7 ways to ruin user experience through bad localization
This is an unedited version of an article I wrote for the March 5, 2018 issue of UX matters magazine.
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 into 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. Every possible improvement is explored, tested and measured.
Then the day comes when it’s time to enter a new, non-English-speaking market. Many businesses realize too late that a naïve approach to localization will instantly cancel out all those hard-won gains in user experience.
After helping many companies create a successful localization experience and reduce expenses along the way, I collected the seven most common pitfalls. This text is a tongue-in-cheek exploration of what to do if you want to ruin your user experience through bad localization.
1: Build an unlocalizable product
This is a trivial mistake, but maybe just because it’s so trivial, it’s the one I see most often.
The biggest part of localization involves language. Messages, labels, calls-to-action – they are all text, and need to be translated. But as you initially build a product from the bottom up, it’s easy to forget about localization and hard-wire all the text into markup and code. Unless you make sure from the beginning that these assets are neatly factored out, it will be expensive to even discover them when you need to add the first localized language.
A particularly notorious offender is code that glues together messages programmatically. “You have ” + x + “ items in your “ + y + “.”. There is virtually no language on the planet other than English where it’s possible to just translate “You have”, “ items in your “ and “.” and expect the result to make sense.
If your product is not engineered to be localizable, all your efforts are doomed to fail. An early investment into making the product localizable will pay for itself several times over down the road.
2: Use machine translation
Machine translation (MT) has profited immensely from the ongoing deep learning revolution. It has seen an unprecedented breakthrough in quality over the last two years alone.
While MT has crossed a threshold where it now enables humans to truly grasp the meaning of a text in a different language, it is essential to remember that MT is not 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 it. Using machine-translated text will inevitably make the product cryptic or downright unusable.
If you are tempted to use MT to save costs, remember the impact that replacing Submit with Buy now can have on conversion rates. MT loses all of that nuance, and a lot more.
3: Provide no context for translators
Part of the 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 on a purchase button and not 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 with row after row of isolated user interface strings at them is a sure way to get inadequate translations.
The lowest-hanging fruit is to provide meaningful identifiers that help place every piece of text in the product’s context. For the best outcome, you can invest in technology that allows translators to view the actual app or website and see every label, message and tooltip as it appears to end users.
4: Ignore dates, measurements and other variables
So far I have focused on translation, but localization has other aspects too. In a messaging app, what format do you use to show dates and times? In a weather app, do you display the temperature in Fahrenheit or Celsius? On an e-commerce site, what currency do you show prices in?
These are cultural and geographical variables, not linguistic ones. Your product can detect them from the device’s locale or the user’s preferences, or make intelligent guesses from other factors such as geolocation.
Finding the right defaults and exposing preferences without getting in the user’s way is as much art as science. In any case, you need to be mindful of this dimension when making basic design decisions.
5: Do not adapt personality and tone of voice
Color choice, visual style, illustrations, tone of voice, the phrasing of error messages, microinteractions – literally every design decision you make contributes to the personality of your product, and by extension, of your brand.
Unfortunately, some of these decisions do not translate automatically into other cultures.
Most languages force you to make decisions that are not applicable to English. Do you use formal or informal language to address users? Can you use the first person, the royal “we,” or are you forced to formulate impersonal messages? An online banking site that addresses a German audience with the informal “du” is a sure-fire way to destroy confidence right at the landing page.
As a designer you are in a privileged position to make your client or boss aware of these factors and 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 best reflect them, and what are the consequences all the way down to the smallest decisions?
Naturally, no UX expert can be expected to become a universal translator. It is crucial to work with local experts. But as a professional, you are the only one who can integrate these considerations into the design process as a whole.
6: Do not use technology
If you have ticked all the boxes above, there is still one danger looming. With so many things to pay attention to, it is easy to end up with a very labor-intensive and cumbersome process. Once your organization is aware of the challenges involved in localization, translation technology can make an immense difference.
For efficiency, these tools will eliminate the most error-prone and repetitive steps. In the extreme, they allow you to hook up to commits or check-ins. They will automatically distribute work among dozens of translation vendors, and check the translations back in as soon as they are done.
For quality, they allow linguists to work together in real time and stay consistent while working on different parts of the content. This parallelization of work is essential to support agile workflows with frequent updates and short turnaround times.
Finally, translation technology allows you to take ownership of your multilingual assets. For instance, if you are forced to replace a vendor, you will still have access to all the translations that you have paid for in the past.
7: Assume your audience is monolingual
When people talk about localization, you often hear the phrase translate into somebody’s language. There is a false assumption underlying this idea.
An estimated 60% of the world’s population is multilingual. Bilinguals alone outnumber monolinguals (43% vs. 40%). The rest speak even more languages. As a rule, there is no such thing as “somebody’s language” in the singular.
If you are a streaming service like Netflix, you might assume that on your German site, you need to offer all movies dubbed in German. But a large share of the audience in that country is made up of 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 we are investing into sensible defaults and into auto-filling 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 website because it picks the wrong one based on their IP address. This person is not the exception. The majority of the world’s population is like that.
A short conclusion
To achieve great global outcomes, it pays off to treat localization as a first-class design citizen. If you apply the same attention and empirical rigor to it as to the classic aspects of user experience, you will have an edge over competitors trapped in a monolingual and mono-cultural view of the world.