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Why you should care about localization in UX writing

When it comes to user experience (UX) writing, every word matters. UX writer Michael Winnington explains why localization should be at the forefront of your thinking.

When it comes to user experience (UX) writing, every word matters. And that means every word. Not just the language of your largest market. Every word in every language for every market where a product exists.

I always cared about writing. I’m a UX Writer at Getaround and was at BlaBlaCar beforehand. Working at two companies that operate around the world, I had to start caring about localization to thrive and make a big impact. Localization in UX writing is an important topic – and one you need to be aware of, and own.

When most of your users don’t speak English

I used to work at BlaBlaCar, a carpooling app where people share city-to-city car journeys. Popular in France and Russia. Big in Spain and Brazil. Not so big or non-existent in English-speaking countries. 

To this day, I can still hear in my head the voice of Paul Stairmand, my former colleague and lifelong UX writing mentor: “Think Polish.” The first time he said it, I was baffled. I struggled to recognize Polish, let alone get close to mastering the language. Yet the more he said it, the more it clicked. The number of users reading my work in Polish would outweigh English. The same goes for other languages. My job wasn’t to write the best possible version in English, it was to write the most translatable version

Looking back at an FAQ I wrote, I can see why: “If you’re nipping across the Channel, getting in a car is just like going by plane.” 

That’s all well and good for the British market, but irrelevant when literally translated into Romanian. It takes 27 hours to drive from Bucharest to London. Carpooling between the two cities is rare. In fact, crossing the English Channel for a Romanian user can barely even be considered an edge case.

Where did I go wrong? First up, I didn’t write something that’s relevant for all markets. After failing to do so, I then didn’t tell translators to localize the example when translating. As a User Experience (UX) Writer, it’s your responsibility to collaborate with product managers, developers or even better a localization owner to make sure your words have the same impact when localized for other markets.

Localization in UX writing is a team effort.

And if your company doesn’t have a localization owner?

Not every company has the luxury of having a localization owner. Or at least not at the time they need one. At Getaround, we had to translate our whole product into Norwegian without a localization owner. My colleagues turned to me. They knew I cared about the words, and that goes for all languages. 

And you know what? Whether it was grouping strings into steps of the user journey or creating a translation glossary, answering questions from translators or improving unclear source copy. I loved every minute of the project.  

We’re responsible for character limits in all languages

Another project I’ve worked on at Getaround was to reduce our SMS costs. Part of the project was to rewrite our serial offenders — SMS that were well above 160 characters. The ones where we paid to send 2 SMS for every message a user received.

Getting under 160 characters in English was a simple enough task. But that’s only part of the story. We needed to translate these SMS into 6 other languages. Languages like German that aren’t as character efficient as English. 

UX Writers need to balance a user’s goals with the company’s needs. During this project, that meant reducing the character limit by 10% for the English source to give translators the best possible chance of staying under 160 characters, as well as briefing them about the limit.

In short, you can’t successfully write any content containing character limits without considering how it’ll be localized. 

You can help with localization in UX writing! 

When working as a UX Writer for a product that exists in more than one language, here’s what to remember:

    • Character limits are the same for all languages. Reduce the length of the source content to give translators and designs a chance
    • Words with double meanings are a nightmare. If you’re deciding between two words, choose the most translatable one
  • Translators need to understand the key message of your copy. Write a brief to help them

And if the product you’re working on exists only in one language? Be ready for localization requests to come your way if the company expands. Your peers acknowledge you care about words, expect them to turn to you.

Thanks to Becky Hirsch, Jeremy Barre and Paul Stairmand for all your advice.

Michael Winnington is a UX writer at Getaround, and previously, BlaBlaCar. You can connect with him on LinkedIn

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