The web is global

Putting the World into “World Wide Web” is Molly E. Holzschlag’s contribution to 24ways. Her article is about internationalisation, a subject that many web professionals do not spend a lot of time thinking about.

As an example Molly mentions the English and Arabic versions of the BBC News site and the design differences that are necessary to make for the Arabic version. The two screenshots really show you how much you may need to think about.

You don’t have to look outside the Western world to find examples of why internationalisation is important to keep in mind though. As a non-US citizen living in Sweden, I am very often met by number, time, and date formats that I need to translate to understand. Inches, miles, pounds, AM, PM, backward dates - all very unnatural to most Europeans. And why do I have to enter a state in many online forms even though I have already selected “Sweden” as my country? We don’t have the concept of states here. Neither do we write our phone numbers the way Americans do. So many of those little things make the web harder to use.

Posted on December 15, 2005 in Quicklinks, Usability, Web General


  1. I completely agree with you about dates and times, but I have a hard enough time trying to convice Australian companies not to use the Australian numerical date format on the web, but instead ISO-8601. I can at least usually convince them to write the month in letters when written as day-month-year. As for times, I despise AM and PM completely, everyone should just learn 24 hour time.

    We do have states here, but I hate forms that ask me to select a state and they only offer the US states. Some sites will attempt to solve this problem by changing the list of states when I change country, but they should just provide a text box and allow me to type it in or leave it blank if, like you, my country didn’t have states. Postal codes aren’t so much of a problem, but I hate when they use the US term “ZIP Code”.

    For phone numbers, I hate forms that try to validate phone number formats to restrictively or don’t allow spaces, brackets or other conventional symbols used for grouping. I’ve not seen to many forms that try to force the US phone number format, but they are annoying.

  2. Dates suck, badly, but most people use a common of YYYY-MM-DD, although recently I’ve seen this Americanised, which is real confusing: YYYY-DD-MM (The particular one was 2005-11-12, bah!).

    Another painfull thing is when someone says ‘due this summer’… when the hell is summer? Its not the same everywhere.

    You don’t use AM/PM? Do you just use 24 hour time?

  3. Roger - based on the surveys the best date format to use is in this form: 15 Dec 2005

    Best time format to use: 5:30 pm (most Europeans already know what am/pm means - it is from Latin anyway) It is important to mark midnight/noon with special wording, since many people don’t know whether to write: 12 am or 12 pm, so the best thing is to write: 12:00 noon, 00:00 midnight

  4. December 15, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    You don’t use AM/PM? Do you just use 24 hour time?

    Yes. I can’t remember ever seeing a Swedish version of AM/PM. What’s the problem with just using 24 hour time? It leaves no room for misinterpretation.

  5. I don’t get what the big deal is about AM/PM based time, I find 24 hour time painful, as I have to convert it to 12 hour time to get the meaning.

  6. I don’t get what the big deal is about AM/PM based time, I find 24 hour time painful, as I have to convert it to 12 hour time to get the meaning.

    For me it is the opposite: AM/PM is painful.

    The international standard notation for the time of day is hh:mm:ss.

  7. We don’t have AM/PM in sweden, we use a 24 hour clock. It’s so much easier, like in the army: “dinner at 1800 hours”; Roger that … (bad pun, sorry)

    Over and out.

  8. The dateformats I see some kind of logic in are:

    DD-MM-YYYY (small, bigger, biggest)
    YYYY-MM-DD (simply the opposite)
    YYYY, DD-MM (sort of strange and I’ve never seen it, but I could understand this one)

    Anything else goes against logic in my opinion.

    15 Dec 2005 would indeed be the best without room for misinterpretation.

    Best time format to use: 5:30 pm (most Europeans already know what am/pm means - it is from Latin anyway)

    So? Norther Europe is Germanic, not Romance. Eastern Europe is Slavic, not Romance. Only Southern Europe might possibly relate to that and actually they also use 24 hour time. As far as I know the US is the only country not using it. According to Wikipedia it’s indeed true that practically the whole world uses 24 hours except the US. So using PM would definitely not seem like the logical thing to do to me.

  9. Most europeans don’t know what AM/PM means other than being taught. Or I should say at least most Europeans from the Nordic countries (Finland is not a part of Scandinavia ;) don’t.

    I always find the American obsession with the fact that everyone shold use the American way because that’s what they know and others have learned to use it amusing. Why is it that Amercian scientists and the military use the European (or standardized) formats?

    And tell me, without checking how many feet and yards there are to a mile? I can easily tell you the amount of metres in a kilometre…

    One thing that has always made we wonder: how many pounds is a ton in the States?

  10. I was going to say “That’s easy” just type “1 ton in pounds” into google and the calculator will tell you but as it turns out there is something called a “short ton” which is the equivalent of 2000 pounds.

    If you type “1000 kg in pounds” into google it will tell you “1 000 kilograms = 2 204.62262 pounds” or if your british “1 000 kilograms = 157.473044 stone”

    And dates aren’t the only problem, goto google:

    1 pint in centiliters

    1 imperial pint in centiliters

    Google is your friend, kind of …

  11. Canadians also use the AM/PM system for time; its not just Americans. However airlines, trains and bus lines generally use the 24-hour clock to avoid confusion. We also use the DD-MM-YYYY date format, which can get confusing as the US uses MM-DD-YYYY (example: September 11th as 9-11).

    I also find using American forms quite annoying, as our postal codes are longer than their zip codes and forms often restrict the number of characters, and they don’t often include Canadian provinces in State drop down lists.

  12. I think you make good points, but a blanket statement can’t be made for all web sites. A lot of it depends on the intended market/audience of the site. I worked for a medical web site that whose drug information was aimed specifically at American users. Sometimes they did online sweepstakes… for example, enter your information and you could win a free sample of, I don’t know, Ensure or something. The forms would only accept American address and phone information, because there would have been too many legality issues if it had allowed international users. (I don’t know all the details of what those are, I just know this is what our legal department said, because I raised the question once of whether we should be more international-friendly in our online forms.)

  13. Well ain’t this a touchy subject. Point seems to be, just be sure to design your form to your audience. That seems logical and simple enough. However, the problems lies in the fact of poorly informed/trained form designers. This is just another case of needing to inform the mis/uninformed, just as in people need to learn about accessibility, web standards, typography, semantic mark-up, and so forth. One reason why luminaries like Roger here, or Molly, need to keep bringing these topics up and discuss them.

  14. Not all Canadians use a.m./p.m.; most I know use 24 hour.

  15. Lachlan, is there anything you don’t hate?

    I keep hearing the words “backwards” or “wrong” in this thread. You know, a lot of wars have started over “they are wrong, we are right” attitudes. And I don’t mean browser wars or editor wars, I mean death and destruction wars.

    So people in different parts of the world have a different way of doing things, so what? Standards organizations have been trying for years to achieve this goal of a unified set of time, date, measure, whatever formats, but you know what? People don’t like change, they like what they’re used to.

    Yes, many sites could be better designed to for international audiences. But it only makes sense to do this if the economics are there. If 99% of the visitors to a site are Americans, would it make any sense to the owner of a site to spend a great deal of time and money so that the other 1% are comfortable with 24 hour times and so on?

    Now here’s an idea, why not add the locale of all requests over HTTP? Hmmm…

  16. It’s that “Standardization” thing. Everyone knows that U.S. knows best.


    Chevrolet in the 1960’s manufactured the “Chevy Nova” [Definition: nova: a star that suddenly increases its light output tremendously and disappears] Chevrolet marketed it in South America; it didn’t sell. It had something to do with the pronounciation of “no va”.


    U.S. manufacturers attempting to sell “fanny” packs in the U.K.


    Some U.S. company with E.K. in its name not having very good buisness in Mexico. (Slang Translation: E K = Y Que = So What!)

    Oh well….

    It’s Oh-Nine-Thirty-Seven.

  17. Sean almost has a point, except that at least one of his examples (and possibly all three) is an urban legend.

    I can’t find anything on the fanny packs, but I’ve seen similar bags in England (probably marketed under a different name).

    E.K. would not be pronounced the same as “Y Que” in Spanish, it would be pronounced more like a long A followed by “Ka,” so that one seems to be unlikely as well.

  18. I accidentally forgot the link to Snopes debunking the Chevy Nova story. Sorry.

  19. There are may horror stories of cultural blindness before so I will not rehash them again. Everyone should know their audience and cultural snafu’s before making presentations, publications or speeches.

    The problem I have with Molly’s article is very basic. It’s foundation is in the W3C Language Codes.

    If a page is encoded as “en-us” then I should expect an english page with US cultural norms including things like AM/PM time formats and dates of the form “mm/dd/yyyy”. Why? because that is the way its usually done in the US and the page was labeled as such.

    Likewize, if I head over to Le Monde to check on how things are progressing in wake of the riots I should expect the pages to be written French using French cultural norms. I will read words like d├ęcembre and see euro symbols instead of dollar signs.

    I don’t expect the Le Monde messieurs to switch their time formats to the American standard just because it would be easier for me anymore then they should expect me to change my cultural norms to fit into some illusiory international culture that does not in fact exist.

    Sa’nikonhraien:tas ken?

  20. It leaves no room for misinterpretation.

    Well, it still does.

    24:30 or 00:30?

  21. 0030

    2430 does not exist on the 24 hour clock. If there are only 24 hours in a day how can you get half way into the 25th hour?

  22. So why don’t we talk in each one’s native language and have a conversation? Web is global but the technology is not just there yet. I wonder if someday all of us are speaking English and using same date format or web does it for us. We might want to enjoy the confusion while we can. 今日は2005年12月16日、もしくは平成17年12月16日です。

  23. Rowan (comment 2) and Frenzie (comment 8), there is no official date format in the order YYYY-DD-MM. The following numeric formats are used throughout the world:

    • DD-MM-YYYY (e.g. Australia)
    • MM-DD-YYYY (e.g. USA)
    • YYYY-MM-DD (ISO-8601)

    There are variants of all of those that use 2-digit years as well, but that’s not recommended.

    As for times, wouldn’t it be nice if the world would just switch to metric time :-).

  24. Aaron, you can’t ;)

    But, unfortunately, sometimes I see 24 hour time writtens from 01:00, not 00:00.

    Actually, I thing that makes more sense, as when you’re in the 24th our your clock will read 24:00.

  25. But, unfortunately, sometimes I see 24 hour time writtens from 01:00, not 00:00.

    Really? That is one time format I have honestly never encountered.

    Actually, I thing that makes more sense, as when you’re in the 24th our your clock will read 24:00.

    I am going to reveal my inner math geek here but starting with 1 would make sense if time was a discrete phenomena but fortunately it (time) is most certainly continuous.

  26. I wish 24-hour time was as common in Australia as it seems to be in the rest of the world. I’m a native Australian but I choose to use 24-hour time because it is so much more logical.

    Until US websites stop using their MM-DD-YYYY format, I find it easier to spell it out in full, or use ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, etc.)

Comments are disabled for this post (read why), but if you have spotted an error or have additional info that you think should be in this post, feel free to contact me.