Five Ways You Can Start Localizing Design

Everybody talks about localization (or globalization, depending on how you see it). I would actually prefer to say it designing or planning with local context, because “localization” sounds like a factory process—like hammering with the same nail and tool to everything.

One worthy definition of localization comes from the W3C:

Localization refers to the adaptation of a product, application or document content to meet the language, cultural and other requirements of a specific target market (a locale).

What I like about this definition is that it includes “cultural and other requirements”, which is almost always an oversight in localization efforts. We tend to think localization is only the language part, but never the content or design. As long as we have a translated site or app, it works.

According to W3C, the scope for localization includes:

1. Numeric, date and time formats
2. Use of currency
3. Keyboard usage
4. Collation and sorting
5. Symbols, icons and colors
6. Text and graphics containing references to objects, actions or ideas which, in a given culture, may be subject to misinterpretation or viewed as insensitive.
7. Varying legal requirements
and many more things.

After getting on a user research in Japan this year to understand how locals use digital products and travel (because I work for a travel company), I bursted out of my bubbles. Things are more complex than what they seemed to be, especially if you are not in the market you’re designing or building for.In addition to the seven points above, I would add even the design, layout and branding would sometimes need to be adjusted.

Here are some five things that I discovered, framed in such ways so that they can inspire you to start localizing—or designing with local context—the right way:

Understand local nuances in translations

Because, d’oh, product is still about words.

If there’s one low-hanging fruit that you can take for your first step towards localization, it’s the translation of the text. Yes, we know localization is far more than just translating the text, but it’s a start. However, let’s do this properly. Make sure to never use machine translation. Hire local translators. It’s a bit expensive and time-consuming, but it’s totally worth it.

When you hire local translators, make sure that they are native or understand local nuances. This is important in some translations. For example, I am Indonesian, and I have trouble finding the right translation for “Trip Board”. Consistently translated, it would just be “Papan Perjalanan”, which is correct in its own word-by-word translations but it’s not what it would mean in English, because “Papan” means a physical board, and “Perjalanan” means travel, trip or journey, but it’s very formal and such a mouthful piece of word.

What would be the right strategy? Understand the nuances in the original word, and understand the nuances in the local word. If you think a “board” is more like a list of your trips, or potential trips, then the right nuance in Indonesian would be more a direct translation of list, which is “Daftar”. But, here’s the problem. “Daftar” could potentially be misinterpreted as a verb, which means “register”.

Now, what is the local Indonesian nuance of a trip? Now, “trip” itself is not an Indonesian word, but most Indonesians know what the word means.

Hence, I recommend to just keep everything in English, which is “Trip Board”, still. Indonesians also love English wordplays and it might just be perfect to use it as a term very specific to the platform.

Appreciate cultural (and legal) do’s and don’ts

This is a very tricky and sensitive topic to touch on. Depending on which locale you’re designing or building for, the next step towards localization is to sort out the sensitive topics or themes. Some thoughts to spark your day:

  • Is it a conservatively religious society you’re designing for? You might want to consider to use a “safer-sounding” tone in your copy. If you think you want to change the society for your progressive thinking, think again! It’s not going to happen overnight (nor does it have to come from you!).
  • Is it a different metaphor that you’re trying to say? You can’t use the same metaphor in English language if you’re saying it in Thai.
  • Is it a more progressive society that you’re entering? You might want to try something more gender-neutral, or something more forward-looking.
  • Is it legal in the market you’re building or designing for? Make sure the imagery, the brand and the content—hell, even the product itself—is legally accepted.
  • Or even, consider this, is your brand name appropriate, or do you need to make adjustments?
Silit is a cookware brand. But in Indonesian, it means anus. Well, of course, it might not stop people from buying the thing if it’s really good, but it’s still ridiculous. Come on people.

Prioritize and phase works

Feeling overwhelmed? Again, embrace the concept of launching something small but functional and delightful first, then learn from it.

Start from the localizing the text, or the date format, or the currency symbol. Learn from it:

  • If I translate it in certain ways, is there any drop in conversion? Is there any user complaint?
  • If I do only certain date formats, is there any usability problem?
  • If I use certain standards (like XE.com, for example) for currency symbols, would it be acceptable?

Make big smaller wins and then proceed to bigger wins. Don’t operate like a corporation with a long-term plan that never gets launched.

Do more research

As I have posted before, we shall always design with context. Whatever things we have learned, we must unlearn. This is because what is normal in certain region or country is not in others. That is why the next proper step is to always do more research.

This research can be big but they can also be smaller wins. What can you do?

  • Read more literature. There are tons of research books or cultural books out there. I particularly recommend to start with the ones by Jan Chipchase.
  • Do small tests. This can be done by validating the designs through links in Invision to potential users.
  • Do small interviews. If you don’t have designs, you can test an idea out by saying it out loud and hear somebody’s opinion on it. But let it be not just be anybody, let it be the potential users, or even coworkers who live in other countries.
  • Appreciate more when you travel. Yes, you read it right. When you take vacations, try to observe local customs and you’ll have more to tell and contribute in future projects.

Support local teams

As much as you want to feel comfortable in your headphones and air conditioning of your local office, eating your local favorite food, speaking your own language and thinking that the world revolves around you and your country: get out of your bubbles, please.

Start with the local teams in the locale you’re designing for. If you have a team in Japan, start talking to them more. Validate questions and tasks with them. Engage them. Ask for their help. Don’t be shy. Don’t be proud. They have all the resources you need. They can connect you with local market and teams.

In return of your asks, give them something. You should be supportive of their requests to accommodate local requirements. Be responsive. With talking to each other, and fulfilling each other’s requests, you will learn more and more each day.

When I did research in Japan, the local team there supported without hesitation and supplied us with loads of information. In the end, our research also benefits them. We also learned that there is context in translating to Japanese. We also learned that not every font in the world today has proper Japanese characters. We continue to learn today.


But wait, there’s one more thing.

Fight for it

It’s very easy to dismiss the effort of localizing your product out of reasons like it’s not giving you any direct financial returns, it’s not measurable in any way, or it’s an unsexy, non-innovative work, or simply, nobody think they have time or expertise in it. It’s important that to know that even though you don’t have any Localization Expert in your team, you can stand up for it in any role you’re in. Love your users, not just the business.