Friday, November 16th, 2007

Peter van Dijck gave a talk on “Global IA: How to Organize Global Websites “: what changes when Web sites go global? Interesting topic for whoever works on multilingual, multicultural sites  targeted to a truly global audience like with the CGIAR Centers Web sites. Basically, the message is that there are different ways in which we structure Web sites when we address audiences and needs across countries and cultures. Peter listed a number of patterns that recur in these cases.

Pattern 1: Categories are Cultural

In different cultures we have different ways of calling and organising things. Navigation categories for organising information depend on the culture of the users we’re addressing: different laws, commercial environments, languages… so the way we organise things change accordingly.

In USA, for example, they have big cars, like SUVs. In Europe we have different cars, smaller. So on a US site you may have a category for SUVs. Another example is a condo (often used in lieu of apartment  in New York or other big US cities. ), but this doesn’t translate the same way in Italy for example (condominio is the legal term for property tenure and not a synonym for apartment).

Melvin Dewey decided to organise the whole knowledge of the world and invented the Dewey Decimal System, which is still used today in many public libraries today. The 10 main areas, e.g. technology, nature, religion, are divided into 10 subcategories. It’s very limited but still widely used because it’s pretty difficult to tear off millions of sticky labels from the books of million libraries.

Pattern 2: Locales Become Mixed

From Wikipedia article on locale: “In computing, locale is a set of parameters that defines the user’s language, country and any special variant preferences that the user wants to see in their user interface. Usually a locale identifier consists of at least a language identifier and a region identifier.”

The pattern is about the fact that when you have a Web site localized for a number of countries, search has to be capable of going beyond the boundaries of the country, language or market the local represents. For example, if you search for an item on eBay France and you don’t find it, eBay will expand the search results, in a transparent way, to other eBays, like the US.

Pattern 3: Structure Mostly Translates

Sructure translates most of the time, with a few exceptions like a site index in alphabetical order. In Chinese there is no alphabet and so a site indexcan’t be put in an order. Another example is Japanese tag clouds which are not alphabetical.

Pattern 4: Categories Are Cultural (2)

Peter went back to pattern 1 here with another example, taken from the Maori people to examplify the cultural contrast between an organisational scheme like Dewey and the Maori’s way to describe their ancestors.
Over the latest generations, the Maori people are rediscovering their identity and culture. They also have a founding story that there were canoes landed on their islands and the Maori people spread all over the island. So to go back to their ancestors, they say their people came on canoe number 7 , for example. What’s happening is that the Maori culture was put into libraries by Westerners, and instead of canoe numbers, they found Dewey: is the Maori origin myth to be found under nature? canoes? religion?

Pattern 5: Global standard, Local exceptions

Companies tend to make one standard and then all sorts of exceptions. Look at newspaper sites, for example: one from Colombia, one from Spain, one from Colombia. They have technology, culture, economy. etc. Then each has one specific category for their culture. In Colombia, they have conflicto armado, and tierras y ganados (as top level categories). In New York, they have obituaries (particularly in vogue in NYC). In Spain, there are many immigrants, and they have nuestros paises as top level categories.

Google Korean, in spite of Google reputation for a super clean home page, has animations on the home, because they have to adapt to the local culture. Same for Chinese, where they put lots of text because it’s just easier to click on links than typing chinese in.

Craigslist Dubai has categories that are just empty, because those categories don’t work in Dubai (only category that works is real estate for sale, no popularity for dating categories…)

Standardization is a way to practice control but generates tensions and workarounds. The tension between locales remains, and this tension is not something to be avoided or deleted (Susan Leigh Star).

It is difficult to standardise, for example on an Intranet, because standardisation is another word for control. So Think global, act local.


What I found worth of emphasising is that when we work on sites, like the ones of the CGIAR, that address an international audience, with a very varied cultural background, labelling of navigation categories needs to be carefully considered and tested with a sample of users, as much as possible.

 What I found particularly interesting is the point on standardisation. An Intranet (or an Extranet) seems to be a closed world, highly controllable, with a limited user base, and still you can have as much tensione towards local practices as you want. The concept “think global, act local” seems then to be well suited to an Intranet/Extranet strategy.

Here’s the start of the CGXchange section of the ICT-KM blog. It features news, posts, comments and musings  about online collaboration, networking and how Web technology can support the sharing of information and knowledge inside and outside of the CGIAR.

The idea is to cover and offer for comments what goes on around these themes. CGXchange is the name of the collaboration platform of the CGIAR (read project details), but there’s more to it than just the tech. It’s about understanding the needs of staff who are working across the physical boundaries of their offices, about exploring new tools in support of managing work and sharing information, about figuring out how technology changes the way we work and makes it more effective and efficient. 

Technology is a moving target (have you ever heard that?) and it’s necessary to keep an eye on the way it is evolving, what’s new in the field and what other tools can support the way work changes. And lately the talk of the town is all around Web 2.0. So here’s the excuse for starting this blog.

I’m at the Italian Information Architecture Summit, in Trento, as a member of the Scientific Board, and co-presenter for tomorrow’s presentation “The Web2Architect” that Chris Addison will deliver about the Euforic Web site.

Why am I here? First and foremost because I remain an information architect at heart, and second because the case Chris will present is a very good practical example of how to create a Web presence on the basis of Web 2.0 tools. What are the challenges? What stays the same and what is radically changed? How do you need to get organised to maintain a Web site where most of the content is out there, with little control on it? And why go this way?

Chris, Pier Andrea Pirani and I met at Web2forDev last September in Rome. They presented the Euforic site as a case of extensive application of Web 2.0 tools to building an online presence and delivering their information services. While they were talking, it started to dawn on me that much of what they were discussing had an information architecture implication: content generation and classification, increasing the reach of their information, cooperative approaches to search. Instead of building a one-stop shop, they are putting their content out there, all over the place, and increasing the reach and visibility of their own and member’s content.

So I proposed to Chris and Pier to put an information architecture angle onto their case study and present it to the Italian IA Summit. And here we are ready to go (to Peter van Dijck session for now…   blog +  consultancy blog on Global IA)