Going Beyond Translations
What are some of the challenges we might face when implementing additional languages into a new or existing IT product? Is it as simple as translating or localizing the existing user interface?
Going Beyond Translations
Understanding Context: In some languages, the same word is used for two different meanings (homophone – French: café and café), and in other languages, there may be more than one translation for a word (Italian: café or bar).
When it comes to translations, understanding context is crucial. A word is merely a puzzle piece. It is the beginning of something, but many times it doesn’t tell you much. It’s just a whisper of a hint.
When you think of the word ‘enter’. What is the first thing that pops into your mind?
Is it a sign on a door?
Maybe a button on your keyboard?
As a quick mental exercise: If you thought keyboard, without looking at your keys, are you sure it says enter? or is it just an arrow or does it say 'return'?
Our minds automatically create the empty puzzle pieces and subconsciously or consciously auto-complete the context, even if we don't have the full picture. Without the proper context, we tend to make, assumptions. In technology, these assumptions can lead to frustrating or even disastrous consequences. Once we string more words together, the context does begin to become clearer but is that all we need?
‘To Enter Click Here’
Do we have enough context to make an informed decision? Not exactly, and maybe your first thought was where's the button or where do I click? So what’s missing? It’s the other piece of the context building block, the UI/UX piece.
As another example, if we were given the task of translating a US English Menu into French and we directly translated the English word for 'coffee' to ‘café’ in French, you may be served an espresso instead of a 'Cup of Joe'. There are so many nuances to languages that translating without context may result in frustrating user experiences or unwanted faux pas.
So once the application is translated, does that make the application ready for that region or country? Translating applications accurately is a critical step in getting them ready for a particular language market, however, it’s only a single step in a potentially complex map of getting them ready for the global marketplace.
Deploying a new language for a particular region or country is a deep topic with many challenges and differing paths. Some of these challenges are technical while others have nothing to do with technology. Your requirements may differ significantly depending on the language, culture, user demographics, business needs, industry, and even politics.
It’s always good to be prepared and I could blankly state that the key is to never assume and to always do your due diligence, but with internationalization and localization, there are always outliers and no matter how proactive your team may be, geo-political issues, changes in data privacy laws, other aspects beyond our control, or something subtle that may have been missed years ago may suddenly come into play.
From a go-to-market perspective, can we still go to market even if we haven't solved for everything for that region?
What is important is whether the product is right for the marketplace and will the product be helpful to its consumers. With innovation and speed to market being critical for success, it’s extremely difficult to release products that have zero bugs. In terms of the underlying technology, what becomes important is determining the minimum viable product (MVP) for the new region and whether the organization has the minimum resources to help tackle any issues which might come up.
In future posts, I will elaborate more on what I mean by minimum viable product and minimum resources, but in summary, it depends on the nature of the product and the region you want to deploy the product in. In many cases, the minimum viable product could mean using the product as is and no translations may be necessary. An MVP could also mean adding enhancements to adhere to local regulatory requirements which could potentially throw the figurative wrench into the whole product. Having minimum resources does not necessarily mean a full-time dedicated engineering team. It could be as simple as having somebody answer questions about the product. With that said, however, one thing successful global organizations do take into account are some basic considerations when going global.
It may seem contradictory, but in globalizing a product it’s important to be both prepared and flexible at the same time while knowing your limits. If your organization can adjust rapidly to changes and has implemented some fundamental global considerations, there’s no reason why you can’t go global rapidly. However, if there is a fundamental issue with the underlying technology, this may pose some challenges which could be difficult to overcome.
Technical Expectations and Impact on the business:
If you were a product owner needing to expand into foreign markets and realized that there were fundamental underlying technology issues that prevented the product from performing at full capacity what would you do?
Is it worth the effort to make the necessary changes? Can you afford to do it now or can you do it later?
There are real-world consequences to making changes to the underlying technology and it is sort of a Catch-22.
1.) Fix Now Approach: If your product company is a startup in growth mode, you will likely have a limited number of engineers and any fundamental architectural change could take significant engineering effort while these changes are being implemented, product momentum and innovation may slow down. This slowdown could hurt your growth and impact your competitive advantage.
2.) Fix Later Approach: If your organization decides to keep the underlying technology and ‘fix the problem later' this could result in stagnant overseas growth, continuous escalations, and a tremendous cost to fix the issues later and ultimately product abandonment. As your company grows and more features, fixes, and innovations become reliant on the same underlying technology, you will be faced with a potentially difficult or impossible-to-fix architectural problem. Like having an unpaid balance on a credit card, the more you leave it, the costlier it gets to pay off.
In both scenarios, there is no right or wrong answer. Sometimes as a product leader, you have no choice. With limited resources, budget constraints, customer expectations, and project timelines, it’s a difficult process to balance the current-right-thing-to-do in an ever-evolving market. Both scenarios affect customer sentiment, competitive advantage, engineering effort, and shareholder value. Regardless of which scenario suits your business needs at that time, there will always be an organization-wide butterfly effect across the business.
Organization-wide Butterfly effect: A delay while working on a single fundamental technology issue can result in an organizational butterfly effect of delays, affecting everything from future roadmaps, leadership announcements, and customer sentiment while the competition has time to catch up.
However, there are ways to mitigate this risk and that is to be aware of some basic considerations when it comes to enabling your product for global markets. In future posts, I’ll share some interesting real-world ‘assumptions’ that didn’t quite go as planned and how we overcame those, but for now, let’s go over some basic considerations when deploying a new language.
…and this is where the rabbit hole goes deep into Globalization and the Universe of Madness.
Some basic considerations:
UI/UX (User Interface and User Experience)
o Is the translated field value too long for the field length?
Example of a German compounded word: How do you fit the German word above in a fixed-length field? How do you wrap it? This is just one example from one language.
o Are you able to reorder fields on a page to match a particular region's user experience? (see the Final Thought Exercise below)
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML)
o Do you have enough sample data for your foreign language demo to be effective?
o Does the ML model utilizes legally allowed demographic information?
o What does this say? youarenowhere "You are now here" or "You are nowhere"
In some languages, there are no spaces between characters, so how would you contextually distinguish whether you are searching for "here" or "nowhere"
Foreign Language Data
o Is your data encoded appropriately? Does the encoding support extended character sets?
o Is what you are translating culturally and business appropriate?
Global Cultural Inclusivity
o How are regional minorities treated within your application?
o Are you protecting user privacy according to regional rules?
Foreign Politics and Policies
o Is it a country or a region?
o Which flag(s) do you display?
o Did you know the dollar sign is used in over 15 countries for different currencies? Is that the Australian dollar, US dollar, or Singaporean dollar?
o How many decimal places does the currency have? Zero, two, or three?
o Certain countries have different calendar requirements.
o Is 01/12/2022, January 1st, or December 12th?
o Citizens of some countries use 4 names others may only use 2.
o Some names are displayed last name first followed by the first name.
o Alphabetical order by which alphabet?
o What are other ways items need to be ordered? How about north to south?
o There are 24 hours a day, but did you know there are more than 30 time zones globally and this changes periodically?
o Google's Noto font is great! However, did you know that in certain countries/regions official reports and documents must be printed using specific fonts and the enterprise license fees for these fonts can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year?
As we journey onward and explore the depths of product globalization, we hope that we will be able to help and better prepare teams for the global marketplace. In future posts, I’ll explore many areas of globalization from both the technical and business perspective, but for now, all good things must come to an end…well, almost...
Final Thought Exercise:
Have a look at the screenshot below. It’s a very simple design for a ticket entry form that shows some basic user data. The top half is a US-English user interface and the bottom is a Japanese user interface.
US English and Japanese Ticket Entry Forms: Simple design for a ticket entry form showing some basic user information.
Highlighted by the red arrows we can immediately see 2 issues.
Characters cut off:
On the Japanese version, the top portion of the TICKET ENTRY FORM is cut off.
Translations are too long:
The field size for of the EMAIL label does not fit the Japanese translation.
Note: These issues are quite common. The cut-off characters and the field size issue make the user interface difficult if not impossible to read, so I would consider both of these critical, if not showstoppers.
Do you see anything else?
…and this is where the acronym IYKYN (If You Know You Know) comes into play.
Note: The below issues aren’t necessarily showstoppers and the importance of each depends on who is using your application.d
o In a Japanese UI, the last name should appear before the first name.
John Doe = Doe, John
o The other subtle one is that the CONTACT NUMBER field is slightly misaligned with the rest of the fields.
o This misalignment may seem innocuous and minor, however, in cultures like Japan and S. Korea ‘clean’ UI design (not ‘simplified’, but ‘clean’) is highly crucial to a positive customer experience.
Note: ‘Clean’ vs. ‘Simple’ design requires a bit more explanation and I’ll get to that in a future post.
Phone Number: The phone number field is being displayed with a +1, which is an international prefix.
o This is more about user demographics and intended use. Remember, as a UX/UI designer, you must be empathetic and compassionate to your users. If your product is intended for domestic use (i.e., within a single country) or targeted toward users who do not travel outside the country and have no need to call internationally, then you may want to consider a flexible UI/UX where users or organization can decide on which number format to display.
o Many countries utilize a ‘0’ as the first digit of the phone number, however, when an international prefix is introduced, the initial ‘0’ is removed and this could confuse users who do not have exposure to international numbers. (see the Japan phone number screenshot below)
o Another important aspect is the technology itself. There are dozens of mobile operating systems in the world and if the international prefix appears for a domestic number, the mobile device may prevent you from dialing that number.
Differences in phone number displays: The above Japanese phone number is displayed with the international prefix and the bottom without the international prefix. The international prefix removes the first 0.
In summary, when taking your product into a foreign market, it’s very helpful to understand some basic considerations. As an organization with a lot to give the world, you don’t want to be held back because you missed a fundamental piece of the puzzle. It takes a little bit of knowledge upfront to prevent headaches in the future. We hope that through these posts, whether you utilize our services or not, we will be able to help your organizations to keep moving forward into the future and make a positive impact on your global customer base.