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The brave new world of app localisation

How to localise your mobile app

Mobile devices are everywhere, and so are the apps that run on them. Vast numbers of smartphones mean vast numbers of users – users who demand a wide range of specialised applications.

If you’re a mobile app developer, you may have already considered adapting your product for other markets. But you might still be unsure. What are the benefits of localising your app? What markets would be the most profitable? And how much effort does app localisation actually involve?

Your app could easily end up flourishing in a foreign climate. But before you can get started, it’s crucial to have a solid overview of the localisation process.

Why localise your mobile app?

With around 90% of all mobile activity taking place within applications, app development is a booming industry. And while app developers in English-speaking countries will naturally gravitate towards their home audience, often this is only a tiny slice of a huge global market.

China, for example, is by far the biggest downloader of Android apps. No great surprise given its massive population and emerging middle class, but the Chinese market should be a leading consideration for anyone developing a mobile app. That’s not to mention other key emerging markets such as India and Brazil.

Of course, apps can get some international exposure with just an English-language version. But this approach still leaves vast numbers of non-English-speaking users untapped. Proper app localisation has the potential to massively boost your active users and the revenue that comes with them.

Localisation vs internationalisation

When thinking about app localisation, it’s useful to separate it from the related concept of app internationalisation. While app localisation largely consists of providing different content for different markets, internationalisation focuses on the underlying technology.

Generally speaking, internationalisation comes before localisation. It’s the prerequisite step that ensures the app can support various types of localised content at a code level.

Fundamentally, internationalisation should separate code from content. It should make the job of app localisation easier by not chaining functionality to a specific language or market. This can be achieved through a range of best practices, such as avoiding hardcoded text strings and storing content in separate files instead.

Internationalisation also means providing localisers with the tools they need. It could be something as simple as switching between UK and US date formats. If your app hasn’t been internationalised first, unnecessary complexity is added to the localisation process.

Currencies, postcodes, time zones and many more variables need to be built into the app as early as possible. And of course, your app has to support the alphabets of the languages scheduled for localisation. Thankfully, internationalisation is becoming easier all the time, with APIs enabling a wide range of app functionality to be automatically adapted.

So overall, the goal of internationalisation is to create a solid base of globally applicable code, and minimise any technical hitches when it comes to app localisation. When internationalisation is done right, new content for new markets can simply be slotted into place.

Choosing the right markets

To localise or not? It’s not a simple yes or no decision; it’s about choosing the markets that are worth going after. First, it’s usually a good idea to only focus on one app localisation at a time. For smaller teams, this will be dictated by resources.

In this context, it can also make sense to start on a more straightforward app localisation project. Take going from UK English to US English: at first glance, hardly even localising at all. It’s just a case of replacing a few UK spellings with UK ones, right? But then there’s going from pounds to dollars, changing the date format, checking for culturally specific references... all the little things that make app localisation more than a simple find-and-replace.

By starting off small and only localising for a variant of the same language – or for a nearby region that shares the same alphabet and similar cultural references – first-time localisers can get a feel for what app localisation actually entails.

This should put you in good stead when it comes to more resource-intensive app localisation projects – and it’s at this point that research becomes even more crucial. The sheer amount of available data on various markets can be overwhelming, but a great place to start is the data you already have.

If your app already has a significant user base, you’ll almost certainly have users from outside your home market. Check your analytics: are you getting higher numbers of international users from a particular market? Read your app store reviews: is anyone asking for your app in a certain language? And what about your competitors? Are they tapping into demand where you’re not?

Ultimately of course, the decisions to localise for particular market will come down to cold hard numbers. You research the market as well as you can, and if the return on investment justifies the effort, you go for it. But even then, you still have options regarding the level of app localisation.

Test the waters or dive in?

App localisation is usually performed at one of two scales:

  • Minimum viable localisation is the slimmed-down option, where an app is localised with minimal features and content. The MVL model still offers value to users, while requiring significantly less time and investment on the development and localisation side. It’s a great option for developers who want to trial their app in a new market without committing to full localisation, which can easily come at a later date.
  • Deep localisation, by contrast, is the full-fat approach that adapts every aspect of an app for a specific market. The deep localisation model is certainly heavier on resources, but if an app is serious about doing long-term business in a chosen market, it’s definitely the way to go. And when it comes to deep localisation, things like translation, alphabets with unique characters, and cultural concerns are high on the list of priorities.

Found in translation

The most obvious element of app localisation is of course translation – but translation itself is far from simple. Free translation tools, as advanced as they can be, are not reliable sources of high-quality, foreign-language content. For that, a professional translation and proofreading service is a must.

While translation needs to be accurate, it should also retain the correct style and tone. After all, what’s the point in crafting beautiful English-language content, just to have it butchered in other markets?

There’s no shortage of examples highlighting the perils of poor translation. Whether it’s an international bank’s “assume nothing” tagline becoming “do nothing” in various languages, or a popular fried chicken franchise urging Chinese customers to “eat your fingers off” – low-quality translation can result in embarrassing (if occasionally hilarious) marketing blunders.

So bad translation not only results in a poor user experience and fewer downloads, it can even harm your brand’s global reputation. And this can easily be avoided just by spending a little more time and money on professional translation.

Outside of the app itself, it’s also vital to ensure high-quality translation throughout any additional marketing material and documentation. App store content is especially important to get right, forming the first impressions of your app for many users.

How language impacts design

Some languages need their space. French, German and Spanish text, for example, can fill up to 30% more room than the English equivalent. For this reason, you should avoid fixed widths and heights for text elements in your app; the alternative is the creation of custom layouts and/or edited text content for each localisation, and of course, added complexity.

Another design consideration is the direction of text. In languages such as Arabic and Hebrew, words run from right to left, and this can have repercussions for app layout. Localising from an English-speaking market to an Arabic one, for example, might mean simply replacing text. But how could this affect the overall design? Will the text still be readable, and make sense in the context of images and other design issues?

When localising for right-to-left script, it sometimes makes sense to flip the whole design to ensure consistency, or simplify it even more by using a symmetrical layout. These methods can make the design side of app localisation easier to manage, but localising for diverse scripts will still require a fine-tuned approach for each market.

The culture factor

Cultural differences make assumptions dangerous. Using a thumbs-up icon? Offensive in Nigeria. Lots of purple? In Japan, the colour represents danger.

Seemingly innocuous elements of app design can have drastically different effects in different markets: certain gestures, objects and even animals have a wide range of connotations, for better or worse. Specific colour combinations can also be associated with local political groups – usually best avoided to give your app the broadest possible appeal.

Good app localisation takes into consideration the unique cultural context of each market, and this is another area where high-quality translation can help. By using native-speaking translators who know their stuff, you can ensure that any culturally insensitive content is picked up early and skilfully adapted for a local audience.

Local heroes: the apps doing localisation right

A great source of localisation inspiration is to look at apps that are already successful in multiple markets. Obviously, the biggest apps in English-speaking world have major footprints elsewhere, with market-dominators like WhatsApp and YouTube enjoying almost universal popularity.

Of course, these huge corporations can afford extraordinarily in-depth market research, plus people on the ground in various territories. But they still offer important lessons in app localisation.

Alongside top-quality translation and cultural adaptation, big-name app providers focus on user feedback. From open and closed beta testing with native users, to monitoring app store reviews for critiques of existing localisation, the best localisation teams are always looking for ways to improve content and functionality. Some apps even include built-in feedback tools to constantly gather user comments.

Often held up as a textbook localisation success story, the note-taking app Evernote launched in China back in 2013, before passing 4 million users within a year. Evernote remains one of the best app localisation examples due to how savvy the developers were regarding the intricacies of the Chinese market.

Evernote’s secret? First, there’s the name. It’s a frequently overlooked question in the localisation process: what should the app be called in other markets? Should it be the same everywhere, or should it be adapted for different languages? In China, Evernote opted for a fully localised name: Yinxiang Biji. This yielded a range of benefits. Yinxiang Biji is not only easy to pronounce for native speakers, it also has a similar meaning to the English name. Roughly translating as “memory note” or “impression notes”, Yinxiang Biji also builds in a memorable pun by including the Chinese character for elephant – the animal featured in Evernote’s logo.

This isn’t to say you have to change your app’s name abroad. Massive companies like Google have few problems using the same name across borders. Then again, it helps if your app’s name is an obscure or nonsense word to begin with. There’s also the hybrid approach taken by apps like the news aggregator Flipboard. When localising for China, the Flipboard team decided to keep the English name in combination with the existing subtitle “Your News Magazine” added on in Chinese.

Get technical with app localisation

Of course, Evernote’s success in China wasn’t solely due to a new name. The practical, technical context of the Chinese market was also carefully considered. With 3G still being relatively expensive, for example, the developers implemented a “sync only with Wi-Fi” feature to accommodate user behaviour.

In general, app localisers should take on board the technical aspects of different markets. Many emerging economies favour less powerful devices with smaller screens and older software, for instance. In regions such as South America and sub-Saharan Africa, smartphone users also spend much of their time without an internet connection and easy access to charging. All this makes performance optimisation, offline functionality and power efficiency key priorities for app developers.

If you’re thinking about localising your app, the best place to start is usually the official app store guidelines. These are available from Google, Apple and Microsoft, and provide a wealth of information on the technical aspects of app localisation. By taking these into consideration alongside the range of translation, cultural and design concerns detailed above, high-quality app localisation is within reach for any organisation. If you have a world-class app, now is the time to show it.

Neal Thoms's picture

Neal Thoms

Author As a content creator for Fasthosts, Neal’s main focus is cloud technology and how it’s transforming everything we do online. He’s worked in the web hosting industry for over five years.