The Only App Localization Tutorial You Will Ever Need

Imagine. Your app in Spanish... In Swedish... In Swahili! Localization can make your app accessible to people and places anywhere on the planet. But what does localization entail?

Sometimes it seems the deeper you dig, the more complex and the wider ranging the idea of localization becomes. An app localization tutorial to cover it all would be the size of a New York telephone directory. Moreover, it would be out of date before it was finished, because app localization needs are always changing.

One Overview to Cover It All

Here’s another approach. This tutorial gives you an overview of the critical points and the principles of localizing an app. You may be a marketer, a product manager, or a developer, and as such, you may naturally feel more concerned by some aspects more than others. However, all the points we discuss will affect you, directly or indirectly. For example:

  • If you are a marketer, you seek to understand and give what customers want – but you should also understand the constraints placed on the product manager, and the need for return on investment on localizations.
  • As a product manager, your concerns about app localization include time to market, quality, support, and profitability – balanced against the challenges developers face in making an app look and behave naturally to native speakers of a different language.
  • When you are a developer, software tools, processes, and programming knowledge can speed up localization of an app – yet without listening to your marketing colleague about addressing cultural and linguistic issues, your newly localized version may miss the mark with end-users.

Let’s Get Started

The sections below will take you through the essentials of app localization from one end to the other:

  • Why app localization is necessary and what to localize
  • Making localization profitable, while maintaining quality
  • The initial phase of internationalization
  • The next phases of specific country localizations and translations
  • Checking app localizations before release
  • Marketing your localized app to maximize those international sales

Why Localize an App?

Everyone in your team and other stakeholders in your organization should understand why localization is being done. The following facts can help explain.

  • More than 50% of countries in the top ten for downloading and paying for apps are non-English speaking, says a survey by Common Sense Advisory.
  • More than 50% of customers around the world only buy from websites in their own language.
  • Only around 15% of all people on the planet speak English as a first or second language.

Clearly, limiting your app to just one language version, whether English or another, cuts you off from potentially large markets. Conversely, suitable app localization can seriously boost your app sales revenues.

What Should You Localize?

Ideally, everything. For a given localization language, not only should the user interface and the functionality be localized, but also any resources the app makes available to the user, and any texts and graphics used to advertise or sell it. Ideally, native language speakers using a localized version of your app will assume the app was developed in their language from the ground up, because it looks so natural to them.

The devil is in the details. A localization defect like using a period instead of a comma as a numerical separator (for example, 1.000 in French instead of 1,000 in English to represent one thousand) may look small to non-native users. However, it will probably be glaring for native speaker app users. As another example, the meaning of images and colors can change radically from one country to another. Consider the following: in China, red stands for good fortune, in France, communism, and in South Africa, mourning. Even app or product names can trip you up. For instance, mobile phone vendor Nokia discovered late in the day that the name of its flagship phone “Lumia” meant prostitute in Spanish. A little thought and googling can go a long way to avoid this kind of mistake.

Return on Investment

Even with app localization tools and automated processes, producing different language versions of an app takes time and effort for developers, product managers, and marketers alike. It also requires funds for the translations, advertising (possibly), and ongoing maintenance. Return on investment is typically a concern. Marketers must provide sales estimates, while developers and translators must evaluate the workload. The product manager then compares returns against costs to decide if localization is viable.

There is no standard order of app localization either. App product teams must evaluate their app on its own merits and international sales potential. Yesterday’s stock choices of localizing into French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish may no longer work. China and Brazil may offer higher potential revenues now. Also, it may make no commercial sense to localize for very small or very competitive markets.

The Risks of Unsuitable Cost Reduction

Cost-cutting to try to shoehorn a localization into a budget is a delicate matter. There may be cases where reuse of localization effort is possible. For example, much of the French language in France and in Canada is the same. In general, everything a user sees or experiences with an app should be available in that user’s native language. Mixing languages (local and default) in a user interface often makes users doubt the overall quality of the app. Similarly, skimping on the quality of translations and on checks after localization is a recipe for localized app market failure.

Internationalization and Localization

What many people loosely refer to as localization is in fact two activities: internationalization and then localization.

  • Internationalization of an app is the preparatory work to separate text and other user-facing content from the code of the app. The goal is to make the app itself language-independent. Hardcoded content is replaced by calls that automatically retrieve the text in the language of the user running the app. Language-dependent formatting is handled in the same way. Functions are used to automatically format numbers, dates, and quantities, and display them correctly in each localized version. The internationalization of an app makes it considerably easier to estimate the amount of translation work needed to produce a localized version. Therefore, it also helps see which localizations are likely to give a better return on investment.
  • Localization involves the translation of the separated content into a given language, like Spanish or Korean. Ideally, developers will do the internationalization (“i18n” for short) of their app just once for several different individual language localizations (“l10n”) afterwards. Some people refer to “transcreation” rather than translation, indicating that text, images, screen layouts, and even app behavior may all need to be localized when producing a version of the app for another language.

Getting in Early with Internationalization

With good planning, the internationalization costs of an app can be minimized by making the internationalization process part of the app design and development. Like bug fixes, the earlier internationalization is done in the app’s life cycle, the more cost-efficient it is. Operating systems like Android and iOS now make internationalization capability an integral part of their platform. One main language-independent version of the app can be managed with sets of resource files (text, graphics, etc.) corresponding to the default language (for example, English) and to each localization language. By comparison, internationalizing an existing app may have an incidence on costs (higher) and quality (lower). Back in the 1980s, Lotus 1-2-3 lost its market lead in Europe to Microsoft Multiplan, because it took Lotus 1-2-3 two years to disentangle user text strings from its application code.

App Internationalization Challenges

Marketing takes the lead in identifying the markets in which your app is to be offered. The next step is for marketing to establish cultural and country factors that could affect localized versions, to make sure these are taken into account in the internationalization. For example, suppose your plan is to make localized versions that will only address a Spanish-speaking market. You may then choose to exclude any time spent on right-to-left internationalization that would be otherwise required for languages like Arabic and Hebrew but not Spanish. Other considerations include:

  • Different character sets and symbols, that your app would need to handle accordingly
  • Vertical language scripts for certain Asian languages
  • Languages with characters that change shape as the context changes
  • The use of capitals
  • Different language rules for ordering/sorting lists
  • Numeral systems and formats
  • The way plurals are formed (other language plural formats can be more complex than English)
  • Variations in the type and format (like spacing) of punctuation
  • Keyboard shortcuts that may be unavailable in another language

Locales – A Deep Dive on Language-Dependent Markets

Within a given country or region, there may be several languages spoken. China, Belgium, and Switzerland are all examples. Alternatively, one language like English may be declined in several country variations: for instance, US English, UK English, Australian English, and so on. The combination of a language (English or “en”) and a country (US) gives the locale (en-US). Localization plans should refer specifically to locales when they make a difference in the way the user interface is displayed (for example, when displaying dates in the case of US or UK English.)

Android and iOS Internationalization

The two most popular platforms for mobile apps, Android and iOS, are examples of how modern operating systems are building in capabilities to help developers create language-independent apps. They both offer:

  • Internationalization built into the platform, letting end users choose their locale.
  • Development environments with functions to help developers extract user-facing text strings from the code and store them in separate files.
  • Auto layout functionality to automatically change screen layout to take account of differing text lengths in localized versions.
  • Functions (methods, classes) that developers can use in the app code to automatically format numbers, dates, and plurals according to the locale chosen by the user.

Apart from differences in the way localized information is stored by each operating system, Android and iOS offer a similar approach overall to content separation and formatting functions.

Differences between Localization and Translation

As we mentioned above, while app localization typically involves translation, it may also go further. Country and culture-specific aspects also to be managed may include:

  • Changes in APIs or web resources accessed by a localized version of an app
  • Accounting standards in the country or region being targeted
  • Icon and symbol meanings and changes (for instance, a stop sign for traffic in Japan is triangular, not octagonal or round as in other countries)
  • Calendar systems: for instance, the Muslim calendar is based on lunar months, the official calendar in China is the Gregorian calendar, but the traditional Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar, and so on.

Pseudo App Localization to Check if Your App is Ready for Translation

Pseudo app localization is a further technique to test the quality and robustness of work done prior to localization. With this technique, the text string resources are replaced by a version with gibberish. The app is then run and its various screen displays checked. As long as the user-facing text is nonsensical, the viewer can be sure that the strings have been separated into the file for translation. If a “normal” word appears, it can only be because it was missed, and must now be separated and put into the file for localization with the others.

It is also possible to generate a text resource file with each text string repeated to make it twice as long. This helps to spot places in the display when longer translated texts might overrun. For example, the German word commonly used for “Redo” (as in “reverse an undo command”) is “Wiederherstellen” with four times as many characters, and might not fit on a button.

Starting the Translation

If translators work only on the separate files of content, outside the context of the app, it will often be important to provide them with additional information. For example, a button or a menu item labeled “Fly” in English could have different meanings (“fly” as a noun, “fly” as a verb.) Different meanings may mean different translations, so an explanation about context and meaning must be supplied to make sure the translator makes the right translation. It also makes sense to provide a creative brief for translators with information about your app, its purpose, and its target market. In parallel, this is the chance to specify how you want them to blend aspects like style and “voice” into the localized texts.

Translation and Automation

Automated translation of text is still not good enough to be used “as is” for most localizations. Problems in translating the meaning of text or grammatical errors will be painfully obvious to your native speaker end users. They may then make their opinions known via social networking or similar, denting the reputation of your app. Professional human translators will still be part of the process, for the moment.

On the other hand, automation of the process of translation can make localization more efficient and improve quality, especially as apps and localizations multiply.

  • Translation management systems. Instead of managing localizations with spreadsheets, an online TMS can help to better track translation projects and to manage deadlines. A good TMS will also offer intuitive dashboards for at-a-glance views of progress, and permission management to allow team members to access different parts or different levels of the system.
  • Localization API. Translators and developers can post and receive translations programmatically, automating hand-offs and syncing with daily app development activities and systems.
  • Translation memory. Once initial work has been done, there are often opportunities to leverage translations across apps or future releases. Automated translation memory functionality prompts a translator, whenever a previously translated phrase or section can be used. It also allows different translators to work on an app localization in a uniform way, using similar terminology for consistency throughout a translation.

Testing of App Localizations

Murphy’s Law says that any translation or localization errors that slip through will be the ones that end-users stumble on when running the localized app. Thorough testing of each localized version is therefore mandatory. A product manager will organize testing by people with native-speaker capability for the app localization concerned, and with sufficient knowledge of the culture of the prospective users or customers. The testing must also be done in realistic circumstances, running the app in the way that end-users will run it when it is released.

Remember that all errors, of whatever size or apparent gravity, are important when reporting test results. Even errors that look insignificant to non-native users can disrupt normal usage by native users. These errors can then tarnish the brand of the app and its success in the international market.

Marketing Your Localized App

At this final stage in the localization process, it’s time for some more marketing. In particular, you want to know:

  • How your prospective customers view app markets (local to them or elsewhere), what attracts them to download apps, and what they will typically want to do with those apps. Some of these aspects may be the same as in your home app market. For others, cultural differences may change things considerably.
  • What price customers are prepared to pay. Remember, this may go up or down compared to your home market, so avoid making any unjustified assumptions. Price (at whatever level) will affect visibility in app stores, demand, and popularity.
  • How other app vendors are positioning their apps and any general trends or growing category popularity to be leveraged for your localized app.

App Store Optimization

App store optimization to help drive customers towards your app, and to achieve higher ranking and visibility in an app store will depend on:

  • The name of your app. Whether you localize this or not will depend on your app and your target market, and whether this strengthens or weakens your localized app’s appeal. Just remember the “Lumia” case above!
  • Your app description. Start as you mean to go on – For an app description of perhaps just one or two hundred words, get a professional quality translation that syncs with both what your app brings and what your native speaker customers are looking for. Don’t skimp on localization quality here or you could lose your customers before they even get to the download stage.
  • Keywords. This is a good example of where localization may indeed go further than just translation. The keywords that work for you in your home market may do nothing for you in your localized market, even if they are properly translated. You are likely to do better by starting directly from the localization market instead, for example, by using an SEO professional in that market, and find out what local keywords are of most interest to your customers.

Other aspects, according to the app store in question, may include uploading information about availability of a localized version to a news section, and adding localized versions of screenshots of your app (otherwise your home market screenshots are likely to display by default.)

Now You Can Start the App Localization Loop Again

With this tutorial (“the only app localization overview tutorial you will ever need”), you now know how to go through the process from one end to the other.  With your first successful localization underway, you can then apply the same steps again for the next one.

Some of the initial work can be reused or does not have to be redone, especially in the area of app internationalization. Life should be easier for developers, thanks to a good “internationalize once, localize many” strategy. Marketing and product management will still need to assess new opportunities for sales potential, competition, and any other relevant business factors. However, even here there may be chances to leverage work already done from one market to reduce efforts in another, for example, when only minor cultural differences exist between two countries or locales using the same base language.

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