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.
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.
I wrote an article for UX Magazine (based on my research for Lionbridge) that highlights global best practices in the travel industry.
Travelers want websites that travel with them
In the travel industry, your customers are mobile. If you greet them with a “select country” pull-down menu, they might wonder if you’re asking for their home country, departing country, or destination country. Which means you need to invest a great deal of planning into your global gateway.
More important, you need to offer users a consistent language experience across any device they may be using. It’s a mystery to me why a company will localize its website into 30 languages and only localize its mobile app into five or six languages (I’ve seen many instances of this).The irony here is that mobile apps, if developed properly, can be localized more cost effectively than websites.
The linguistic “syncing” of websites, mobile sites, and apps is a hot topic among many of the companies I’ve spoken with this year — across all industries. Given the rise of Internet usage on mobile devices, it’s fair to say that all Internet users want websites that travel with them.
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 Apple.com 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.
I’m pleased to announce that The Art of the Global Gateway is now available in paperback via Amazon.
The one caveat with the print edition is that the interior is in black and white — while the PDF edition offers a full-color interior.
I went with black and white (shown below) to keep the printing costs reasonable and I think the quality overall is quite good. I actually think some of the visuals are more effective in black and white because the type stands out more clearly.