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What is localization for UX?

Take a look at the first two lessons of our Product Localization for UX course. Learn how to successfully launch your next global product!

This blog post is made up of material from the first two lessons of the Product Localization for UX course by Patricia Gómez Jurado. If you enjoy this sample, enroll as an individual or a team today!

Lesson 1.1: Why translation & localization (T&L) are so important

Take a look at this 8-minute video from web developer and educator Tom Scott about why getting translation & localization (T&L) right is so difficult. Tom illustrates the careful balance teams must strike between language, design, and development.

As Tom explains, globalization has accelerated the need to make digital content accessible in multiple languages for different countries, regions, and cultures.

Regardless of the size of the organization you work for, localization and translation are key parts of any growth or expansion strategy.

If there is no localization team in your company, you might be tasked with leading a translation project at some point in your career, particularly if your company is looking at expanding to international markets.

But why are T&L so important?

We live in a multilingual world

The world we live in is diverse and multilingual. English might be the common language in business environments, but that‘s not true everywhere on the internet. In fact, English-language users make up only about 26% of internet users.

According to Internet World Stats the other 9 top languages are Chinese (traditional and simplified), Spanish (in all its variants), Arabic, Portuguese (from Brazil and Portugal), Indonesian/Malaysian, French, Japanese, Russian and German.*

*Note: We’re talking here about written languages, not “languages.” The traditional / simplified Chinese distinction is one of written language and does not exist as an oral language difference—regional languages and dialects do, of course but that’s a different story.

A pie chart of internet users by language breaks down that English interest users only make up 25.9% of all internet users.
Source: Internet World Stats

Users prefer content in their language

In 2020, content and language services firm CSA Research published ”Can‘t Read, Won‘t Buy” summarizing people‘s attitudes towards using products in their own language versus other languages.

CSA surveyed 8,709 consumers in 29 countries and the results were eye-opening, although perhaps not as surprising to someone who works in content:

  • 65% prefer content in their language, even if it‘s poor quality
  • 67% tolerate mixed languages on a website
  • 73% prefer products with information in their own language
  • 40% will not buy from websites in other languages
Graphic highlights how consumers who cannot read content in their language will not buy from companies. They want to read product reviews in their language as well.
Source: CSA Research

Considering these insights, you can see how important good translation is to increasing international revenue—and for usability in general. Users show a strong preference for reading and interacting in their primary language.

Localization builds trust

As a UX writer, you already know how the words we read impact how we think and feel. Not only is it important to create product content that guides the user, but you also want to create trust

Language is important here. You can create trust by: 

  • Building a brand that’s recognizable to people 
  • Using language of high quality, without typos or grammatical errors

Building a brand

By speaking in a consistent brand voice, consumers will get to know you as a company. And when they feel like they know you and can trust you, they are more likely to buy from you. Later down the road, they’re more likely to become brand loyalists or promoters. That’s the intended outcome.

With a solid UX content strategy in place where you’re able to stick to the same tone of voice and use of terminology, you’re in a perfect position to build great customer relationships through your interface writing. 

Content strategy should not only focus on the source language but include the languages you localize to as well.  

Using accurate language

A typo or a grammatical error might not seem like a big deal, but your users could interpret this as a signal that your company doesn’t care enough to be accurate. 

If you’ve got these kinds of errors in your product, what other bugs or errors do you have? Research shows that consumers are more likely to leave a website that has typos in it.

This is as true for source content as it is for translated and localized content.

Lesson 1.2: Defining T&L

Alrighty, let‘s get grounded in some concepts and definitions we’ll use throughout the course. You might have noticed our shorthand use of “T&L” instead of “translation and localization.” Get comfortable with that one since you’ll see it a lot.

Now, a brief and simplified overview of our terms.

Many writers and designers use the terms ”translation” and ”localization” interchangeably. But they‘re pretty different! Each requires a separate process to adapt a product for a new audience.

Let‘s define our terms:

Translation is the process of replacing the language used in the product or app from the original language (source) to another language (target) without losing the original meaning and intent of the text.
Localization is the practice of adapting a product’s interface design to accommodate differences between countries or regions (locales).

To simplify this even further, translation is focused on adapting the words and messages into another language.

Localization is the process of retrofitting the visual and interactive elements of the design to fit the cultural context of how those elements function in a different culture.

Getting translation right can help you avoid unintentional mistakes. For example, when Pepsi expanded their market to China, they launched with the slogan:

Pepsi brings you back to life.

What they didn’t realize is that the phrase literally translated to:

Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.

To us this may seem funny, but it was a blow to Pepsi’s global brand.

When we talk about localization, we describe a much broader practice. It’s about how different cultural norms can be misinterpreted if not applied correctly. For example, take a look at this HSBC advertisement from 2002 that demonstrates the importance of localization when operating in countries outside your headquarters.

T&L are interlinked

T&L are interlinked, particularly when it comes to designing and shipping software.

For example, say that you have created and launched a Portuguese-language app in Brazil, and you would like to translate the words into English to sell your app in the UK.

Translating the words is straightforward, but localization is complex. We need to consider several factors:

  • What about the different currencies used in the UK?
  • Do they use the same system for measuring weight and distance?
  • Do they use the same third-party software and tools?
  • Are there other cultural or religious expectations you need to be aware of?
  • Are there color choices that might signify different meanings depending on the cultural context?

This is where localization comes in.

Localization is the holistic incorporation of languages and customs into products and experiences. Changes to the source materials might be required because of different technologies, standards or laws, locally-dominant third-party apps, cultural and religious propriety, or regional conventions.

As Nataly Kelly, VP of localization at Hubspot (and author of the born to be global blog) describes it, localization is all about ”creating a local, and delightful, end-to-end customer experience.”

Simple, right? If only.


Internationalization & globalization support T&L

In addition to T&L, we need to understand 2 more terms.

In Tom Scott’s video from lesson 1, he described the process of internationalization.

Internationalization involves working with a developer to make adaptations to the codebase. For example, your product may need to support languages that read from right to left, like Hebrew. Internationalization is the technical implementation that enables the right-to-left localized interface.

Lastly, global companies need to operate using a globalization framework to be successful.

Globalization is a mindset and framework adopted by companies who intend to make a product available and accessible to worldwide audiences. Truly global companies understand that all languages constitute the primary audiences—not just their own native language—and make smart decisions to support that mindset. For example, your company might choose to translate your English-language app into global Spanish, rather than translating into more specific regional dialects like Argentinian or Nicaraguan Spanish.

These decisions will be different for every organization, but to figure out what works for you, let’s take a look at a helpful comparison from Nataly Kelly in born to be global.

ProcessWhat gets adapted

Once you‘ve split out the process from things that need localizing, you can use success criteria like these to assess the impact of your work:

TranslationOur message resonates in other markets.
LocalizationOur customer experience delights in other markets.
InternationalizationOur code works in other markets.
GlobalizationOur framework solves for other markets.

Examples of successful localization

Localization adapts the experience to the local audience. But what does that mean? Depending on the country you‘re launching in, some aspects of a product will need to be changed, while others will remain the same.

As products and services become more global, this process becomes standard for product teams.

In films

Pixar‘s work for the movie Inside Out is a good example of globalization in action. In the movie, the main character is a kid named Riley who is working on managing her emotions. Her dad spends a lot of time imagining sports. The sport played in his head was changed from American hockey to soccer (football) to make the scene more relatable for international audiences.

In total, 28 graphics across 45 different shots were localized for individual markets.

An example from the Disney movie Inside Out shows how the sport shown in the scene changes from American hockey to European football depending on the country.
Source: Business Insider

Note: If you’re interested in film localization, you can watch the Disney+ release Inside Pixar, a documentary series featuring the work involved in making Inside Out. Or you can watch this 7-minute video on how 10 Pixar movie scenes were changed in other countries.

In fintech

How does localization apply to products in other sectors? Think about the number of differences that exist just in the fintech space:

  • Banking routines and timeframes
  • Currency notations and handling
  • Apps and tools for processing payments in each country
  • Goods and services offered locally
  • Accounting and bookkeeping variations and rules
  • Legal requirements for reporting and conducting business transactions
  • Physical spaces and institutions
  • Machine differences like ATMs or other cash-handling methods

Those differences add up to a significant need for redesigning software post-translation. The localization process reminds us that launching products in new global markets involves design beyond the words themselves.

In ecommerce

ASOS, a British online fashion retailer, is a perfect example of a successfully localized ecommerce platform. They offer 10 different payment methods, accept 19 currencies, and enable users to set their experience preference by both language and region. Those preferences set the language, display different product offers, and change payment options.

For software products, localization means adapting and redesigning the user interface (UI) and the entire user experience to adjust for differences in how business is conducted in other countries and cultures.

A relevant case study

In the early 2010s, Intuit decided to explore offering QuickBooks products to English-speaking users in India.

It seemed like a clear, straightforward business decision to localize QuickBooks for US English speakers to QuickBooks for Indian English speakers. The accounting principles in both countries were similar, and math is math. But when the product team started on the project, they discovered it was more complicated than expected.

Prior to 2018, business owners in India often kept 2 sets of books for accounting purposes: 1 for the government to see, and 1 that showed the ”real” cost of doing business, including “off-book” payments and bribes to officials.

Small business owners in India had no use for accounting software that only kept half of the records they needed—and they certainly did not want electronic records of the other half.

Intuit had to delay any plans for releasing a product in India until they’d done much more thorough local and cultural research.

Translation, and especially localization, often require deep research and redesign to "fit" products to new markets. This is not the sole job of a content designer or UX writer.

Before undertaking an international project, an executive with decision-making authority, usually someone from the product or marketing teams, needs to:

  • Build a strong business case with Sales and Marketing leadership on potential leads, traffic, and general market fit
  • Figure out where localization ranks in the product objectives and key results (OKRs) and roadmap
  • Present the case to decision-makers and stakeholders such as the chief financial officer (CFO) who needs to consider the strength of the longer term investment
  • Recruit a localization project manager (LPM), depending on the maturity level of the company or product team (we’ll talk more about maturity level before the end of the course)
  • Recruit support agents and sales managers
  • And more…

It makes sense that companies would want to take advantage of T&L to essentially re-deploy a successful product in an entirely new market. But companies must also understand whether their product is necessary and appropriate for the new language, culture, and ways people do business in the new market.

Investing in tools, people, and processes is critical to ensure quality translations and a delightful user experience.

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