All too often, business-to-business (B2B) sites overlook users from outside the design team’s country, ignoring attributes and specialized content relevant to these customers. While the majority of usability guidelines remain the same for users in any culture or location, that does not mean that a B2B site designed for users in one country will be equally helpful to users elsewhere. Business environment, trade regulations, and even the competitive landscape may differ dramatically in different locations, and international B2B users need websites that are attuned to the local challenges. In addition, content must be adapted to fit local tone-of-voice conventions, standards, and units of measure. Below, we present 5 ways to improve your site for international audiences, based on what we have seen in tests of a broad range of B2B sites in Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.
1. Demonstrate Presence in Your Audience’s Region
In our research, international users of B2B sites repeatedly looked for evidence that the company was committed to serving its customers in a particular region, and had expertise on local practices and needs. Having a local office with contact information clearly shown on the About Us or Contact page, a list of sales reps that users can easily find on the website, or a prominently displayed local phone number for customer-service calls are all good ways of helping users find firms with a presence in their area; however, the participants in our studies also wanted more than just contact details for a local office:
- Information on how long the company had had a presence in the region was a proxy measure for the company’s commitment to the locale and for how well it understood the local business climate and unique needs of users in the area. If you have a solid local history, then saying so is an easy way to climb higher on the trust pyramid.
- Evidence of participation in local trade shows and events demonstrated interest in gaining customers in the local market.
- Thought-leadership content showing expertise in unique local business challenges reflected familiarity with the region’s business culture and practices.
Such information that demonstrates a local presence not only helps site users, who have already found your company, but also dramatically assists with SEO efforts. In our international usability-testing sessions, B2B participants frequently added their country name to the end of their Google searches, such as “Semiconductor manufacturer Singapore,” to make sure that the results were relevant to their situation.
2. Don’t just Translate, Localize Your Content
If you have customers in different countries, you usually have two possible strategies:
- Internationalization (sometimes abbreviated I18N): including a language selector on the main corporate website to see the content in multiple different languages
- Localization (sometimes abbreviated as L10N): creating unique localized websites for various regions
(A note on the abbreviations: the letters stand for the first and last letter of the corresponding word and the number represents how many letters there are between them. Thus, in “I18N,” the “I” and “N” are the first and the last letters in “internationalization”, and 18 is the number of letters between them. We don’t recommend these nerdy abbreviations.)
Most companies chose one of these two strategies; however, we strongly recommend that you adopt both methods: since it is not feasible to create a localized website for every single country in which your company does business, always provide an internationalized main corporate site, but create localized sites for key markets (and run some usability tests with local users during the design process, of course).
When offering multiple language options, provide the names of languages as text options, instead of using flags to denote countries, as many languages are used in multiple countries, often with varying dialects.
Whether you choose to also create unique localized sites or simply provide a single site with translated content, ensure that the content is actually localized, not just translated verbatim into each language. Cultural nuances impact user experience, often in subtle ways that are difficult to anticipate. Some key information, such as product names and descriptions, thought leadership content, or domain-specific jargon may need to be more thoughtfully adapted to local language patterns than can be achieved by a translation software or a freelancer’s literal interpretation. In particular, the tone of voice in your content may need to vary from region to region, as business is conducted in different levels of formality in different locations, and an informal, friendly style in your content may not be appropriate for some international audiences.
Prices often differ in different markets, and key specs should be provided in the appropriate systems of measure, such as metric or Celsius. Stick to country-specific standardized formats — for example, in the US, dates are formatted “month/day/year”, in Europe the format is “day/month/year”, and in Japan it’s expressed as “year/month/day.”
3. When Localizing, Be Consistent with the Main Corporate Site
The main site and the localized sites should all be consistent in visual design, information architecture, and key content. While you may adjust some of the content to fit with cultural expectations, the same basic information about your products and services should be available on localized sites.
In our research, regional sites often had significantly worse usability than the main company site, featured garish or dated visual designs, and contained content with excessive marketing copy and low information scent. In addition, these sites commonly omitted key information (e.g., price) that was available on the main corporate site, forcing users to navigate there. As a result, we saw users open a new tab and “parallel browse” both the main corporate site and the local regional sites, in the attempt to put together the main key specs from the main site and the local details (e.g., dealers or sales reps) from the regional site.
To ensure that your content translate well into a variety of other languages (including right-to-left ones), your designs should allow for 50% more room for languages other than English, to accommodate variability in word length and writing systems across languages..
With right-to-left languages, the design must easily adapt to support mirrored scanning patterns (for example, they should accommodate a mirrored F-shaped reading pattern, in which users skim down the right-hand side of the page instead of the left).
4.Single Sign-on Across Localized Sites and Main Corporate Sites
If, against our previous recommendation, your users do need to use both the corporate site and the localized site, at least don’t have them log in twice — one time for each site. If a user logs in on one version of the site (e.g., the Southeast Asian site), their login state should pass over to the main global site.
5. Include Export Control Numbers and Regulatory Information
Due to complex international-trade agreements, many B2B customers in foreign countries need additional information about export regulations in order to purchase from vendors based in other countries.
In the U.S., the Bureau of Industry and Security (part of the Department of Commerce) issues ECCN codes (Export Control Classification Numbers) for certain types of products. In some countries, your customers need to know this information in order to be able to screen vendors pre purchase.
Consult your company’s legal counsel and regulatory-compliance officers. If they indicate that you need to have ECCN numbers (or EAR99 codes for products that don’t require the ECCN), then provide that information on your website to assist foreign customers.
If there are additional trade, import, or regulatory requirements for your customers overseas (such as RoHS, or VAT) provide this information on your website.
International B2B customers are often overlooked during the design process, and they unfortunately have to deal with suboptimal websites that don’t fulfil all their needs. Make your company more compelling to international customers by showing your local presence and knowledge of specific regions, localizing content to conform with local expectations, maintaining parity of information between sites, making it easy for users to switch between using different regional sites, and giving detailed trade and export information.
Learn more about building an effective B2B sites for all customer segments in the latest edition of our B2B Usability Report, which includes 188 guidelines and 301 screenshot examples.