Software localization

The Complete Guide to Software Localization

Software localization is the process of adapting a web or mobile app to the culture and language of users in a specific market. Keep reading to learn all about its ins and outs.
Software localization blog category featured image | Phrase

With web and mobile apps penetrating all aspects of our lives more than ever before, software localization has become a must to provide a seamless user experience (UX) across geographies and cultures.

The world’s leading tech giants know it well: No matter where in the world users are, they can rely on services like Airbnb or Uber in their own language and enjoy a UX perfectly adapted to their preferences, habits, or customs.

Software localization is a complex process that requires a bullet-proof plan to cover everything from strategy and implementation to what makes a software localization tool key for success. Follow this guide to start making your own plan.

What is localization in software development?

Software localization is the process of adapting a web or mobile app to the culture and language of users in a specific market.

Taking software global by adapting it to local requirements can be the difference between a software company that thrives in a fiercely competitive global market and software that struggles to attract an international user base.

Localization, together with internationalization, is part of the overarching process of globalization.

Localization onion diagram | Phrase

To take your software global, you first need to prepare your source code for localization to remove any barriers to deploying your software internationally. This is known as internationalization—more on it later on.

Localization always comes after internationalization, and it has several core elements:

  • UI/UX Design: Designers adapt the user interface of your software product in all preferred languages to catch any design breaks that might have a negative impact on the user experience (e.g., word length in call-to-action buttons).
  • Content translation: At the same time, the software's content gets translated and all accompanying assets such as images are adapted to each market’s requirements.
  • Testing and quality assurance (QA): Finally, localization testing is necessary to ensure software user interface (UI), UX, and functionality are accurate for every region before deploying the software into production.

Let’s break down the components of software localization one by one.

What is internationalization, and why is it important?

Internationalization (i18n), the first step in taking software global, is the process by which a product is prepared for localization, i.e. adjustment to international markets. It’s not just about being able to switch between languages. It’s also about establishing different settings to accept various forms of data and process it correctly to eventually match local requirements.

Among other things, internationalization can involve preparing:

  • User interface elements: Developers or software localization engineers can move all translatable strings into a separate resource file and leave the software code as it is so that localization can be performed without touching the source code.
  • Text length: By accounting for the differences in length between the various languages while writing software code, developers can ensure that translated text stays visible in software interfaces, even if it’s longer than the original.
  • Currency symbols and numbers: Every different language has its own way of writing numbers and currency, and software should be prepared to accept all these formats.
  • Date and time: Different countries use different date and time formats, and software should consider all possible variations.
  • Character encoding: The software should be able to process various scripts, including non-Latin ones.
  • Language direction: For languages that read from right to left, it’s important that software is designed to handle text oriented in any direction.

The earlier in the development process internationalization is addressed the better—this will help software developers avoid problems that can be expensive to fix later on.

Localization-friendly UX design: Adapting user experience to foreign markets

Visual culture varies from country to country—for example, color and design preferences in Mexico are very different from those in Sweden.

With that in mind, UX designers research visual preferences in a specific market and implement them into the user interface. This is just one facet of making a software product usable, enjoyable, and accessible for international users.

As part of a process called UX localization, UX designers create a variety of UX elements accounting for variables such as:

  • Word length: This might change dramatically from language to language—some languages expand or shrink horizontally (German is about 35% longer than English while Hebrew is about 30% shorter, for example) and others expand or shrink horizontally (Asian languages tend to require more vertical space).
  • Language direction: In right-to-left languages such as Arabic, UX designers need to reorganize the layout so that UX elements such as action buttons are at the left of the screen, so they meet the user’s eye when they finish reading.
  • Typography: The fonts that designers choose need to cover the software’s supported languages, as some languages (e.g., Arabic or Chinese) include special scripts.

Multilingual UX design also entails adapting any images that might adequately represent the target audience. For example, Airbnb’s home screen includes an “Explore nearby” section with illustrations of local attractions, such as historical buildings or famous landmarks; nearby attractions will inevitably vary depending on where the user is located, and UX designers need to pay attention to that.

Tripadvisor’s home screen includes a “Nearby” section with illustrations of local attractions that will inevitably vary depending on the user's location | Phrase

Tripadvisor’s home screen includes a “Nearby” functionality with illustrations of local attractions that will inevitably vary depending on the user's location

Translation vs. localization: What is the difference?

Content translation is a cornerstone of the localization process, which is done by professional linguists, preferably target language native speakers. Some use the terms "translation" and "localization" interchangeably. However, there is a big difference between translation and localization.

Translation is the process of rendering content from one language to another and refers to the written text only. Usually, the purpose of translation is to convey the original message as precisely as possible.

Localization is a multilayered process that goes beyond mere translation, and it includes the adaptation of measurement units, time and date standards, currencies, adjusting content to cultural requirements, adapting the design, etc. Sometimes, localization requires a significant content modification to make it relevant to the specific market.

Cultural sensitivity audit, legal check, and quality assurance

As soon as translations are available, a separate group of experts—the quality assurance team—tests the software for potential bugs, as well as visual and linguistic inconsistencies. They also audit software for cultural taboos and other potentially sensitive topics, while the legal team adjusts service documentation and other product elements to the specific market legal regulations.

Legal adjustment usually includes such aspects as local privacy law compliance, disclaimer text requirements, tax information, censorship rules, and more. The purpose of the cultural sensitivity check is to avoid topics that formally fall within the legal field but nevertheless might evoke ambiguous or even negative reactions in the target market.

Why is software localization important?

Even though localization might seem costly at first sight, it’s crucial for international expansion and sustainable business growth. A comprehensive localization strategy can help you reach the desired return on investment (ROI) even earlier than you expect. Let’s go through the main factors that can make or break your success in doing business globally.

Loyal client base

Brand loyalty is oftentimes built on cultural affinity. In other words, customers love it when brands speak to them in their native language. Even non-natives with excellent command of English prefer content in their mother tongue if there is a choice.

This makes it clear that localized software is not just a matter of being understood—it is also a way of showing respect to local customers. High-quality localization helps retain attention and strengthen loyalty, endorse long-term relationships with customers, and ultimately, trust is what makes sales possible.

Faster customer acquisition

Even though most internet sites are in English, the majority of internet users speak languages other than English. Here is a fact—in the second quarter of 2020, 8 of the 10 top markets by app downloads were non-English.

If done properly, localization will allow your digital business to enter new markets swiftly, start generating revenue from day one upon release, and stay ahead of the competition. In this sense, entering countries with a potentially lucrative market share—like China—can be particularly profitable.

Brand awareness and symbolic capital

Brand awareness is the first step to acquiring new customers, and it is almost impossible without localization. Strong brand awareness means you spend less on advertising costs, and it helps build brand equity, which makes your product attractive to potential customers and investors.

Entering a new market is also a matter of status, which gives you access to symbolic capital. Symbolic capital is a sociological term, and it refers to the resources available to a group or an individual on the basis of prestige or recognition. Symbolic capital gives you a chance to become a part of the local cultural landscape, provides access to high-status opinion leaders, and ultimately, helps sell your product more easily.

Increased conversion rates

Software that caters to the market’s cultural and linguistic preferences is more likely to get on its user’s good side, which will generally lead to better conversion rates.

This is a neuromarketing principle: The decision to buy a product is much more emotional and less rational than you might think. If your software is in the user's native language, it’s more likely to build a positive subconscious association in their brain, which can eventually boost its perceived value and lead to a purchase.

Waterfall vs continuous localization: What’s the difference?

Just like how software development can be carried out in several different ways (e.g. waterfall and agile), localization can follow a particular methodology as well.

Traditional waterfall localization is a process whereby the localization team only starts working on translating the software after the developers have completed the development stage. When software development follows an agile methodology and software localization follows a waterfall approach, things can get quite inefficient. That’s because translators aren’t able to provide feedback to software developers early on, and developers miss the opportunity to fix things that could’ve been addressed much earlier. With this kind of setup, the localization process tremendously slows down because of the bottlenecks it creates at every stage.

Waterfall localization workflow | Phrase

On the other hand, frameworks such as agile software localization and continuous software localization combine software development and localization into one process so that software developers work in parallel with the localization team from the very beginning:

Agile localization, just like agile development, involves iterations in sprints (that might take one or two weeks).

Agile localization workflow | Phrase

Continuous localization, a subset of agile, takes it one step further by ensuring that content is ready for release at all times.

Continuous localization workflow | Phrase

When the localization and development teams work agile in tandem and feedback loops are established in a continuous flow, every stakeholder can provide invaluable insights before the next cycle starts.

As a result, localization can keep pace with development within the same sprints, software release dates aren't delayed, and the software is less prone to bugs because developers get the chance to fix things before new versions get deployed. Ultimately, this will enable you to localize software at scale in the long run.

What is localization software?

Top-quality software localization, especially when a product is envisioned to serve multiple markets, can be a herculean task. Fortunately, companies can rely on localization technology to make their localization workflows faster, easier, and the most cost-efficient.

Localization software enables companies to centralize and automate every single bit of their translation and localization workflows.

In a nutshell, localization software offers features such as:

  • A shared, cloud-based workspace for all stakeholders
  • Notifications for stakeholders related to software localization status changes
  • Support of all popular file formats
  • Integrations with the company’s existing systems via software development kits or APIs
  • Easy, automated import of software strings from code repositories and export of software strings once localization is complete
  • Ability to preview software translations before publishing them live
  • Statistics about software localization performance
  • Terminology management
  • Quality assurance checks
  • Ability to include visual references for UI strings that need translating
  • Machine translation capabilities

A software localization platform can be the difference between software localization success and failure. Let’s see why.

What are the advantages of localization software?

When the software localization workflow is organized and streamlined through an all-in-one solution, companies can eliminate bottlenecks and significantly speed up software releases in all languages simultaneously, which is reflected in increased revenue and cost savings.

Here are the main advantages of software localization tools:

Decreased time to market

Localization software includes dozens of features that can speed up delivery, such as translation memory, built-in quality control, integration with various platforms—including workflow management tools—and more.

All these functionalities automate most localization tasks so they don’t eat up every team’s time. This allows companies to release software in different languages at once and much faster, which ultimately leads to increased revenue.

The example of Lyst, the largest global fashion search platform, is quite remarkable in this respect. With the help of a software localization platform, Lyst was able to make a giant leap from its startup beginnings in the UK to an international business, operating in 14 markets and launching its content live in 8 languages within just one minute.

Efficient software localization management and team collaboration

Localization means you work with multiple people from different cultural backgrounds and time zones, which makes software localization management a challenging task. It also implies lots of technical aspects and the need for constant communication between linguists, managers, the QA team, and others.

When working with a state-of-the-art localization solution, like translation management systems (TMS) or software localization platforms, you can invite various specialists in your team at any stage, track their progress, and manage their access to the project documentation. Software localization tools make team collaboration more efficient allowing all the members to see the full picture of the translation process.

Continuous workflows

Software development is an ongoing process, and localization needs to run in parallel throughout. That is why it is crucial to implement localization into the development cycle as early as possible—it allows you to release the localized versions along with the main one.

A software localization platform designed to support continuous localization workflows is capable of automatically importing software strings from the main software version, which enables translators to work on these strings while software developers continue to add new content.

Time savings and increased consistency

Localization software allows you to build a comprehensive translation memory—a database consisting of the fragments of the previously translated texts, where each source text fragment corresponds to a target one.

Translation memories are at the core of modern translation technology and let translators reuse translated segments from past projects, which saves their time and your budget

However, the main advantage of translation memories is that they prevent linguistic inconsistencies because translators can ensure that the same source-language term is always translated the same way.

Automated quality checks

The traditional approach to localization used to be based on spreadsheets, where all the translations and reviews were done manually. Leaving ample room for human errors, it led to increased working hours and enormous costs.

A strong software localization platform has a set of quality control instruments that help prevent mistakes and reduce hours. For example, it can automatically check translation fragments for length and syntax, as well as for glossary or placeholder usage.

What is the best localization software?

At first sight, the market is full of various software-as-a-service (SaaS) localization solutions. Nevertheless, not all localization software is created equal—some tools are more focused on translators and their needs, others target developers or UX designers, and others are geared towards project managers.

However, if your goal is excellent multi-language content, opt for the universal all-in-one solution, which is convenient and easily accessible for all team members—product manager, developers, translator, decision-makers, and others.

Also, make sure it is flexible enough to grow with your software localization needs (i.e., that it doesn't require you to upgrade your subscription plan as you add more software strings); that it has an open API for easy integrations with third-party software; and that it supports as many localization file formats and development frameworks as possible.

The benefits of localization software in short

Software localization issue Software localization solution
Tasks are repetitive and time-consuming. Localization software automates most of the repetitive tasks and lets your team focus on timely delivery.
There is a lack of consistency—the same terms might be translated differently. Translation memory capabilities allow you to reuse segments from previous translations.
There are lots of simple human errors—like typos or strings mingling with the code— that take hours to review and fix. Built-in quality control allows you to avoid simple errors.
Every new project has to be started from the ground up, extra time is required for briefing and discussing, and there’s a lack of context. Translation memory and convenient access to all project-related materials allow to speed up the translation process and maintain consistency.
Production cycles are too long. The time to market decreases from streamlined workflows.
Most of the time, each task delivery requires a different tool. Due to their integration features, software localization platforms let you complete various tasks from the same workspace.
Supervising and reporting have to be done manually. A software localization tool helps to avoid micromanagement and checks project status and statistics immediately, with one click.

How much does software localization cost?

Cost and return on investment (ROI) are pretty hot topics when it comes to localization. Every project is at some grade unique. For software localization, the question becomes even more complex because software development projects are usually long-term investments.

However, there are key variables that affect software localization costs.

What development costs can I expect during software localization?

As outlined above, the initial step of taking your software global, internationalization, enables your app to support multiple languages and locales.

If you didn't consider internationalization at the beginning of your development timeline, that is, if your product was not planned to be localized, you might run into extra development time and costs when you decide to add localization into the mix. In this case, your development team would have to go through the entire codebase to spot each string of content to get it replaced by the localized one.

🗒 Tip » Make sure you start internationalizing your software as early as possible.

How are translation costs calculated?

When working with translators and linguists, it is essential to understand the market. Some language pairs are more expensive than others due to their rarity. For example, you might need to dig deeper in your pockets if you need a translation from English to Icelandic, compared to translating from English to Spanish.

The linguistic tasks related to software localization are typically charged either by the word (translation and editing) or by the hour (glossary preparation, translation memory maintenance, linguistic QA,  transcreation of highly creative content, etc.).

Some language services providers might agree to discount prices under certain conditions, such as:

  • The availability of good-quality translation memory and glossary: When translators and editors can reuse previously translated content, they are able to achieve faster turnaround times and thus lower costs.
  • High-volume projects in the current pipeline: Translation service providers are normally happy to offer discounts when they know that they will get more business from you in the near future.
  • Availability of localization software to support processes: Translation management systems save time and money by automating repetitive tasks, which results in decreased charges.
  • Content suitable for machine translation post-editing (MTPE): Not all content requires human translation—some are easily machine-translatable as long as a human translator edits the output (e.g., internal documentation, customer service emails, highly perishable user-generated content, etc.). MTPE is significantly cheaper than professional human translation, and the best software localization tools include machine translation capabilities that you can leverage.
  • Flexible deadlines: Rush jobs, rush prices—just make sure you sort the translatable content by priority to avoid urgency surcharges.

🗒 Tip » Be highly selective by focusing your efforts on your most profitable markets and be willing to find win-win deals with your localization partner.

Project management costs: Why should I invest in a localization manager?

When you embark on your software localization journey, it's advisable to centralize all efforts under one team or, at least, one person.

Hiring a localization manager to oversee every single bit of the software localization process is a great idea. On top of acting as a bridge between software developers, product managers, the marketing team, translators, business executives, and any other stakeholder involved in software localization, a localization manager will create an efficient workflow by setting up processes, tools, and guidelines that save you time and money in the long-run.

🗒 Tip » Don't be afraid to invest in software localization management—it will pay off when you get your time back to focus on your customers and revenue growth.

Localization software costs

Some companies still choose not to use a software localization tool for the sake of saving the budget. However, these tools are designed to make the software localization process more efficient and cost-effective by avoiding manual work (which almost regularly delays delivery and increases costs).

They enhance the workflow, allow you to reuse previously translated content, speed up quality checks, ensure consistency across software UI, and integrate seamlessly with your software development platform to speed up localization.

Most tools charge monthly, on a per-user basis, and it’s usually possible to choose between different plans that will include more or fewer features and integrations. Prices are usually per user per month, and custom pricing schemes and discounts might be available if your needs are more specific or your localization volume is high.

However, your best bet isn’t a tool that will charge you more when you pass a certain content volume threshold, simply trying to sweeten the deal by offering you a discount. Because your content is likely to multiply as your business scales, what you need is a true partner that is able to grow with you, adapting to your localization needs, and placing no limits on how much content you translate.

🗒 Tip » Do your research before choosing localization software and make sure it meets these requirements.

Testing and quality assurance costs

Before your product gets released, the translated text needs to be proofread and checked for potential errors and inconsistencies. The best way to check the quality is to hire another native translator to make sure the initial translation works as intended.

The price of quality assurance varies depending on the volume of content submitted for review, the quality of the original translation, the turnaround time, payment terms, and project requirements.

Just like with translation, if you use a software localization tool that features QA, you can generally expect the process to be faster and the price lower than if the review is done manually.

🗒 Tip » Include quality assurance in your planning early on and aim for at least one iteration.

Marketing costs: Why is marketing localization essential?

To make sure software localization has a positive impact on revenue and overall business success, you need to invest in promoting your localized software in the relevant regions—because no one will be interested in your product unless you know how to sell it right.

This is where marketing localization comes in. By adjusting the promotion of your software in tone and style to more closely resonate with the culture of a target market, you'll build trust with your audience.

🗒 Tip » Enlist the help of an international marketing consultant to help you make data-driven decisions.

How do you measure software localization ROI?

One of the most difficult tasks in software localization is to accurately measure the return on investment. This is because software localization ROI is not limited to revenue growth—it has multiple dimensions. For example, it will result in a better brand image, higher customer loyalty, and satisfaction as result of a better UX, increased brand awareness, etc.

This makes software localization ROI more difficult to track than traditional marketing activities that are purely about driving sales. What you can do, however, is establish specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound software localization goals that are in line with your overall business goals, and track how well you do against them.

Here are some examples of measurable software localization goals:

  • Ranking on the first page of Google for x keywords within y months
  • Increasing software downloads and sales by x% in each market before the end of the quarter
  • Increasing organic website traffic by x% within y months
  • Boosting social media engagement by x% over the next y months

Whatever software localization goals you set, make sure they are measurable so that you can track your software localization ROI and adjust strategies accordingly.

In addition to software localization return on investment, remember that you also need to calculate the cost of non-localization, which will help give a more accurate picture of what software localization brings to your company.

In other words, how much potential revenue will your company lose if software localization is not implemented?

Strategic implications: What is your software localization strategy?

Before you can establish the ROI of your localization efforts, you need to ask yourself how it will affect your overall business goals and strategies. Localization needs to be part of a bigger picture and aligned with your company’s strategic objectives.

It's important that you draw out a plan that involves every department—marketing, product management, business management, software development, etc.—so that software localization is treated as an integral part of your software development process.

So what goes into devising a localization strategy? Here are a few ideas of things you might want to consider:

  • Pricing localization: Will you simply convert software prices to the local currency (cosmetic pricing localization) or adjust them based on a specific country’s price index (full pricing localization)?
  • Launch timing: How long after the software release will your software be ready for launch in various locales?
  • Customer support in the appropriate regions: How will you provide multilingual customer support? Will you invest in hiring support staff locally for each region, or will you provide support remotely?
  • Quality assurance: How does software localization affect your current QA process? What software testing frameworks do you need?
  • Marketing channel strategy: What is the best channel for advertising your localized software—SEM, social media, print media?
  • Localization service providers: What software localization tools do you need to use? How many software translators will you require?
  • Local partnerships: Can and will you cooperate with local businesses to provide, for example, local payment options?

The answers to these questions (and any others that might come up) will help inform your software localization strategy and software localization ROI calculations.

Localization testing: How to ensure software quality across languages

Software localization testing is a critical piece of software localization best practices that you cannot afford to overlook. Apart from inspecting for functional bugs, software localization testing should also focus on language quality.

Making sure that your software is translated accurately and completely before launching in foreign markets will help you avoid the major software localization issues associated with software bugs (e.g., negative reviews and poor sales) and reputation damage.

Here are some software localization testing tips to help you get it right. You should check:

  • The software interface: Is any text overflowing from the software interface? Is any software text cut off? Do the software buttons, images, and graphics look right?
  • The software features: Are all software features functional? Are any software functions missing from the foreign version of the software?
  • Branding consistency: Have you maintained software branding and tone of voice across different versions of software?
  • Usability: What’s different about the^ software’s functionality in each localized software version? Is it obvious how to use the software in each language?
  • Accessibility: Do images include alt text for screen readers? Are software controls keyboard-accessible?
  • Language: Do the sentence structures follow grammar rules and software terminology standards for each locale? Is there linguistic consistency within each locale?

For testing purposes, it’s crucial to be able to simulate an environment that is as close as possible to your software’s final destination.

Ready to start building? Pack your software localization kit with these resources

Because we want your software localization efforts to be successful in the long run, we’ve put together a list of guides and manuals for further reading:

Why you should get rid of spreadsheets for localization

Translation management systems are a standard in today's software localization service industry. Nevertheless, there are still companies that deal with spreadsheets and lots of manual, repetitive tasks. Here’s why everybody should get rid of spreadsheets for software localization as soon as possible.

Top 10 mistakes to avoid in software localization

Well-crafted internationalization is the foundation of a successful localization. This ultimate guide for developers walks you through the most common software localization mistakes to avoid.

The complete software localization checklist

Localization can sometimes feel like a mountain of a task. To complete it with confidence, it's helpful to break the process down into smaller, more manageable steps. We've done this with our software localization checklist, so you don't have to.

How to motivate developers for localization

Keeping developers motivated for software localization from the start can be the difference between a business that thrives globally and software that fails to attract an international user base. That's why it's key to raise awareness of the why of software localization early on, cultivate a global mindset company-wide, and proactively seek individual partnerships with developers.

How to localize software at scale

Going from a minimum viable product (MVP) to scaling often means taking a look at localization bottlenecks and how to solve them while focusing on your core offering. Learn how to localize software at scale to save time and money as your business grows globally.

Evaluate the best localization software

Navigating the sea of technology vendors in the software localization industry can be quite tiring. To make sure you find the localization software that best suits your business needs, we've compiled a few tips on how to create a request for proposal (RFP) for a localization solution.