Reading/Web/Desktop Improvements/Repository/Language Switching User Tests

As part of the Desktop improvements project we're planning to move interlanguage links to a more prominent place in the interface. Since interlanguage links are article specific, i.e. they change depending on which article you're viewing, we think it makes sense to locate them within the article header, rather than the site header (note: see the Language variants and Wiki projects without interlanguage links section below for more notes on those topics). We recently did some user testing to compare the current placement of interlanguage links (in the sidebar) with the proposed location in the article header. The purpose of these tests was to determine if people have an easier time switching languages given the new location of the interlanguage links. The results of the tests confirmed our hypothesis - participants in the test group (new location) we able to find the language switcher quicker than participants in the control group (old location). Based on these results, we plan on continuing to explore moving the language selector to this location as a part of the desktop improvements project.

Prototype used for language switching usability testing

Test design


The testing took place on We tested two workflows:

  1. Switching languages from the top of an article
  2. Switching languages from the middle of an article (i.e. scrolled down the page)

The control group for each test used the current version of English Wikipedia, and the test group used a prototype of English Wikipedia (link to prototype). After two introductory tasks the participants were given the following instruction: many Wikipedia articles are available in multiple languages. Imagine you wanted to read the French version of the Bread article. Can you figure out how to switch to French? Please talk out loud as you try to switch.

We additionally ran a variation of the first test (switching languages from the top of an article) using a prototype of Wikipedia with an updated aesthetic treatment, wherein the language menu had much less visual prominence (link to prototype). The purpose of this test was to determine to what extent the results from the first two tests were influenced by the prominence of the language menu relative to other links on the page.

Test participants


All participants were recruited through the platform. They varied in age between 19 and 59 years old, and live in the following countries: India, United Kingdom, Australia, United States, Netherlands, Spain, Canada, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Malaysia. All participants were multilingual. Participants were familiar with Wikipedia but non-experts.

  1. Switching languages from the top of an article
    • Test group: 8 participants
    • Control group: 5 participants
  2. Switching languages from the middle of an article (i.e. scrolled down the page)
    • Test group: 9 participants
    • Control group: 4 participants
  3. Switching languages from the top of an article (aesthetic variation)
    • Test group: 5 participants
    • Control group: n/a (same as control from test 1)

Test results


Conclusion: people have an easier time switching languages when the interlanguage links are located in the article header than they do when the interlanguage links are located in the sidebar.


  • All participants were able to switch languages relatively easily.
  • Participants in the test groups (new interface) were able to switch languages more quickly than participants in the control group (current interface).
  • The numbers below are not statistically significant but provide some insight into the time it took participants to switch languages using the new interface vs. the control:
Group 1 Group 2 Group 3
Test group 2–8 seconds (average: 4s) 3–18 seconds (average: 7s) 1–5 seconds (average: 1.5s)
Control group 12–30 seconds (average: 21s) 12–40 seconds (average: 22.5s)
  • Almost all participants had the instinct to look for the language switcher at the top of the page, many specifically looked in the top right (probably because there are other links there)
  • 3 of 5 participants in Group 1 (control) mentioned that there were a lot of links in the sidebar that they didn’t find relevant, and 4 of 5 mentioned that it would be helpful if the language links were higher up on the page
  • All participants were familiar with the concept of switching the language of a website. Several participants being accustomed to looking for a flag or globe icon.

Additional thoughts


Same content translated vs. different page entirely — a question we minimally investigated: do people understand the relationship between an article in one language and another? Despite the fact that the Bread article on English Wikipedia is quite different from the Pain (Bread) article on French Wikipedia about half the participants guessed that it was the same article that had just been translated into French. What are the implications of this lack of understanding? How might we help people better understand what is happening when they switch languages?

Global vs. article-specific language switcher — with this test we did not explore people's expectations around language switching, e.g. do they expect the interface and the content to switch languages, or only the content (which is how the iOS and Android apps act)? Do they expect to be sent to a different site/URL? Experienced users might be familiar with the difference between Wikimedia projects with multiple language versions, wherein interlanguage links lead you to a similar page on a different project, and Wikimedia projects that exist only in one language, wherein language switching changes the interface/display language and/or the content but doesn't send you to a different project. However we suspect that this nuance is lost on the average person. In further testing we could:

  • Ask people: do you think the entire page is going to change languages, or just the article?
  • Test placing the language switcher in the site header and see if the expectation changes
  • Explore the idea of only the article changing, but the rest of the site UI etc. staying the same
  • Explore the idea of giving users a choice: do you want to switch to X Wikipedia, or read the article in X language on this Wikipedia?

Language switching icon — we did not test various icons. People mentioned flags and globes as icons/elements they are familiar with. In a future test we could look into this.

Motivations and use cases — what motivates people to switch languages, and what are our main use cases here? Some motivations noted in past research include: reading about a topic in a more comfortable language, looking at how different cultures write about a concept, switching to a language that the reader believes will have more extensive content, and learning a language or testing one's skills. From a functional perspective: do people switch back and forth between two languages? Switch once and then not switch back? Switch between more than two languages? A related open question which was not investigated in this test: how large is the group of people who would switch languages but don’t think to look for a language switcher?

Language variants

Language variants menu on Chinese Wikipedia

The LanguageConverter allows people to switch between variants of a language (e.g. Chinese) from a menu located in the article header. Translations are not manual, rather "MediaWiki sites uses programmatic conversion to offer a target variant to 'convert' an article's source code, which may be a mix of different variant, to". We did not test the added complexity of projects with language variants. It remains an open question if we will be able to incorporate language variants into the new language switcher, or leave it as-is.


The proposed change above only applies to Wiki projects with multiple language versions. However on single-language projects (e.g. Wikidata, Wikispecies, MediaWiki) there are other language-switching links in the interface. These language-switching links will remain as-is.

Universal language selector


As explained on the Universal Language Selector page: "Wiki projects without interlanguage links will integrate language settings in the personal toolbar next to their user name". These language links/settings allow you to change the display/interface language, and optionally (and somewhat confusingly) will also change the language of the article/page content. This only appears for logged-in users. The mechanisms that allow for the page content to change are:

  1. The page could be using system messages, i.e. internationalized strings, e.g. {{int:references}}
  2. The page could be using the translate extension, e.g. ‎<languages />‎<translate>...‎</translate>
  3. (Wikidata only) The page could be written in a dynamic way that allows it to display in various languages
Universal language selector on Wikidata

Translate extension


There are language-switching links that can appear towards the top of an article/page in the "Other Languages" panel that appears as the result of the Translate extension (or the ‎<languages /> tag). These are available for logged-in and logged-out users.

Translate extension on MediaWiki

In Wikipedia


Lastly there are language-switching links that are very similar to interlanguage links that appear in the sidebar under the "In Wikipedia" header on (some) projects that only exist in one. These are available for logged-in and logged-out users.

"In Wikipedia" panel on Wikispecies