bank – Great! Works well with three languages
Foodpanda – Great! If you don’t have room in your header to list all the languages, use a small icon such as a globe or speech bubble to indicate the dropdown.
While it may seem like a small thing, using an intuitive language selector will help your startup’s website cater to a bigger multilingual audience.