What is Software Localization (And Who Needs It?)

Make your software usable and effective for multilingual users

Last Updated: July 4, 2019 8:14AM

In theory, digital technology is culturally neutral. It consists of the interactions between billions of tiny magnets, which are arranged in specific patterns and perform tasks that we call “programs.”

However, as soon as people enter the picture, we add linguistic and cultural specificity to these programs. Programmers who speak English write software that communicates with users in English.

When only English users are going to be using that software, the process can end there. Sometimes that’s the case, but more often it isn’t. In those cases, software localization is necessary.

Software Design in the Global Market

Technology lets us communicate across international boundaries. That’s one of the best things about it, both from the developer’s perspective and the user’s.

For software developers, globalization means a potentially unlimited market for any new program or app. If something is successful in the US, the developer can try it out in Canada, the UK, or even China.

But it’s not enough for a website or program to support multiple languages. It has to make sense for users in every country that it reaches. Otherwise, it’s not truly global—it’s just multilingual.

The Limits of Translation

If you’ve ever tried to set up an electronic device that was configured in another language, you know the importance of software localization services. Without them, a program can be at best frustrating, at worst unusable.

Once you translate the user-facing parts of a software program into your own language, you can begin to use that software. But if the program isn’t localized—that is, if the words change but nothing more—you’ll soon notice some usability difficulties.

Imagine a software program that was translated (but not localized) from English into Chinese. The meanings of the words may be clear enough, but usability problems may exist. The font might be too small to read clearly. Some of the graphics may look distinctly American. A Chinese user could make it work, but it would feel foreign to them.

Software Localization: Fitting the Product to the Audience

When you encounter a foreign cultural convention in a software product, you notice it immediately. That recognition may not affect how much you like the product, but you’ll definitely be aware that this product’s manufacturers didn’t design it with you (and your language and your culture) in mind.  Software localization helps solve this disconnect.

What is Software Localization?

Software localization adapts software to the culture as well as the language of the end user’s locale, from standards of measurement all the way to video and graphic design. Assuming skilled software localization services, the final content functions as though it were originally designed in the user’s own country.

Localizing Effectively

Your software localization services should consider all elements of the program when redesigning it for another market. Localization engineers and managers need to consider everything, from geopolitical sensitivities to the correct symbols for currency, measurements, and dates in the target country.

Text and Writing Systems

Software localization services consider every impact of language on a program. They go beyond translation to address different character sets and orientations, including right-to-left languages like Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi. When you localize software for areas that speak these languages, you need to change not just text fields but also menus, dialog boxes, and action buttons.

You need to recognize how the differently-aligned language will look on the screen and how this will impact the program’s function. You also have to know how speakers of those languages in interact with written content, so you can optimize the experience for them.

Graphic Design

Localization allows you to “translate” the non-linguistic elements of your user interface as well. Skilled software localization teams will examine your symbols and pictures and ensure that the following are true for the target demographic:

  1. The images make sense
  2. They’re not offensive

When misused, symbols and imagery can be confusing at best. One example is a mailbox with a red flag, which one company used to represent new messages in the user’s inbox. Unfortunately, few users outside the US knew what red flags on mailboxes meant, adding confusion rather than clarity to the function.

Some symbols can cause even greater problems:

  • The hand gesture that symbolizes “OK” in the US, the thumb touching the forefinger to make an “O,” is an offensive sign in some countries.
  • US-based learning software might use an owl symbol to represent learning, but the owl represents stupidity in some parts of Asia.

Savvy companies make sure their symbolism doesn’t include anything controversial or religious. The Red Cross, for example, uses a red crescent symbol for its Middle Eastern operations to avoid causing offense.

Be sure to localize graphics that won’t resonate with your target audience. If you have a picture of a red hand that means “don’t walk,” you might want to change that when you localize it for a British audience. They’ll be accustomed to “puffin” and “pelican” crossing signs, which say “don’t walk” with stick-like figures instead of hands.

Should You Localize Your Software?

There are three possible answers: probably not, not yet, and definitely.

1. “Probably not”—The software isn’t useful outside of its home region

If your app’s utility is specific to your region or community, then you might not need to worry about localizing the software for multilingual audiences. But even then, consider whether your region has sub-communities that could benefit from software localization.   

For example, you might think that you wouldn’t need to localize an insurance marketplace for your state, but what if you have large Filipino, Chinese, or Haitian communities? You might get better buy-in if you localize for those groups.

2. “Not yet”—Taking it as it comes

If it makes more sense for you to focus on your home region, you can plan to localize later. In that case, prep your content as much as possible for future localization. Take small steps, like adding international character and number formats, so you don’t have to do too much reworking later. Try to keep your sentences brief and your colloquialisms to a minimum.

3. “Yes”—Network effects call for localization

When your software has significant network effects, meaning it provides more user value as it becomes more popular, then software localization will ensure scalability.

If you already have an audience abroad, or you’re likely to get one, consider localizing in the early stage of development.

The Takeaway

When you localize software, you significantly increase its appeal. And now that programs and apps are crossing national borders by the dozens, localizing is a cost-effective way to appeal to new markets. Who knows—your app might be the next worldwide viral sensation!

Interested in starting the software localization process for your app or software? Reach out to us today.

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