Designing for All People(s)

Accessibility and Internationalization: A look at usability through localization of Facebook

Internationalization is a design process that ensures a product can be adapted to various languages and regions. On the web, languages determine the writing orientation of the text (think Arabic or Chinese) the fonts used (think Cyrillic for Russian or Hiragana for Japanese) or even the dictionary for pronunciation used by a screen reader (imagine hearing U.S. English pronunciation for Spanish text.)

The chart below tells us that while English (25.3%) is the most common language used on the internet in 2017, other languages make up the majority of users. China has the most internet users worldwide, who mostly access websites from China, which explains their share of users.


Is language an accessibility issue?

Usability is a requirement for the survival of a product or service. Imagine trying to use a website in a language you’re not fluent in. It could be your bank to pay bills, a government website to register for benefits, a travel agency to book a trip, or understanding privacy settings for your social media account.

If a website is difficult to use, people get confused and leave. If the navigation, text, and images don’t clearly communicate what the company does and what users can do, we miss an opportunity. If a user can’t understand the language or figure out how to switch to another language, we alienate users who can benefit from our product or service.

A Look at Usability Through Localization of Facebook

Social experiences are inherently personal and intimate, which is why languages and local experiences are essential to Facebook’s mission of connecting the world. Over 80% of Facebook users are located outside North America, and the application is currently available in more than 100 languages.

How does Facebook ensure that the experience feels local for people around the world? The work involves gathering evidence, anecdotes, and statistical data from product teams, designers, copywriters, marketing, customer service, and external vendors to develop products and features that work well in diverse environments and are locally relevant.

When we localize an experience, we need to evaluate the qualities which make the feature useful. In short, this means the function should be easy and pleasant to use and contain the features you need.

  • Easy and pleasant language is idiomatic, uses correct gender, and has the right tone i.e., is straight-forward and friendly. To translate a sentence like “{username} commented on their post.” the strings needs to be made localizable by adding gender and possibly number to the variable “their” which could be male, female, or other. When using localizable variables, Facebook creates a local and frustration-free experience.
  • A feature that is useful and needed by people who use Facebook’s Marketplace and the Messenger assistant M, is the ability to interpret bilingual conversations. M Suggestions makes recommendations based on the words people use in conversations provided by the same neural network-powered translation engine Facebook uses to translate Facebook and Instagram posts and comments.

Evaluation of Facebook Usability and Localization

  • Learnability: How easy is it for people to learn about the different features of Facebook? When first registering for Messenger, the on-boarding experience employs good visual hierarchy, the ability to change the country code for phone numbers, and easy to understand confirmations and prompts. The clear instructions and context make translation and subsequent quality assurance very user-friendly.
  • Efficiency: How fast can experienced users accomplish desired actions on Facebook? Unfortunately, some functions are not made available for users of other languages than English, like “Trending on Facebook.” New features sometimes launch without localized names, which then later change without warning. An example is the recently launched video platform, Facebook Watch. Experienced users will be aware of new features through word-of-mouth and look for them. Efficiency is reduced when there is a disconnect between the name of a feature from one week to the next.
  • Memorability: When a user returns after a period of not using Facebook, how easy is it to use it effectively? Glossaries and terminology help people know what to expect when using a localized version of Facebook. The Facebook Translation App continually adds to and improves its glossary. Translators use this when they translate — because it would be confusing to have several translations for “Comment.”
  • Errors: What errors do users make and how easy is it to recover? Facebook doesn’t seem to employ many forms of secondary confirmation. For instance when a user chooses to delete a friend request or delete a comment on a post. A secondary confirmation, or visual cues like an X, would aid in internationalization when there’s ambiguity. For instance, for some languages, the translation of the word “Cancel” might be translated as “closing an application window” or “canceling your account.” In error prevention and recovery, Facebook needs to think about the goals of the people who use these products and whether the user experience can meet those goals.
  • Satisfaction: How much do people like using Facebook? A growing user-base outside of North America suggests that regions with growing internet infrastructure like the mobile internet are happy to join Facebook. Facebook is one of the most visited pages on the internet, with people spending an average of between 11–13 minutes per visit and more than 43% of the global population is active on social media.