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7 Ways Bad Localization Can Ruin the User Experience

March 5, 2018

Competition for the attention of customers is fiercer than ever. In such a highly competitive marketplace, a flawless user experience is not a luxury. It is central to your product’s adoption and success. We invest heavily in optimizing our products’ design and work to squeeze the last bit of efficiency out of Web forms, microcopy, and the color of that proverbial Check Out button. We explore, test, and measure every possible improvement to our user experiences.

Then, the day comes when it’s time to enter a new, non-English-speaking market. Many businesses realize too late that a naive approach to localization can instantly cancel out all your hard-won gains in user experience.

After helping dozens of companies foster a successful localization process—and reduce expenses along the way—I have collected seven common pitfalls of localization.

Building an Unlocalizable Product

This is the problem I see most often. For the most part, localization involves the optimal use of language. Messages, labels, calls to action—they are all text and need to be translated. But when you initially build a product from the ground up, it’s all too easy to forget about localization, hardwiring all the text into markup or code. Unless you make sure to factor out these assets from the beginning, it will be expensive even to discover them when you need to add the first localized language.

A particularly notorious offender is code that glues together messages programmatically—for example, “You have [ x ] items in your [ y ].” There is virtually no language on the planet other than English in which it’s possible to just translate the strings You have and items in your and expect the result to make sense.

Unless you engineer your product to be localizable, all your efforts are doomed to fail. Making an early investment in creating a localizable product will pay for itself several times over down the road.

Using Machine Translation

Machine translation (MT) has profited immensely from the ongoing deep-learning revolution. We have seen an unprecedented breakthrough in quality over the last two years alone.

While MT has crossed a threshold and now enables humans to grasp the true meaning of text in a different language, it is essential to remember that MT does not possess human intelligence. It lacks understanding, empathy, and nuance. Its output is always ungrammatical, imprecise, or at the very least, unnatural. Just plugging machine-translated copy into a product is guaranteed to alienate the people engaging with the product. Using machine-translated text inevitably makes products cryptic or even downright unusable.

If you are tempted to use MT to save costs, remember the impact replacing Submit with Buy Now has had on conversion rates. MT misses all such nuances and a lot more.

Providing No Context for Translators

One reason today’s MT systems cannot hope to achieve human quality is their lack of context. There’s no way to tell an MT system that a particular instance of check out is a label on a button that initiates a purchase rather than a sign on a hotel-room door.

Even when you’ve made the right choice and hired a professional translator, they cannot deliver the desired outcome if they lack context. Throwing an Excel sheet at a translator, with row after row of isolated user-interface strings is a sure way to get inadequate translations.

Go after the lowest-hanging fruit by providing meaningful identifiers that help place every piece of text within the product’s context. For the best outcomes, invest in technology that allows translators to view an actual app or Web site to see every label, message, and ToolTip as it appears to users in context.

Ignoring Dates, Measurements, and Other Variables

So far, I have focused on translation, but localization has other aspects, too. In a messaging app, what format should you use to show dates and times? In a weather app, should you display temperatures in Fahrenheit or Celsius? On an ecommerce site, in what currency should you show prices?

These are cultural and geographical variables, not linguistic ones. Your product can detect them based on a device’s locale or a user’s preferences or make intelligent guesses using geolocation.

Finding the right defaults and exposing preferences without getting in the user’s way is as much an art as a science. In any case, you need to be mindful of this dimension of localization when making basic design decisions.

Not Adapting Personality and Tone of Voice

Literally every design decision you make—whether color choice, visual style, illustrations, microinteractions, tone of voice, or the phrasing of error messages—contributes to the personality of your product and, by extension, your brand.

Unfortunately, some of these decisions do not automatically translate into other cultures. Most languages force you to make decisions that are not applicable to English. Should you use formal or informal language to address users? Can you use the first person or the royal we, or must you formulate impersonal messages? An online banking site’s addressing a German audience with the informal du is a sure-fire way to destroy confidence right on the landing page.

As a UX designer, you are in a privileged position to make your client or boss aware of factors that impact localization, so start a conversation. What are the values underlying the original product’s personality? How do those values translate to the target culture? What personality will reflect them best? What are the consequences of your design choices—all the way down to the smallest decisions?

Of course, you can’t expect any UX expert to become a universal translator. It is crucial that you work with local experts. But, as a design professional, you are the only one who can integrate these considerations into the design process as a whole.

Not Using Technology

Even after you’ve ticked all of the preceding boxes, one danger still looms. With so many things to which you must pay attention, it is easy to end up with a very labor-intensive, cumbersome localization process. Once your organization has become aware of the many challenges that localization involves, using translation technology can make an immense difference.

These tools deliver greater efficiency by eliminating the most error-prone, repetitive steps from the process. In the extreme, they let you hook up to commits or check-ins. They can automatically distribute work among dozens of translation vendors and check the translations back in as soon as they are finished.

These tools improve quality by allowing linguists to work together in real time and keep things consistent across different parts of the content. Working in parallel is essential to supporting agile workflows with frequent updates and short turnaround times.

Finally, translation technology lets you take ownership of your multilingual assets. For instance, if you must replace a vendor, you will still have access to all the translations you have paid for in the past.

Assuming Your Audience Is Monolingual

When people talk about localization, you’ll often hear the phrase translate into somebody’s language. A false assumption underlies this idea.

An estimated 60% of the world’s population is multilingual. Bilinguals alone outnumber monolinguals—43% versus 40%. The rest speak even more languages. As a rule, there is no such thing as “somebody’s language” in the singular.

For a streaming service such as Netflix, you might assume that on the German site, you’ll need to offer all movies dubbed in German. But a large share of the audience in that country comprises people who, although they are fluent in German, would prefer to watch movies in Turkish, Arabic, English, or some other language.

Remember how much effort you’re investing in providing sensible defaults and autofilling fields with information that is available from the context. Contrast that with the frustration of a person who must override the default language every single time they visit a Web site because it chooses the wrong one based on their IP address. This person is not the exception. The majority of the world’s population is like that.

Conclusion

If you want to achieve great global outcomes, treating localization as a first-class design citizen pays off. If you apply the same attention and empirical rigor to localization as you do to other aspects of user experience, you will have an edge over competitors who are trapped in a monolingual, monocultural view of the world. 

Co-founder and Head of Innovation at Kilgray

Berlin, Germany

Gábor UgrayGábor co-founded Kilgray, makers of the memoQ translation environment. In a series of roles from head of development to product management, he has pioneered translation technology. He is a seasoned presenter and is passionate about bridging the gap between technology and business. As a generalist, he believes technology and user experience are equally important to any product’s success. Gábor is fluent in three languages, in addition to his native Hungarian.  Read More

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