The one “flag” you should never use on your website

I visited the home page of the Chinese online travel agency website Ctrip recently and came across this odd flag:


Just because the UK  voted to separate from the EU doesn’t mean that it’s considering a merger with the United States (the last I checked).

Seriously, I understand why companies use this hybrid flag—as an all-purpose English icon. But it fails to achieve that goal because flags are not synonymous with language. And, as icons go, people generally don’t like to see their national flags chopped up or merged with other flags.

A better approach is to avoid using any flag at all and simply use “English.”

For more on flags and the global gateway, check out The Art of the Global Gateway.

What’s wrong with this global gateway?

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 8.18.58 AM

A few things.

First, using flags to indicate language is almost always a mistake.

Second, why are the language names all in English?

Only the “English language” text needs to be in English. The purpose of the gateway is to communicate with speakers of other languages, not just English speakers.

Finally, do we need “Language” at all? I would think not.



Samsung: The best consumer technology website of 2013

Samsung logo

We studied 18 consumer technology websites for the 2013 Web Globalization Report Card.

The Web Globalization Report Card is an annual benchmark of how effectively companies internationalize and localize their websites and applications for the world.

Out of those 18 companies, Samsung emerged on top.

Samsung emerged on top not because it leads in languages or global consistency, though it is strong in both respects.

Samsung supports an impressive 41 languages, not including US English. Apple, by comparison, stands at 31 languages.

Samsung emerged on top in large part because it has been aggressive  in engaging with users via social media across a number of languages and countries.

Note the bottom third of  Japan home page:

samsung Japan

Samsung embraces a range of social platforms to communicate and engage with users — in their local languages.

Samsung also leverages these platforms to provide customer support, as shown here:

samsung support

Many comparisons have been made lately between Apple and Samsung.

When simply comparing their global websites, clear distinctions are hard to miss.

Samsung has embraced social networking while Apple has not. Samsung appears to be comfortable with a certain level of visual chaos that comes  with supporting social networks and interacting publicly with customers. There are signs on the US website that Samsung is moving towards a new Samsung Nation model in which users register to earn points and virtual goodies — as well as connect with friends via Facebook. The degree to which this model will scale globally remains to be seen though I suspect Asia will pose a challenge.

Apple, on the other hand, presents a clean and consistent design template to the world. There is nothing scattered or busy about an Apple websites (except, I would argue, for its excessive use of flags). And consistency has served Apple quite nicely, though Apple has moved more slowly from a globalization perspective than Samsung.

Regarding the global gateway, Samsung buries the link to the gateway in the footer (not good).

Tthe gateway  itself is well organized, though the flags should be eliminated. As a general rule, flags should be avoided (a subject for a future post).

samsung global gateway

Finally, Samsung has been aggressive in updating its mobile website experience.

In the past two months, it launched a new mobile-optimized website, shown on the right:

samsung mobile

Notice how social icons are front and center. Also notice in the header how Samsung detects the use of an iPhone and instantly poses a comparison test.

Sneaky but smart.

While Samsung still has room for improvement, it does so many things well that it earned out the number one spot, outperforming companies like Apple, Panasonic, and Lenovo.

Here are the 18 consumer technology websites included in the 2013 Web Globalization Report Card:

  • Acer
  • Adobe
  • Apple
  • Canon
  • Dell
  • HP
  • HTC
  • Lenovo
  • LG
  • McAfee
  • Microsoft
  • Nikon
  • Nokia
  • Panasonic
  • Samsung
  • Sony
  • Symantec

Read more in the 2013 Web Globalization Report Card.

Or you can purchase just the Consumer Technology Website report.

Also included:

Entering the Nike “language tunnel”

Nike has a brand new website and they’ve made a few navigational changes along the way.

For starters, it appears that Nike is now using geolocation to detect the location of the user’s browser.

This means Nike is no longer using a default global gateway landing page, which is a good thing.

The bad thing is that the global gateway menu link has been buried at the bottom of a very long home page, right below the contact into:

If you click the link you’ll be taken to the “language tunnel” — note the URL:

I’ve never heard of the gateway page referred to as a tunnel, but in some respects it is one.

And given how Nike has buried the gateway link, the tunnel metaphor applies nicely (I’m kidding, of course; I never recommend burying the gateway link).

In fact, because Nike now uses geolocation it’s particularly important to make the gateway easy to find. Because now you’re performing some behind-the-scenes magic that users might want to override.

As for the global gateway menu itself, it is cleanly designed and extensible, though placing the US and UK at the top of the lists shows an unfortunate cultural bias.



Is Apple giving up on flags?

Apple has been using flags as part of its global gateway for many years.

In 2006, Apple’s global gateway was positioned in the footer and featured a different flag for each country web site:

Today, Apple has done away with the pull-down menu, but not the globe. Look to the right of the footer of and you’ll see this:

But Apple recently moved away from using flags on its online store, perhaps a sign of things to come, shown below:

The flags have been replaced with plain text links.

I’m not saying that Apple is wrong for using flags. Apple does not make the mistake of using flags to indicate language. Flags are only used to indicate countries and regions.

But flags do not scale well.

Flags worked better when Apple supported fewer than 20 localized site. But Apple is clearly in scale mode, adding stores in countries around the world. Plain text links add less overhead (in bytes) than images and, more important, are easier for people to scan than a blur of flags that mostly share the same basic colors.

Consider the page below, also from Apple. I don’t believe this sea of colors amounts to any sort of usability gain. In fact, if you look closely you’ll see some faux flags created for “Other Asia” and “Latin America.”

I don’t hate flags. Really, I don’t.

But as I write in The Art of the Global Gateway, flags have many inherent limitations — from geopolitical to practical. And because flags do not scale well I think that Apple will eventually (largely) give them up.

The Swiss Air global gateway: When one flag isn’t enough

When it comes to web globalization and, in particular, global navigation, the general rule about flags is to avoid using them.

By avoiding them, you avoid stepping into any number of politically sensitive issues.

Nevertheless, companies love to use flags on their web sites.

And sometimes the use of flags can result in some rather curious implementations.

Case in point: I recently came across the global gateway for Swiss Air and saw something that can best be conveyed via video:

Did you see the “flashing” flag?

I’d be curious to know if residents of the UK and Ireland would be bothered by this hybrid flag. Perhaps it’s not a big deal, but the flashing alone made this flag stand apart from all others. Frankly, it looks silly.

The flashing flag is also included in the pull-down menu, as demonstrated below:

Had Swiss Air simply avoided flags in the first place, it would have avoided this issue altogether.

Flags can be troublesome. When it doubt, leave them out.

To learn more, check out my new book The Art of the Global Gateway.