Digital Communication: Accomodate differences or establish a universal standard?

Barry Thatcher’s article, Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures, brings up one of the most important, but rarely discussed aspect of digital communication: cultural differences.  No matter where we are in the world, we can access the Internet from the same types of devices, but not always the same websites.  Or, sometimes one website is adapted to display differently according to region and native language.  We are using the same Internet, but not always viewing, absorbing and processing the same things.

I work for an ecommerce web design company that is based in the US but works with several contractors in Pakistan and India.  Aside from working with people overseas on a regular basis, we get clients from all over the world.  Lately, I have been noticing that a lot of our clients want bi or multilingual websites, which, from a coding and design standpoint, can be complicated and ultimately expensive.  Additionally, a lot of the major ecommerce platforms we work with will allow multi-language support, but only with a lot of custom coding, which, again, can be quite expensive.

One of the most complex problems we have yet to find a solution to is the ability to create a bi or multilingual ecommerce store with the checkout process to be in the language of the shoppers’ choosing.  Yes, even with custom-coding and advanced functionality, it is incredibly difficult to translate the checkout process in a language other than English with a hosted ecommerce platform.

Thatcher’s article had me thinking of this particular issue because we are able to translate every part of the online shopping experience except for the most important: the checkout.  This is where actual money is exchanged and people want this to feel the most comfortable, but we are unable to do that for them.  I’ve been doing some research on this for work and I have discovered that many international shoppers simply accept this as the norm, but I feel like it is unfair for this to be so.

Ultimately, cultural differences on the Internet have led me to contemplate the benefits and downfalls of ignoring cultural norms an instead create a universal, digital culture with its own set of beliefs, language and functions.  Some may argue that this already exists, but as Thatcher has us realize, we have only been viewing the Internet through a North American lens.  The Internet is different everywhere and we need to take that into consideration more often.

Posted on November 2, 2014, in Society, Technology, Workplace and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I’ve already recommended ENGL 712 to another class blogger this week, but I hope you take it in the Spring to learn more about multilingual environments. Also of interest may be the work of Lisa Nakamura:

  2. I don’t have any exposure to what you do, but i did have a few questions. Is the multilingual checkout a problem for all companies or is it just a common problem with the companies you work with?

    Would a company like Alibaba serve as a rough guide for multilingual e-commerce sites or would that be like comparing apples and oranges?

  3. I found your post very interesting, mainly because the idea of cultural differences are illuminated when it comes to exchanging currency. You post reminded me of Ebay’s attempt to penetrate the Chinese market, which was a HUGE flop. Basically, a) many Chinese people did not have debit cards or credit cards at the time and b) there is a large culture of suspicion when it comes to purchasing goods online in China, and people were hesitant to buy something without seeing the product first. Another company, TaoBao (which I have used many times) used an escrow-like payment system, only charging the card when the goods were delivered. TaoBao is one of the biggest internet companies in Asia, but Ebay withdrew in 2008 (I believe).

    All this to say: I agree with you that checkout is a pivotal aspect of bicultural digital communication, for more than just the linguistic aspect!

  4. I liked your insight to the culture of ecommerce. To expand this, what about the different ways cultures approach exchanging money for goods? I’m thinking about having tea beforehand, etc. At what point does the internet make it a cut and dry exchange, and less of an in-person dealing? I think that the native language is a great accommodation, and in other ways, we can create the standard for a good purchasing experience online (confirmation email, tracking, etc.).

  5. When it comes to translating documentation into other languages, my company has had issues with the amount of space needed in Chinese characters in the headings, headers, and footers, and instead of putting the proper character, it displayed ######### in the PDF.

    I’ve also had troubles with purchasing goods online from other countries. For example,
    I’ve tried to purchase items from the U.K. and Canada before (an alligator watch band and a pair of Stella McCartney adidas running shorts) and was so extremely frustrated that I could not purchase something because I was in the United States. I really wanted those running shorts! They were sold out in my size on all of the U.S. websites; my size was available in Canada, but the company stated that they could only ship to Canadian addresses. I was so desperate, I almost asked some Facebook friends to buy them for me.

    When I lived in Alaska, I wasn’t able to purchase goods online as some items were not available to be shipped to Alaska or Hawaii. It is extremely frustrating when you cannot purchase something online because of your geographic location.

  6. natashajmceachin

    I have run across this issue with a few Asian shopping sites that only accepted yin. The shopping experience was in both English and an Asian language I didn’t recognize. It didn’t hurt the site’s credibility as much as you would imagine, especially since they provided conversion tables and had a great customer service support line.

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