Barclays Cycle Hire language selection

Officially known as Barclays Cycle Hire, Transport for London’s blue hire bikes are a ubiquitous sight around London. Hiring a bike is fairly straightforward using the interactive kiosks located next to docking stations around the city.

The kiosks support seventeen languages: along with English, the system is localised in German, Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Chinese, Polish, Punjabi, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese and Japanese.

The icon for language selection is a British flag:

However, this is the only flag used for language, as shown on the language selection screen below:

The use of the British flag is an interesting choice. While the system doesn’t explicitly use flags to represent languages, it does use a flag to show availability of languages.

It would be very interesting to see stats on how many users actually find and use localised versions of the kiosk. By using the British flag alone, could the system possibly miscommunicate itself?

London’s official promotional organisation London & Partners provides visitor statistics to London by nationality. The top three nations are the USA, France and Italy. This allows us to begin to understand the types of users who would be using the system.


Looking at the top three types of visitors, could users mistake the British flag for a currency icon rather than a language icon? Payment is only available in the Great British Pound — visitors from the US may want to use US dollars or visitors from the EU may want to use the euro. (This may be either cancelled out or confused even further by the pound icon next to ‘balance’ on the home screen in the top right.)

Probably not a major issue — but it does suggest the language selection proposition represented by the British flag is not as strong as it could be.


As a visitor or new immigrant, does the British flag suggest it could be exclusively for British citizens only? By virtue of the flag being isolated here, again this is a possibility. Ironically the presence of other flags would probably negate this.

Improvement through prioritisation

Obviously the majority of visitors from United States would not need translated content. Many French, German and Italian users may have a good enough grasp of English to navigate the system without translation — so users from those countries might not use the translations as much as users from perhaps Asia or South America.

The most effective strategy for presenting translation options would be to find the balance between the group of language speakers that would benefit most from translation versus the group of language speakers that comprise the largest number of users.

Once establishing this, language selection can be based on this priority.

The new design above shows a more generic speech bubble icon instead of a flag to represent language. It also displays five languages on the home screen and a button alluding to further languages being available.

Would the above screen work better at showing language options? Potentially — of course the only true way to know would be to test this with real users. flag overload? is an excellent online language resource with online translation as one of its core services — in an impressive 22 languages.

The site makes heavy use of flags as iconography, with some interesting flag choices: Arabic is represented by the Egyptian flag, Swahili by the Kenyan flag and Hindi by the Indian flag.

Arabic is an official language in 24 countries other than Egypt (however, Egypt is by far the largest by population) and Swahili is an official language in four countries. While Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India, there are 22 official languages in India.

Furthermore, English is represented by the Union Jack; however it is an official language in over 50 countries. Also, the United States which has many more English-speakers than the United Kingdom. (The same argument can be applied to the use of Spanish and Portuguese flags for those languages in relation to Mexico and Brazil respectively).

Regardless of whether flags are appropriate in this situation, another question can be posed: do the flags actually aid in legibility of the translation menu? Or are they actually distracting?

Consider the Google Translate interface that supports 65 languages:

Arguably the Google Translate is easier to read and far more compact on screen: and it achieves this in part by not using flags to represent languages.

The underwhelming dropdown: making language and region selection visible and effective

Dropdown menus, when used well, are a very useful form of interaction. While the pros and cons of dropdowns have been well discussed elsewhere, it’s useful examining them in the context of language/region selection.

When a user interacts with a dropdown menu, it’s a reasonable expectation that there are a certain degree of choices contained within the menu — hence the designer’s choice in hiding the content.

Left to right: The Guardian, Moo and CNN

But looking at the region selection dropdowns at The Guardian and Moo, the dropdown only reveals one extra choice: wouldn’t this be far simpler (and more obvious) as either a radio button or list of links? CNN has more regional choices than The Guardian or Moo, yet they have opted just to list the options available.

Apple’s website also features a two-items dropdown for
languages for both their Swiss and Belgian sites

CNN’s approach is simple and effective: don’t complicate selections of anything on your site with a dropdown unless there are numerous options that would otherwise clutter the page.

(Note: while CNN is very well designed, linking to the Arabic edition of its content would be better done with Arabic written in its localised form rather than just the English).

"Romanians are smart" campaign and the problem of similar flags

The website Romanians are smart has an interesting and noble objective: change the results associated with “Romanians are…” on Google into something more positive.

If you go to Google and type “Romanians are” in and wait for the autocorrect to kick in and you’ll see for yourself how racist the current results are.

The site encourages users of different languages to click on a link that enters the term “Romanians are smart” into Google (in their language), hopefully moving the more positive search term further up Google’s list of autocorrect options.

On the homepage there are links in English, French and Romanian. These languages are also complimented by flags. Romanian has a Romanian flag and English gets the United States treatment. But as for French, it appears the site has the wrong flag.

Romanians are smart

Light blue on top, white in the middle and red on the bottom — the flag used for French is far more similar to Luxembourg’s flag than that of France’s.


French is spoken in both France and Luxembourg

However, the flag used could also be seen as the Dutch flag — could this flag choice confuse a Dutch user thinking they were accessing content in Dutch?


The Netherlands and Luxembourg share an almost
identical flag but share no common language

Obviously this is probably just a simple design oversight — the French flag is simply upside down. But it still demonstrates the problem with using flags to represent languages.

Continue reading "Romanians are smart" campaign and the problem of similar flags

The Arab League: an appropriate symbol of the Arabic language?

When it comes to flags representing languages, the Arab League is a common choice for representing the Arabic language. Arabic is a shared language between all states: a unique scenario in comparison to similar organisations such as the European Union, African Union and Organization of American States, all of whom have many different languages within their member states.

Arab League
Flag of the Arab League: the seal reads “League of Arab States” in Arabic

What exactly is the Arab League? Quoting a BBC News profile:

“The League of Arab States, or Arab League, is a voluntary association of countries whose peoples are mainly Arabic speaking or where Arabic is an official language.”

There’s obviously a strong relationship between the Arabic language and the Arab League. But how appropriate — really — is the flag of the Arab League in representing the Arabic language?

The Arab League is a political entity, and as the civil agitation around the Arab world in 2011 has demonstrated, international politics are not only complicated but often in a state of flux. At the time of writing, Syria is suspended from the Arab League: and there is much speculation that fellow member-state Yemen may follow. Earlier in 2011, Libya was blocked from the Arab League before having its membership restored in August. In the past Egypt has also been suspended — back in 1979 — and current events in Egypt are also highly volatile.

If Syria and Yemen are suspended from the Arab League, are they suspended from the Arabic language? Of course not. It’s a ridiculous suggestion. But it does illustrate that the relationship between the Arabic language and the Arab League is not an absolute one.

While the Arab League is comprised of countries that share Arabic as a common language, it’s not an absolute representation of all countries where Arabic is spoken: it’s also an official language in Chad, Eritrea and even Israel.

Is there a better flag to represent the Arabic language? Probably not. That’s because flags in essence represent nations, countries and in the case of the Arab League, organisations: they do not represent languages.

Flags change: Libya as an example

For a time, Libya had the honour of being the only country with a flag a single colour. But since 2011 and the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, Libya has readopted its former flag of 1951 – 1969.

Libyan flag
Flag of Libya
Libyan flag (old)
Previous flag of Libya

Libya’s flag, new and old

In September 2011 the new Libyan flag was raised outside the United Nations. That was almost two months ago — any many websites have since changed their Libyan flag graphics.

Skype, for instance has updated the flag on its Libya page:


However, Rebtel is still a few months behind the change:


Interpol is also showing the old flag — which is not without irony considering most of its Libyan page is about arrest warrants related to the Gaddafi family:

Libya isn’t the only country recently to change its flag. An interesting list at Flags Australia shows many recent flag changes — including the worlds newest country Southern Sudan, Burma and Malawi.

Burmese flag
Flag of Burma (from 2010)
Burmese flag (old)
Previous flag of Burma

Burma’s flag, new and old

If you use flags on your website for any reason — remember they are liable to change. And often, as Libya perfectly illustrates — the reasons for the flag changing can be highly political.

From a user experience perspective, what would a Libyan user make of the new flag on the Skype website and the old flag on the Rebtel website? It would probably depend on their political viewpoint. But regardless, it again highlights how sensitive an issue flags can sometimes be.

Tate Art Galleries: 12 languages, 9 flags

The Tate Galleries in the UK are a word-class collection of galleries and have a great website — with the exception of the language links on the homepage.


The most interesting part of this design choice is that there is obviously a cultural awareness that flags may not properly represent the Arabic and Chinese languages — so these languages are just written in their local equivalents.

But not so for French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, Greek, Russian or Polish.

Furthermore, the flags are repeated in the content area of the pages these links lead to: of course with the exception of Arabic and Chinese.

(It’s also worth noting the BSL — British Sign Language — link. The hand icon here seems very appropriate for this).

Another issue with the choice of flags for some languages and the language name for others is also simple consistency.

Wouldn’t this design work far better if it just showed the language names?

Simple, consistent and uncontroversial? simple yet effective multilingual content design

Social activism site is beautifully designed: both visually and experience-wise.

The site is available in 14 languages: each easily accessible from the top banner and presented in their local formats. Furthermore, the site autodetects the users language and redirects them to a localised version (if one is available).

A simple yet very effective way of presenting multilingual content.

The Metropolitan Police: 16 languages, 12 flags

The Metropolitan Police website provides language content in 16 languages other than English: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Somali, Spanish, Turkish, Urdu and Vietnamese. That’s quite a diverse range of content.

Met Police

From the homepage, a neat and attractive row of 12 flags links through to a landing page listing 16 languages.

12 flags, 16 languages: are some flags missing from the homepage?

Let’s follow the link and go to the next page:

The Metropolitan Police

Starting with the positive, each language is displayed in its native name and script (and also repeated in English).

But other than that, this is all wrong. It’s probably the single best example of why using flags for languages is so fundamentally flawed.

The biggest problem on this page is the use of the Indian flag three times for Hindi, Gujarati and Punjabi. With the former, it’s worth noting that there are actually over double the amount of Punjabi speakers in Pakistan (60 million speakers) than in India (27 millon speakers).

Saudi Arabia’s flag has been chosen for Arabic on this page, yet on the homepage the flag of the Arab League has been used.

Arab League
Arab League
Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia

Arab League or Saudi flag — is either an appropriate representation of the Arabic language?

Consistency aside, obviously there’s been some trepidation here about how to represent the Arab language with a flag. More reason, of course, to avoid using any flag for language representation.

A final gripe: the homepage flags, for their inherent flaws, do look rather nice. However, the quality of the flags on the landing page is simply awful (not to mention the poor legibility of the native language names). Give flags some respect and please save them with an appropriate level of quality!