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What is Software Localization?

Make your software effective and easy-to-use for customers in any global market.

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.

It doesn’t get much easier if you translate the software into your own language, either. From confusing instructions to a counterintuitive design, it can still be difficult to use the software effectively even when you understand all the text in front of you.

These are the problems that software localization looks to solve. While it’s often treated as an afterthought, software localization is of critical importance to any business that wants to adapt its products for new markets and users. Put simply, there are billions of potential customers who prefer to engage with products in their own language. They won’t be satisfied by a quick translation, or worse, an over-reliance on their knowledge of English.

In this article, we’ll introduce you to the basics of software localization and explain how it can help you build a core of brand evangelists in any market.

What is Software Localization?

Software localization is the process of adapting software to both the culture and language of an end user, from standards of measurement to video and graphic design. It involves not only translation, but also design and UX changes to make software look and feel natural to the target user.

It’s easy to imagine that software localization simply involves changing the language of a few key sections so that users know which buttons to click. However, localizing software usually goes a lot further than that. It also involves changes to things like the size and placement of those buttons on the page, as well as other design elements. It might even involve changing code on the backend so that employees in different regions are able to manage and update the software.

Imagine a software application that needs to be localized from English into Chinese. A simple translation may leave you with text and instructions that are clear enough, but with significant usability problems. The font might be too small to read clearly or may not support Chinese characters, while the length of the text might have shrunk to the point where visual elements on the page look odd. That’s before we even consider the preferences of Chinese users, who might like more information on each page or a different visual layout. When thinking about all of these problems, it’s easy to see that software localization is a larger, more complicated and more important problem than it looks on the surface.

Why Localize Your Software?

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 application.

However, one of the effects of building a successful product in your local market is that it can become more and more specialized for users in that market. The conventions that you build into your product, which seem natural to your current customers, might not be so successful in other markets where preferences are different.

As a consumer elsewhere, it’s immediately obvious when you encounter a foreign cultural convention in a software product. While that recognition may not stop you using the product, you'll definitely be aware that this product's manufacturers didn't design the interface with you, your language and your culture in mind. That makes your product difficult to love—and difficult to recommend to others. 

Without software localization, your product might not make the same impact on international users as those in your home country. A poorly localized product could even damage your global sales and brand loyalty. Software localization helps you to avoid some of these pitfalls and ensure that you always put your best foot forward.

It’s not all about damage limitation, though. On the flip side, localized software can give you a critical edge as you enter new markets. When your product is easy to use, it’s easier to recommend—and more likely to help your company become a global success story.

Person staring at code

Localizing Software Effectively

To achieve all the benefits we’ve laid out above, you’ll need to consider localizing all elements of your program. After all, everything from currency symbols and units of measurement to geopolitical sensitivities can impact your software, so any changes need to be planned for thoroughly and implemented seamlessly. Below are some of the key areas you’ll want to focus on when undertaking a software localization project.

Text and Writing Systems

Software localization services consider every impact of language on a program. They go beyond translation services to address different character encoding standards 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 resource files including menus, dialog boxes, and action buttons—plus user interface files such as localizable strings.

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 native language speakers interact with written content, so you can optimize the experience for them.

Graphic Design

Localization allows you to adapt the non-linguistic elements of your user interface as well. Your software localization team should examine your symbols and pictures and ensure that any images make sense and are not offensive for your target demographic.

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.

Other symbols can cause even greater problems. The hand gesture that symbolizes "OK" in the US, where the thumb touches the forefinger to make an "O," is an offensive sign in some countries. Even your choice of images can be controversial in other countries. US-based learning software might use an owl symbol to represent learning, but the owl represents stupidity in some parts of Asia.

It’s absolutely crucial that your 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 crossing signs which say "don't walk" with stick-like figures instead of hands.

User Experience (UX)

While you’re focusing on what your users see and read, don’t forget to think about the way that information is organized as they interact with your product. This can differ significantly between cultures. For example, Japanese users often prefer to have more options and information visible to them on a particular page in the form of sidebars, information boxes and hyperlinks. A more sparse and streamlined design that would be popular in the US might leave them feeling like they lack the necessary information to proceed. This could cause a big problem for your conversion rates.

Before you make any assumptions about your software, you should always perform extensive user research. Talk to as many people in your target audience as possible and collect samples of successful applications and competitor products in your target language. You should particularly focus on the amount of text and information offered, the placement of action buttons and form fills and which pieces of information are typically grouped together on a page. Don’t forget to do this for both the mobile and desktop versions of your software, if you have them. Your research should uncover the unspoken conventions that guide software design in that market, and help you structure your product in a way that puts users at ease.

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Should You Localize Your Software?

While a successful localization project can work wonders for your business, it’s not always practical to start the software localization process right away. Below, we’ve outlined three broad categories of products that might need software localization, to help you figure out if localization should be an immediate concern for your business.

1. Your software is region-specific

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 minority language communities that could benefit from software localization and translation.

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

2. You’re still developing your initial software offering

It might make more sense for you to focus on your home region at this stage, but you can always plan to localize your software later on. In that case, prep your content as much as possible for future localization solutions. Take small steps, like adding international character and number file formats, so you don't have to do too much reworking later. When writing your copy, try to keep your sentences brief and your colloquialisms to a minimum.

3. You’re looking to scale your user base

Many pieces of software need to reach a critical mass of users, after which growth increases exponentially. This is due to the power of network effects, a term which describes how every new user adds value to the existing users of a platform. Eventually, network effects create a tipping point, where the value of joining a platform far outweighs the cost of actually joining due to the benefits of being part of that network. Often, new software needs to reach this point to ensure scalability and long-term success.

If you’re looking to scale your user base in this way, software localization is a no-brainer. If you’re looking to gain access to a new market or already have an audience abroad, you should start the localization process right away. Even better, build software localization best practices into your development workflow so that you can target more new markets in the future.

Who needs software localization services?

Developer working on a desktop application

Companies Producing Desktop Applications

Desktop applications are less common these days, but they are still being produced. Companies that make them must segment the market based on where buyers are located and which languages they speak. As per CSA’s Can’t Read, Won’t Buy, 75% of customers will not buy a product that is not available in their language. This also applies to desktop applications.

Furthermore, some countries have strict rules that require products to be available in all the official languages of that country. This might be true for a number of products, but is specifically true for government, life sciences, and financial sectors.

Person on an online learning course

eLearning and Learning Experience Designers

Many companies are producing or delivering online learning experiences to their clients and workforces. These might be different compliance or product training courses. In order to better reach your audiences and share  knowledge faster, it is necessary to prepare content in the languages spoken by your target audience. eLearning might be particularly hard to localize as it blends different content types such as text, video, audio, graphics, and other interactive components. No matter if you are a client buying these courses or a company designing and building eLearning courses as your main business, you should consider getting them localized. 

Developer working on a mobile app

Mobile App Developers

Software localization is now predominantly relevant to mobile app developers. Digital marketplaces make it easier than ever to cross borders and offer your digital experience, such as an app to customers located in different countries. Inevitably, you will run into customers speaking a diverse set of languages. Being able to craft your apps to take into account requirements for localization and later localize them is critical for your success.

Developer testing on a mobile device

Webapp Developers

Not only mobile apps are gaining ground. Websites are also becoming more interactive, often resembling full blown applications. This modality of delivering digital experiences blends the complexities of both website and software localization. Often, web apps require continuous or agile localization practices and increased testing to ensure that they function properly on a wide range of devices such as phones, tablets, computer screens, or even wearable devices.

Person using virtual reality

Metaverse and AR/VR Application Developers

Augmented and virtual reality are gaining ground with cheaper hardware that enables it. This creates a new universe of services and apps that need to be localized. This is also called a metaverse. These apps and experiences will require localization services as well, and will create a unique set of challenges and opportunities for developers. Localizing an app in a metaverse will put a much higher emphasis on software testing services, as metaverses create more opportunities and ways to interact with software.

Two people on a developer team

Software as a Service Companies

Software as a Service (SaaS) is a popular software distribution and business model. It means that the software runs in the cloud instead of on a computer on the premises. This enables companies to offer software using a more flexible model that resembles a service. Localizing SaaS software often poses unique risks, such as performing localization on a live software. It often requires employment of agile or continuous localization practices, which further complicates localization efforts. In such cases, localization teams work in lockstep with product and developer teams to deliver bits of translation daily and tweak the translations as the software evolves.

Two people working on market localization

System Integrators

System integrators manage the complexities of various software programs and combine them into working ecosystems. Often, software packages designed for one market need to be introduced to another. This creates several challenges, including ensuring the software can be localized for a new market. Some jurisdictions require companies to offer products and/or manuals in local languages, which increases local legal compliance complexities.

Localized software is often responsible for mission critical company functions and is sold as a product to other enterprises. This means system integrators must ensure that it functions properly, and that translations are accurate. This often requires hiring a software testing team.

Developer looking at computer screen

Content Providers. Localization as a Feature

Many applications or digital experiences do not only offer a static user interface, but also blend in user generated content. This blurs the differences between user generated content and the software itself, making it harder to localize the entire digital experience. Fortunately, it is easier than ever to embed localization services into your app to seamlessly translate and localize user generated content. Be it customer reviews, user created designs, chats or forums, the advent of AI and improvements in Machine Translation allows digital experience creators and developers to easily localize user generated content in a cost-effective fashion. This enables a whole range of immersive experiences for a global, multilingual user base.

Start Localizing Your Software

Software localization is indispensable for increasing your appeal in new markets, attracting new users and setting up your company for global success. Now that programs and apps are crossing national borders by the dozens, the localization process is also a cost-effective way to appeal to new markets. Do it right and you’ll be able to significantly improve your customer experience. Do it well and your app might end up being the next worldwide viral sensation!

When you’re ready to start localizing your product, you’ll need a localization specialist to help guide you through the process. Lionbridge has partnered with some of the largest enterprise software providers in the world, helping them to delight customers through our agile localization processes, extensive linguistic testing and end-to-end localization services.

Reach out to us today to find out how our software localization experience can help you build great software for any market.

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