Usability Testing Through Translation

February 2, 2010

Looking at a website written in a foreign language is incredibly insightful. You may not get the immediate gratification of being able to easily find the location of a particular Prada shoe store, but you’ll find out a lot about yourself and how you use the site.

Let me preface this post by giving you all a little background about my recent activities. I recently went on a 10 day trip to Rome, Italy to visit my mother who has an apartment there for a month.

Rome, with its seemingly never-ending wealth of culture, beauty and delicious, delicious gelato and amazing boots kept me completely occupied about 16 hours of the day. But at the end of the day as it got dark and cold and damp, I would come home and indulge in a tiny cup of espresso and my internet addiction.

Though I was under strict orders from Robbin to avoid work at all costs, I still found myself dabbling around the web looking at where clients ranked in Google from Italy and paying attention to the differences in the types of results that came up when searching in Italy (for instance, the local 7 pack wasn’t as prevalent there even if I did searches for local shoe stores etc.) I must admit, I was also researching where to get fur/leather/boots and all the other things I’d made up my mind to purchase while in Rome.

I should also mention that I do not speak Italian at all. I took some Latin in high school, but that’s about as close to Italian as I’ve ever come. This profound lack of literacy made wandering around on Italian websites a somewhat confusing venture. It was only after three days of searching around for various things that I realized that what I was actually doing was usability testing.

Interesting Insights

It occurred to me that, in the nanoseconds of time that users give websites to prove their worth, the actual words on the page matter slightly less than the overall composition and clarity of the webpage. I realized what a unique experience it was to have to translate meaning from colors and shapes rather than actual words on the site.

Since all (yes all) of the Italian the shoe store sites I drooled over were flash sites I won’t use them for this usability blog post. However, I was on a few Italian travel sites trying to find good prices for tickets for inter-European travel (for funsies…I was just curious about how much Italians paid for their vacations) and quickly just how difficult it is to use the Italian versions of Orbitz, and Priceline. Then I stumbled upon Edenviaggi and was immediately impressed.

The first thing that struck me about this site was its clarity. I felt that my eye could rest somewhere and, before I even knew what the words on the page meant, I felt like I could stop there and figure it out. It lacked the overwhelming info-packed clutter that plague so many other travel sites. The call to action is clear and was visible even on my tiny little netbook. The form was quick and easy to fill out and the resulting information was exactly what I wanted. It was the perfect research site, and I could immediately understand it without knowing a single word of Italian.

Translate Your Own Site

Now, if you really want to screw with your head, take a look at your own baby: the website whose content you crafted so carefully and whose design you agonized over. Go to and enter in the URL. Make sure you’re translating into a language you don’t know. Then take some time to click around your site, or a competitor’s site. Without text to guide you, can you figure out what to do? Is the website set up in such a way that you intuitively know how to get where you’re going?

It’s likely that without directions and prompts it’s going to be really hard to figure out where to go and what to do. Try checking out or filling out a contact form. Ask yourself how you could make that process more intuitive

In conclusion, I want to make a few clarifications. I’m not trying to imply that if you can’t get through your site in another language you (and your site) fail. The actual words on the site are integral to the user, and can’t be discounted.

I guess I’m just offering a bit of a unique perspective here. It’s sort of like how some famous artist (I wish I could remember who!) used to draw faces from the bottom up instead of the top down in order to free himself from the preconceptions inherent in doing something in an entrenched pattern. By removing one part of the website, you can gain insights into how you view other things and maybe some flaws will jump out at you.