July 2018
Text by Benjamin B. Sargent

Image: © Cylonphoto/istockphoto.com

Ben Sargent is a senior analyst at independent market research firm Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research). For over 15 years, CSA Research has provided trusted research findings based on verified statistical data, proven methodologies, and insight from experienced analysts. Ben’s primary focus is website globalization, translation management systems, and content management technologies.


Mobile-forward design – Principles for maximizing return on language investment

Based on data gathered from 3,169 websites, CSA Research has uncovered a set of principles that the firm defines as mobile-forward design (MFD) – design principles that help global brands deliver brand.com experiences in more than 45 languages. It argues for a "same experience, all devices, all markets, all languages" approach to expanding a brand’s total addressable audience.

"ROI Walls" hold back most big brands

Each year, as part of the Global Website Assessment Index, Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research) gathers data on language support by the world’s most valuable brands, most successful web properties, and biggest companies. To identify companies most likely to benefit from website globalization, we use lists compiled by Brand Finance, Alexa, Mozilla, and Forbes. In 2017, our analysts visited 3,169 sites using human researchers to identify language versions of the site with enough content that a visitor can gather information about products and services or take advantage of main features. Every year, CSA Research sees spikes in the data, indicating that clusters of companies stop at predictable places, as if held back by invisible walls. These "ROI Walls" correspond to natural breaks in the value of language markets, as benchmarked in our report: "Digital Opportunity: Top 100 Online Languages for 2017."

Year after year, with minor variations, the data shows four persistent walls at 10, 20, 30, and 40 languages – even as the number of sites in the study increased from 1,000 to more than 3,000. In 2017, ROI Wall #3 was extra choppy, with buttresses at 26 and 32 on either side of the customary spike at 29 (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: ROI Walls for multilingual digital experience
Source: CSA Research

The data shows where companies get bogged down in their pursuit of global audiences, unable to capture sufficient return on investment to go further down the long tail of languages. These ROI Walls appear in our data going back to 2010 and correspond to language tiers and known use patterns. To understand why we refer to these spikes as ROI Walls, let’s look at the long tail phenomenon. When organized in sequence based on economic opportunity for global brands, each new language offers a smaller and smaller market size (see Figure 2).


Figure 2: Total market reach of online language tiers
Source: CSA Research

Brands that can find ROI in supporting the ten languages with the biggest economic opportunity – based on per capita GDP multiplied by number of speakers online – can’t necessarily justify the cost of translating into the eleventh language. Those that can streamline costs and boost return on content enough to keep going may expand to 18 languages, but then get stuck again as the ROI diminishes – they can’t get to 20. And so it goes for each wall.

Companies making it past ROI Wall #4 often extend coverage rapidly to 60, 80, or more languages. How are these sites organized to deliver ROI at such a scale of languages, each contributing such a small piece of the overall market? The answer lies in mobile-forward design.

What is mobile-forward design?

Innovative brands like WhatsApp, now owned by Facebook, grew up with "mobile-first" development and responsive web design (RWD). The emerging trend of mobile-forward design assumes an app-like approach for brand.com customer experiences. It affirms mobile-first development but takes that notion further by eliminating everything else, using RWD. It puts the mobile experience "forward" as the only experience, available across PC, tablet, and mobile platforms.

Mobile-forward design delivers one customer experience on all screen widths, with no device-specific interfaces. It also puts that same experience forward for all markets, in all languages. The content and features delivered may vary by market and audience, but the differences are plug-and-play within the design, based on country, language, and other personalization logic. MFD builds on existing approaches by:

  • Utilizing adaptive web design principles. Mobile-forward websites rely on responsive web design, which allows a single design to dynamically resize according to the window or screen size. RWD results in customization of the experience according to window size, rather than screen size. MFD websites are responsive, but they go further by enforcing a consistent CX across all platforms and screen widths – different functions or content can appear depending on screen size, market, language, or other personalization factors, but the experience remains consistent, coherent, and convincing.
  • Extending mobile-first best practices for global websites. Because the smallest screen imposes the greatest challenge for designers, it gets drafted first. In a mobile-first scenario, layouts for tablets, laptops, and large-screen monitors build off the small-screen look and feel. However, these later iterations often end up as distinct layouts that must be managed separately and may preserve device-specific functions. Branching and maintaining separate code bases for .com experiences adds cost, delay, and complexity for site development and content creation. Delivering the same experience on all devices reduces code maintenance efforts and allows a brand to introduce new features – and launch new content – faster.
  • Delivering one CX for all devices in all markets. Taking mobile-first development and responsive web design to their logical conclusion, brands adopting this practice don’t waste resources on developing inconsistent experiences across their various regions and channels. The principles of mobile-forward design are especially relevant to a global brand because they help streamline support for international markets. MFD is device- and platform-agnostic. Originally, the approach was applied to sites built around web- and mobile-delivered apps, but corporate information sites can also benefit.
  • Local content experiences don’t go away. The point is not to eliminate device-specific apps or country- or culture-specific experiences. All of those will always be relevant. The point is to deliver brand.com experiences everywhere, in addition to those things, to the extent that each is needed. If it’s a global brand, this usually involves global content. In how many languages and markets can the brand deliver those core experiences?

Principles of mobile-forward design, in practice

Based on an analysis of the customer experience, rather than on any underlying code, CSA Research arrived at an initial set of criteria for evaluating whether a website meets the test of mobile-forward design:

1. User controls for content and interface

The first criterion demands that a site functions as a web-based app, offering user-controlled settings in the interface based on GUI-style architecture and design. Onscreen widgets are common for such sites, allowing anonymous visitors or those not logged in to set preferences. These choices may change the language of the interface, the country of interest, or other options, such as currency (see Figure 3). For sites with log-ins, additional preferences may appear on an account settings screen.

User and brand benefit: Users want and expect to tailor their own experience. Companies maximize the value of their digital assets when users visit more often and stay longer. By allowing users to customize their experience but see the same content regardless of channel, MFD improves customer experience, increases engagement, and raises the value of digital content.

Figure 3: AccuWeather.com offers user-controlled settings just like the app.
Source: AccuWeather.com, Common Sense Advisory


2. Same experience on all devices

Users encounter the same features, content, and design on all devices. Even for non-contiguous visits, brands should not expect their users to learn several versions of features or navigate from a different look and feel (see Figure 4). RWD is the easiest way to accomplish platform- and device-agnostic CX, but consistency is the test.

User benefit: Visitors want to swap screens and devices without changing how they interact with a site. MFD boosts success as customers perform tasks on multiple devices.

Figure 4: The GoDaddy website and app display a different look and feel.
Source: GoDaddy, Common Sense Advisory


3. Same experience in all markets

This criterion is not obvious, because single-language or in-market apps might still meet the two criteria above. This test determines whether changing language, country, or other settings results in a re-direction along the customer journey – or simply refreshes the user’s current position. If changing preferences results in navigation to a different page – thereby moving the visitor to a different moment in the journey – this does not qualify as MFD.

The screen may reload and the URL may change, but continuity in the customer experience is the test: The user remains on the current screen, in the same moment, but now with different parameters applied (see Figure 5).

Brand benefit: Global brands depend on scale and velocity. One app for all markets allows companies to scale across more markets, accelerate product development roadmaps, and increase content velocity.

Figure 5: Adobe offers the same user experience regardless of device and market.
Source: Adobe.com, Common Sense Advisory


How mobile-forward design reduces cost and complexity

Brands adopting this approach reduce their cost and effort – and accelerate the velocity of feature development and content launches – by limiting device-specific versions. The benefits are hard to miss:

  1. Users appreciate the consistency, simplicity, and familiarity of one design. They’re already screen-hopping, so why confuse them by switching the design just because they picked up a different device?
  2. Mobile-forward design unburdens the site owner. The benefits to site owners include streamlined internationalization, development, localization, and testing routines. For the young hyper-global companies that surpass 40 languages, this capability proves decisive – in fact, it already matters if you’re still trying to break through ROI Wall 1. The biggest outcome of "same experience, all devices, all markets, all languages" is the speed at which new experiences reach the global audience.
  3. MFD increases agility. Just as in the past, CX design in the future must adjust to ongoing changes in digital infrastructure and consumer pathways. From smartphone adoption to Google algorithm changes, brand managers and marketing practitioners regularly respond to changes in the practices required for effective participation in the digital economy. Businesses must adapt immediately or suffer consequences in the marketplace. MFD protects core business operations by eliminating code branches and enabling code and content teams to focus all available resources on one CX.
  4. Streamlined development helps position companies for screenless interfaces. New frontiers are opening up in voice-controlled applications, hybrid voice and screen environments like cars and the Internet of Things (IoT). The emerging intersection of IoT, gaming consoles, wearables, and voice interfaces will force brands off-road into a screenless world. It’s time for global brands to batten down the hatches on graphical user interfaces and web CX. Global companies must reduce complexity now around visual content by upping their brand.com experience as a universal, multilingual app running on all devices.

Focusing on one CX designed to function in any language on any device is already the chosen path for many digital brands. Mobile-forward design helps enterprises achieve a competitive advantage by improving CX, enhancing the value of digital assets, and accelerating the global launch of features and content. MFD should be considered the best practice for global brand websites. It’s time to drop device-specific interfaces, build a universal web CX, and smash through those ROI Walls.