Localization as User Experience, and How Global Tech Companies Ruin It

Though I’m a native Russian speaker, my iPhone, Facebook, Instagram and many other apps are in English. The reason behind this is that their localized counterparts often sound unnatural, are tricky to use and cause tons of mental friction.

As many Russians can’t, or don’t want to switch to English, they have to cope with word-by-word translation, robotic marketing messages and inhumane helpdesks. The same applies to billions of non-english natives all around the world. So why not treat localization as a competitive advantage in the global market?

Choosing a gender when signing up: “I am… a human / a female”.

Localization is user experience

First thing’s first. Localization is not simply translation. Rather, it’s the process of making a product feel as natural in a new language as it does in the original. It involves translation, UI design, programming, copywriting and finding the right “voice”.

When completed properly it significantly contributes to user experience and adds a competitive edge. When done lazily the product will feel inferior at best, and almost unusable in the worst case scenario.

Instagram iOS app making slightly more sense in English

Translation service is self-compromised

It is positive that we are taught to write and understand foreign languages at school. However, one resulting problem is that too unqualified people consider themselves to be translators or copywriters. They sign up to Upwork, charge $5/h and provide a low-quality service. This deteriorates translation as a field. The rates go down as does the quality. Nowadays, a top quality professional translator is a rare entity that must justify their rates being above the market average.

Here’s how it works. A European client of mine hired a Russian person on Upwork to localize their app. They couldn’t assess the final translation, so they paid for it and launched the product in Russia. The users downgraded the app so badly that the company had to withdraw the release and call me to fix it. However, the texts were so chaotic that it was impossible to simply fix it, and I had to redo the entire job from scratch. You can imagine the overall costs and loss of reputation following this hasty roll-out.

Well, translation is just a part of the localization toolkit. It takes so much more than that:

  • impeccable word sense;
  • language expertise;
  • years of writing experience under the belt;
  • and (most importantly) understanding product development.

For instance, I can solve a declension-related issue by paraphrasing a string or by having a developer write an extra script. (If I choose the latter, I hope the devs never discover the easier option).

How can we identify good localization then?

Simply put, this is localization that you don’t notice. Like all great design, it’s inconspicuous.

If it becomes clear that you are dealing with a translated product then the localization is poor. Sadly, I can barely name a product that feels equally excellent in Russian and in English. Even the giants like Google and Linkedin often sound like strangers and make remarkable translation flaws at times. While their english originals provide a smooth experience, the apps in Russian often look and feel clunky.

Linkedin providing a gibberish tip in Russian

What’s the solution?

It’s in the shift of perspective. Choose localization over translation and treat it as something that can enliven or ruin the user experience. Avoid hiring “someone at Upwork” with a low rate — it will backfire pretty quickly. Instead, find a localization professional or outsource to a dedicated agency.

One of my clients, Doist, is getting it right and I’m happy to see their localization team improving the product internationally. Facebook are also making steps in the right direction. They were even on the lookout for a ‘Russian Language Manager’. In my view, such a role requires impeccable language sense, creativity, immense writing experience, coding skills, design thinking.. and yeah, a superb command of English.

Of course, there are a number of practical tips for better localization. I’ve laid them out in a separate post. Have a read and please share your own experiences and best practices in the comments. Let’s develop better products for the multilingual world together!

Oleg Tyurin is the founder of PlainMSG, localization professional and web-development enthusiast, working with Tech companies in the EU, US and Asia.