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Inspired by this question on international police icon, I started to wonder

  1. If there is a reasonably simple way to replace an icon depending on browser language?
  2. ...and if anyone has come across real uses of this?

I know it seems like an awful lot of work for a webdev, but it would be interesting. Lots of icons are culture-specific, so it would be interesting to try.

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    What do you mean "browser language"? Do you mean language of the person using the browser? – Zach Saucier Jan 13 '16 at 13:32
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    More a question for SO or for WebApplications IMHO. No time to provide references for a decent answer, but 1. yes: in javascript is very simple get the language and change an image; and 2. yes, I'm aware of projects with different icons for different cultures. And different colors too. If you need more, I can find the references. – Paolo Gibellini Jan 13 '16 at 13:36
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    There is an interesting article here. See also on UX. – Paolo Gibellini Jan 13 '16 at 13:45
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    @PaoloGibellini nice; and good points. Thanks! – benteh Jan 13 '16 at 14:36
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    Don't know if it has been mentioned yet, but tangentially related to your question: Facebook displays different globe icons depending on your geographical location (link). – Leslie P. Jan 13 '16 at 16:33
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Is is possible? Yes.

Technology-wise, you would do the same thing you'd do for language localisation (see this related SE question for the specificities).

Localization refers to the adaptation of a product, application or document content to meet the language, cultural and other requirements of a specific target market (a locale). Source

Seems like the definition fits the icon situation perfectly. W3C actually mentions "Symbols, icons and colors" in their list of customisable elements. Just as it happens with content, images are loaded with cultural baggage.

The apple developers site has some guidelines in respect to internationalisation too:

Create or modify language-specific versions of nib files, text, icons and graphics (especially those containing culture-specific images), audio, and video for each locale. Source

Now, in regards to the cases, that's a tricky one because it's not easy to hunt down some good examples, but take a look at this:

In Bangladesh, Iran, and Thailand the "thumbs up" gesture (facebook's "Like") is traditionally an obscene gesture, equivalent to the use of the middle finger in the Western world. Apparently nothing happened, but I bet it was something FB's developers and designers had to consider.

Also, the example from UX.SE cited in the comments has a nice answer (too bad the Q was closed).

Animal symbols can also be dangerous. For example, owls symbolize wisdom in the United States, and an e-learning website may use an icon of an owl to symbolize that a user or student is performing well in an online course. However, owls symbolize stupidity in some parts of Asia, and Asian students may be insulted, not encouraged, by such an icon.

Religious symbols can, of course, be particularly sensitive. Microsoft’s geopolitical product strategy team once avoided embarrassment by preventing the release of the company’s Office XP software containing a moon and stars astrology icon that resembled the Islamic Hila symbol. When religious symbols cannot be avoided, they must be localized, such as when the Red Cross has been adapted as the Red Crescent in the Middle East. Source

One thing is sure: This is a job you can't do based on assumptions. Feedback or research is crucial.

I found this interesting discussion in meta:

And some nice related articles:

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    Splendid. You point out some of my thoughts exactly. The owl for example are, in my part of the world, both wise and a symbol of death. I feel the webdev world is way way to anglo-american. There are good icons, but aiming for universals.. perhaps we should not always do that. And anyway, my question was more of a theoretical curiosity. I have thought about the thumbs-up icon, and likewise icons of feet would be problematic. Also funny; in cultures where one reads from right to left, some imagery would be idiotic. – benteh Jan 13 '16 at 14:48
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    Although I agree with Zach's point of trying to use universal icons, this not always works. And I'm not even considering aesthetic preferences depending on the country (remember "Why does Japanese design look so strange?"). There are actually some funny anecdotes with car names meaning different things in different places, and it happens way more than one would expect (I chuckle every time I see a Mitsubishi Pajero. I will let google clarify why). – Yisela Jan 13 '16 at 14:53
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    :D yes, I am aware of Pajero; it is hysterical. There are a lot of these things; I do not think the anglo-american world realises how often they do it. Yes, I agree on finding the best icons possible, but I also think that that turns us towards a increasingly pictorially poorer society, and: 1. you can teach people the meaning of something fairly easily so everything does not have to be instantly recognisable. 2. Some icons are simply too culturally dependant. We are training the world to be anglo-american-centric, and I would like a little more creativity. – benteh Jan 13 '16 at 15:16
  • ..another interesting thing is the flat hand facing you. In "our" part of the world it means stop, in the middle east and africa it is often a symbol for a blessing.. – benteh Jan 13 '16 at 15:20
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Short answer:

It's best to use good icons in the first place - sometimes providing additional help to aid understanding can still be preferable (descriptive text, tooltips, etc.).

Providing alternatives based on language can be better some of the time, but it will always be more expensive.


Longer answer:

In any case, it is preferable to use one set of icons that all cultures recognize. This should always be sought over any workaround.

With that being said, as we've seen some cultures have icons for certain things that differ from other culture's icon for that thing. A lot of the time someone from one culture can still understand what the icon in another culture is. However sometimes they can't. What I'm trying to convey with this is that most of the time icons are not an issue across cultures, especially when descriptive text is provided next to it or a once-shown tooltip for harder icons is provided.

Often addressing a website to a particular culture requires changes to content, sometimes requires layout changes, and often other stylistic changes depending on the particular culture as well. This likely requires a separate site or at least a separate page to address this well.

High-end websites often deal with different languages and cultures of big client bases by offering alternative sites or pages for that language and/or culture. This is usually done by having a link(s) which leaves the decision up to the user. This allows differences of cultures to be addressed more completely.


But if the icons or other small changes are truly the only thing you think you need to change, it is possible to do it based off of the language of the user (though not perfectly). If you choose this, please make sure

  1. A substantial amount of your users fit into this category,
  2. The icon actually is better for that culture (research, testing),
  3. That the implementation of switching is done well - purely using JS to detect is not foolproof in any implementation.

All of this requires more time and therefore more money. Often times it's better just to improve the original icon anyway.

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    Of course it is always better to use good icons; this was more a "is it reasonably easy to do".. though I do believe the world of webdesign is way too anglican-american focused. We, the rest of the world, might understand the iconography, that does not mean they are good. – benteh Jan 13 '16 at 14:38
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You can change icons by locale. However, the browser is not meaningfully telling the locale of it's user.

Many users set their agent language to english. Reasons vary, but basically all language localisations ive seen have bad translations. But even if the translation was good it would affect their ability to google knowlege about issues they have.

Secondly you can not rely on other locale info as the user may or may not belong to that locale. Nothing is as bad as a installer prompting you in a foreign language just because you happened to be abroad. Same applies to icons. For example in my locale the checkmark means wrong, not ok, accept... But because most sites operate under english conventions i assume its has reverse meaning. Localizing just the icon in thiscase would be a monumentous clusterf*#k as now i would have no clue whatsoever.

So localization has a lot of problems if you really have the.manpower to broadly test your site with natives, go ahead. But please do not assume anything by what the browser reports of my preferences. Use a separate url, is fine just as long as you dont autoredirect me its annoying as hell.

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  • Makes sense, appreciate your answer. It was more a theoretical question, and I think the more interesting aspect would be setting conditional images as per the language settings of the browser. It would not be a big deal within the "western" world, but – say – english to Chinese might have some merit. – benteh Jan 13 '16 at 17:37

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