Designing bilingual services 

7 min read Written by: Cory Hughes

On Wednesday the Centre for Digital Public Services Wales hosted a meet up about designing services in the Welsh language. As a service designer based in Wales who doesn’t speak Welsh, it was really insightful to listen to the discussion and learn how I can help organisations better meet the needs of their Welsh speakers.

When considering designing for the Welsh language in the past, things that spring to mind would be considerations around screen design, like how can we accommodate different text lengths or does the font work in both languages. However, the topics covered were more about the user journey of accessing Welsh language services and the barriers faced along the way.

Finding the service

Guidance around the use of the Welsh language states that it should be placed in the position where it is most likely to be read first. We’re all used to seeing this in the physical world, on-road signs or official paperwork. However, the same guidance also says not to mix both English and Welsh language content on a webpage, as this poses an accessibility issue for screen readers. This means that when designing digital public services in Wales, a decision needs to be made – which language should be the default?

Anyone visiting GOV.WALES today will see that English is currently the default. On the one hand, this makes sense if it’s the language that the majority of users are likely to choose because it streamlines their interaction with the service. However, one of the main barriers the speakers highlighted was the lack of awareness and/or findability of the Welsh language service. This suggests that signposting to Welsh language provision at the start of user journeys needs to be designed more effectively.

A common design pattern for switching between languages online is to have a language switcher button in the site-wide header.

If Welsh speakers are reporting issues with finding Welsh language provision online, this means either this pattern is not being used consistently across all public sector organisations, or it is not effective enough at catching users’ attention at the right moment.

As well as websites, some government organisations develop apps (whether this should be the case is a whole other debate). It’s less common to see the language switching pattern above in an app, which may also make it harder to find and access the service in the Welsh language. An example of this was given by Heledd Evans from Natural Resources Wales, where a friend was not able to change their NHS COVID app to Welsh as they lacked the technical capability to work out how to do it in the settings.

Solutions to the awareness problem could look like enforcing all users to make a language preference choice or making Welsh the default. Proper user-centred exploration would need to go into this, as the needs of both English and Welsh speakers need to be weighed up, alongside policy goals, like making the Welsh language more visible.

Opting for Welsh

Once a user has found the option to complete the service in Welsh, they need to decide whether they want to use it. It was discussed that having to make a binary choice between everything in Welsh or everything in English may put some users off trying Welsh. It’s important to be flexible and clear about what opting for Welsh means. Can users switch between languages later down the line if they choose? Will their preference be carried across other channels, like letters or phone calls?

Welsh Water research found that some users may be confident speaking Welsh but not necessarily writing and reading it. It’s important that services can be designed to accommodate differing confidence levels so that Welsh can be used if and when it suits users’ circumstances.

Another reason Welsh speakers may opt for English is a lack of faith in the usability of the service. Government services have traditionally not been designed in a user-centred way, making them difficult to use. If this is the expectation that users arrive with, they may not be willing to give Welsh a go, as it will be just another thing that will make the service harder to use. This may be especially true of services where there could be serious consequences of making a mistake or misunderstanding something.

Written content

Whether it’s guidance documents or help text baked into transactional services, written content makes up a big portion of our digital services. We talked in the session about how bilingual content is not just English content that’s been translated. Just as content designers and user researchers would do for English language content, we need to do the work to understand Welsh language users’ vocabularies and mental models in order to design content that they will find and understand.

We also need to understand whether all same design principles that come from reading science studies hold up in the Welsh language. Do Welsh language users read on the web in the same way as English or are there different ways we should be structuring the content?

I also wonder how the experience of only partially translated content affects the reading experience. We’ve already highlighted having both English and Welsh on a page can be an accessibility issue for screen readers but it’s not uncommon to see this. For example, due to operational constraints changing the language settings on the Office for National Statistics website only translates a small amount of the content on the homepage. Is it a cognitive burden for Welsh speakers to have to flip back and forth between English and Welsh while navigating a page and if so, should we only offer services in Welsh when we have the resources to fully deliver them?

Switching between service providers

End to end services often involve moving between different service providers. Especially with our devolved government in Wales, completing a task could involve moving between GOV.UK, GOV.WALES and local authority websites. This needs careful design and consideration at the best of times but when considering the Welsh language journey, there’s even more complexity and potential for things to go wrong.

As an experiment, I found a random service on GOV.WALES to navigate through in Welsh and in English simultaneously. After a few screens it sent me to the Cardiff Council website, however the link for the Welsh journey was broken, whereas the English one worked fine.

It’s really important that we think about how the Welsh language journey joins up to other service providers. In this instance, Cardiff Council does have Welsh language provision, however, what should the user journey look like when the users need to be passed over to a third party that does not offer Welsh language?


This is a really interesting space and I’d love to hear what other people are thinking about these topics. Much like the GOV.UK Dwesign System, I think we could do with somewhere to document our patterns and learnings around how best to meet the needs of Welsh speakers in our services.