Adding right-to-left languages to a multilingual website
In the spring of 2019 I moved to Brighton to join a company specialised in academic publishing. I was the only UXer and we had over 200 clients, so I was juggling projects most of the time, but there is one project that I will always remember. It was for a charity that published medical papers online. The resources were very limited, but the team was extremely talented and a pleasure to work with.
The structure of the site (menus, buttons, etc) was originally available in English and Spanish, but the content displayed in it was available in up to 15 languages. The problem came when a structure that was designed to languages that are read left-to-right, such as English and Spanish, needed to host content in right-to-left languages.
It’s not only about aligning the text, it’s the way the whole brain works what changes from one type of language to the other. This means that a Farsi speaking person would expect certain buttons to be on the left, while an English speaking person would expect to find them on the right.
- User research: I recruited native users with no budget, launched a survey and conducted unmoderated user testing.
- Data analysis: I gathered and analysed the results from my research in order to get to a solution.
- Interaction design: I created interactive prototypes in Axure so they were easy to share online.
- Collaboration with developers to understand technical limitations: kudos to Simon, Antonio and Mike!
- Sharing findings: it was important to deliver my findings to the stakeholders to support my design decisions.
My own cultural conditioning
My brain, and all the world I knew until this moment, worked left-to-right. So how can I reprogram my mind to understand the needs of right-to-left users?
My first idea was to “stick” the Farsi into the layout I already had, but the more I read about RTL, the more I felt like native speakers would hate my designs, although it could look visually fine to the ignorant LTR brain.
I realised that I needed to test with real users ASAP and I created a few mockups with all the different options that I could think of, ready to listen that none of them were usable by RTL brains.
As a charity, this company had no budget to hire native translators or research participants for this task, so I had to get creative.
I have a fair amount of followers on Instagram, where I share my personal work, so I checked where all these people were from in my account stats and it turned out that I had quite a few Farsi speakers there… hurrah!
I posted a story asking for help and soon I got over 50 kind souls happy to help a charity. Some of them even shared my survey and prototype links with friends and relatives! Sometimes, the internet is beautiful.
What I learned from this project
- Typefaces affect readability even if you can’t read the text.
- Right-to-left and left-to-right are not only ways of writing, but ways of interacting with the world.
- We take for granted many things that people from other countries may disagree with.
- Social media can be a good way to recruit research participants.