Hello. My name is Amy and I am a travel-holic.
In the past nine months I’ve visited nine countries on four different continents, I’ve taken roughly 13 flights, one three-day drive across Western Canada (Vancouver to Saskatchewan and back), one sleeper train, one night on a junk ship on the Pacific Ocean, a handful of nauseating bus rides and one harrowing mini-van ride through the mountains of northern Laos. I’m writing this from a cafe in Hoi An, Vietnam, where I’ve managed to find a place to work that has internet that is even remotely quick enough to be considered usable.
International travel has taught me a number of things about myself, the world and importantly about my career as a content strategist. Before this last year, I’d worked exclusively from Canada and the United Kingdom and although intellectually I understood that Internet access varies from country to country, I don’t think I ever fully understood the implications of that on my practice.
As content strategists we often work with clients who are consumed with the ‘coulds’, as in: we could have an amazing flash landing page! we could have video interviews with all of of our board members! we could use these amazing high resolution images! we could incorporate social media all over our website! I wrote a little about the role of the content strategists in reigning in all these coulds into a content strategy that not only meets the business objectives of our clients but is also realistic to maintain in The Kill Zone: Content Strategy and Executing Dead Content. As my grandmother likes to say: just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.
International travel has given me some invaluable first person experience related to the constraints of Internet functionality across different geographic locations. As a result, at the ‘get to know you’ phase with new clients I make sure to ask whether they currently have, anticipate or hope to have an international audience. If they do, how international? Are we talking Canada, the USA and Mexico? The European Union? What about Asia? This question of audience is not only important because of issues of translation and culture but because in many parts of the world, the Internet does not function as we might expect it to in the West.
International Content Strategy: Some Things to Consider
- How do social media platforms factor into your website design, content and user experience? Consider that in many countries (including China, Vietnam and some ISPs in Laos) sites like Facebook are blocked. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t incorporate Facebook into your content/social media plan, but it does mean that you should consider some kind of technical solution that will display something other than a large ‘This Webpage Cannot Be Displayed’ box where your social media content and plugins would normally appear.
- If you’ve ever been responsible for sending out an HTML email, you’ll know that there’s a lot of testing that is done across different email platforms. Best practices usually also dictate that you should consider that your email might be viewed with absolutely none of its images displayed and that it should be designed so that even under these circumstances, the user can understand the content. Although big, beautiful images can make for a great looking website, under slow connections they can be almost impossible to load. Imagine that someone can only see your text and your image alt text: are you still getting across your primary messages? This is a standard test for visually-impaired accessibility (screen readers), too.
- Make sure that images are web optimized. I should never have to download a huge image as part of my basic web browsing experience. As a content strategist I usually keep a list of all the images on a website and just prior to launch I go through each one to ensure that they contain relevant alt text and that their size is optimized for easy viewing.
- Reconsider a static landing page. Full disclosure: I really hate static landing pages unless they serve a very clear functional purpose that is founded on user experience. International travel has given me an even bigger reason to hate these pages. When I am trying to find out some basic information (and maybe even spend some money) on a website and it’s taking me more than 30 seconds to load a page, how do you think I feel when forced to load a silly “Welcome to my website!” page? Hint: it does not make me happy.
- Flash doesn’t work well on slow connections. If you really want to have a nifty flash animation on your website, make sure it’s really easy for the user to find a way around it because no matter how cool it is, it’s unlikely that they’ll spend half an hour trying to load your page.
- Videos, podcasts and other multimedia content can be wonderful, interactive additions to a website but they must be optimized for the web and importantly, alternate access to the content should be available. Transcripts can be time consuming but they are very important. Though subtitles might solve some accessibility issues (addressing the needs of users who are hearing impaired), they do nothing to address the needs of those with a slow connection.
- Don’t use images in place of text. Although it’s a bit clunky, Google Translate can be helpful in deciphering content that isn’t available in multiple languages, but it is completely useless if the website is using text embedded in imagery to communicate major bits of meaning. Menu titles and other navigation in particular should never be embedded in images.
- If you use PDFs on your website, ensure that the content is also available in simple HTML format. Don’t make me download a PDF unless I choose to; and even then, make the document as small as possible.
- Every cultural context is different. If a large part of your market is located in, for example, Japan, you might want to consider developing a website that addresses that audience. Few of us have the budget to develop distinct international websites, but it’s important to understand that what works in one country may not resonate in another. Recently I was reading about how the Facebook site in Japan allows users to list their blood type, because that is actually an important personal indicator in that culture. Do your research and don’t assume that basic cultural premises are the same from place to place.
Country Specific Internet Constraints
I would love for others with international experience to share your thoughts about Internet access in the countries you’ve visited below in the comments section. Here’s my list:
- ‘The West’ including the United Kingdom, most European Union countries, Canada, Mexico and the US: All have fairly standard, fast Internet access with very few blocked/censored websites. Despite this, rural settings can still have surprisingly slow connections. I’m from a small city in Saskatchewan, in the middle of Canada. The internet in my hometown is generally okay, but if I head a few hours out of town, things get much more pokey. The bandwidth of smaller, more remote communities need to be considered when putting together a content strategy.
- Australia: I recently spent quite a bit of time in Sydney and Melbourne and was absolutely shocked by the slow speed of the Internet in both of these cities. Another important thing to consider when building web content for these audiences is that many of their ISPs still impose a bandwidth cap on users and charge exorbitant overage fees for those in excess of their limit. Every image, video, download has an impact on these users.
- Japan: I was surprised to find that most people still do not access the Internet wirelessly but rather through a cable. In Tokyo my experience with wired Internet was fairly quick, but in outlying areas, even in large cities like Osaka, things were much slower than I would have expected from a technologically focused country like Japan. Outside of Tokyo it was almost impossible to view videos or live stream music/podcasts.
- Laos: Although most hotels and internet cafes will claim to have high speed Internet, their version of high speed is more closely aligned to what the West had in the early/mid 2000s. Again, it was almost impossible to stream or download anything and in many cases viewing images took minutes per page to load. Any kind of service that required me to upload a file became almost useless. Some ISPs also block sites like Facebook.
- Vietnam: Facebook is almost universally blocked and any Facebook components displayed on a page show up either as a broken link or a “this webpage cannot be displayed” message. Facebook sharing buttons and components like linked comments do not work. Although the internet connection is quite fast in cities like Hanoi, outside of major centers things slow down considerably.
Content strategists create a tangible connection between business and user needs. Although designing content plans that include multi-media and social media engagement components is en vogue, it is important to do so with consideration for users outside of the optimum bandwidth area. Before this year of travel, I understood that Internet access varies internationally but I don’t think I understood by how much, nor had I experienced first hand the frustration of trying to use websites that have not considered the basic needs of users outside of Western urban centers.
Years ago, many large websites like the BBC had low bandwidth versions of their sites to accommodate users outside of the lightening fast centre. It seems that we’ve mostly moved away from this practice in exchange for cool features, features that unfortunately may not be accessible to a surprisingly large audience. For businesses with an international audience, I would truly love to see a return to websites that use something like AJAX to automatically determine a low bandwidth and use it to serve up or offer something simple and light weight – with a link to the full version for those willing to invest the time to load the regular page.
My content strategy practice will forever be informed by the past months of eeking out drips of connectivity in the Laoitian mountains, Internet cafes in Osaka and hotel rooms in Vietnam. I am genuinely grateful to the brilliant web administrators who have considered the needs of those of us who occasionally need minutes, not seconds, to load a page.
Image Credit: I May Be Slow But I’m On the Internet by IcK9