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Mobile App Localisation: The Only 8 Things You Need to Know

Airbnb, Duolingo, Instagram, Uber… What do the best global apps have in common? It’s not just their mobile-friendly designs, intuitive user experience, and sleek geolocation features. The largest mobile apps – think Airbnb, Uber, or Tinder – are customized to fit different markets and users around the world.

With over 342 thousand app downloads from the stores every minute and a user retention rate for mobile apps at 32%, effective app localisation has become a must for any company intending to meet this mobile-first world head-on without culture or language barriers.

However, mobile app localisation does not involve a simple word-for-word translation of an app’s contents. It’s also about recognising regional differences between cultures around the globe and tailoring your mobile app experience accordingly.

In this article:

8 key considerations to keep in mind before localising your mobile app

8 things you should know about mobile app localisation

1. Mobile app localisation is a necessity

Mobile users’ basic English skills aren’t enough to communicate mobile app content clearly. In fact, research shows that users, even if bilingual, ignore products if they are not available in their language. The reason for this is that we build emotions in our mother tongue.

As it turns out, emotions affect not just the nature of our decisions, but the speed at which we make them. That’s why getting into anyone’s heart and persuading them to spend money on your product or service requires you to communicate in their own language. 

With global unique mobile users projected to grow up to 5.7 billion by the end of 2020, failing to localise a mobile app correctly – or to localise it altogether – means a missed opportunity for exceptional market growth.

What is mobile app localisation?

Mobile app localisation is the process of adapting software applications to suit different languages, cultures, and regional preferences. Some elements that mobile app localisation can target include:

  • The copy of mobile app screens, buttons, menus, etc.
  • The symbols appearing on mobile buttons
  • The layout and user interface (e.g., Asian users prefer mobile apps with less white space)
  • The mobile app store description
  • The colour scheme
  • The experience (e.g., inviting them to sign up with their mobile number vs their Google account)
  • The visuals and graphics
  • The links and references
  • The mobile app’s theme and design
  • The currency symbols and valuesThe mobile app’s tone of voice
  • The mobile app’s video tutorials

2. App localisation requires prior internationalisation

Although frequently used as synonyms, localisation and internationalisation are not the same thing. They are two separate processes that need to be completed in sequence for an app to be ready for global markets.

What is internationalisation?

With the goal of localising an app, internationalisation is about building it in a way that allows you to switch out different languages and regions with ease. This means making sure your mobile app’s code is not hard-coded for any particular language or region. Rather, it should be able to handle any language or region configuration.

Internationalisation happens when the app is first developed and involves coding choices that make the app’s code language independent. In other words, mobile developers who internationalise mobile apps abstract the initial code from the user’s language and location, thus making it easier to localise the app later.

Examples of internationalisation include:

  • Supporting non-Latin alphabets or bidirectional text – when users need to switch from English to languages such as Japanese or Arabic
  • Storing user-facing content in separate strings to facilitate their translation to different languages
  • Designing the mobile app interface for flexibility (e.g., laying out buttons with text labels instead of hard-coding values or icons)
  • Ensuring there are no concatenated strings in the code
  • Using language-independent formats to store dates, currencies, numbers, etc.

Localisation happens after internationalisation, and entails adapting mobile app content – text, visuals, layout, etc. – to the mobile user’s culture and language.

This mobile app localisation process is typically implemented by professional software translators who are native speakers of the target market language.

3. You need a strategy

Once you’re certain that your app is fit to be launched in other markets, it’s time to ask yourself if it will be more effective to roll out in-region first or to go all in and localise your app into dozens of languages right out of the gate.

To answer this question, mobile app marketers need to consider a range of factors including the mobile device penetration rate in each country, mobile user demographics across different markets, mobile user sophistication levels across different markets, mobile content regulation/censorship laws across different countries, etc.

In-region-first expansion is the traditional way. It’s how you get your product off the ground in one country and then gradually start launching it in other countries. The advantage of this strategy is that you can test the mobile market and adjust your app accordingly before rolling it out globally. This way, before migrating elsewhere, you’ll have a much stronger foundation for success – and better odds of avoiding costly mistakes.

What are the top 10 languages for app localisation?

Although there are literally hundreds of languages across the world, it’s a common mistake to regard all non-English languages as equal. In fact, when it comes to app localisation, there is a significant difference between major languages and niche ones.

Ranking vary depending on what’s being measured:

These are the top 10 in terms of market share:

  1. English — USA, UK, Australia, Canada
  2. Japanese — Japan
  3. Simplified Chinese — Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong
  4. Hindi — India
  5. Russian — Russia
  6. Korean — South Korea
  7. German — Germany
  8. Spanish — Mexico, Argentina
  9. Portuguese — Brazil
  10. Indonesian — Indonesia

4. There are different types of app localisation

Not all localisation projects are alike, especially when it comes to mobile apps. Some require significantly more time and effort, while others aim at a minimal level of localisation.

In general, you can divide mobile app localisation into two subcategories:

Minimum viable localisation

MVL is when an app is localised with minimal features and content. While still offering a certain level of value to users, MVL requires significantly less time and investment. It’s a good option for brands who want to trial their app in a new market without committing to full localisation (yet).

You may have heard of a minimum viable product (MVP); it is an early iteration of a product or software solution with sufficient features to satisfy early adopters. Minimum viable localisation follows the same logic. Moreover, just like an MVP is a critical milestone within an agile development process, agile localisation aims at MVL as a crucial milestone in the localisation process.

Deep localisation

This approach adapts every aspect of an app for a specific market. While heavier on resources, if an app is serious about doing long-term business in a chosen market, it’s definitely the way to go.

Deep localisation requires a significantly bigger budget and more time than MVL. That’s why it’s often used for apps that are expected to do very well in a chosen market over the long term.

5. User experience is at the heart of successful app localisation

When dealing with mobile app localisation, there are many factors that come into play. The main goal is making the app look and feel local while enabling a smooth user experience. Your translator needs to be able to approach the project not only linguistically but in a holistic way, which requires the capacity to appeal to all of the user’s senses.

See below some key aspects involved in the localisation of apps.

Checking information flow

Not all cultures process information in the same way. As a consequence, the below needs to be considered:

  • Text compression: When it comes to app localisation it’s essential to keep the content concise and to the point, expressing only the main ideas (with an option to read more if necessary). The translation strategy to achieve this comprises either grammatical or lexical ways to shorten the text without destroying its meaning. Text compression gets rid of redundancy in human language to transmit messages quickly.
  • Sign-up flow: This is one of the most critical aspects of the user experience journey when it comes to apps. According to what the purpose, audience, and language are, the chosen sign-up flow will be different. The key idea is to reduce unnecessary friction and only ask for what each culture considers essential information.
  • Character limitation: As some languages are larger than others, or less concise, there are different character limitations to follow. Text reduction can be achieved not only by minimising the number of words but also by abbreviating words and using shorter synonyms.
  • Skim-reading-friendly design: We all skim-read. Skim reading means reading rapidly in order to get an overview of the text. With visible headlines and clear buttons, the reader can detect the general idea of a piece of text, and decide whether to keep reading or to avoid that part.

Adapting visual information

  • Layout. Did you know, for example, that users in China prefer e-commerce websites and apps cluttered with elements? That’s something that would feel overwhelming for the average western consumer, though. However, appealing to cultural archetypes of this sort in both cases will ensure higher sales, which is why something as simple as rearranging the layout of catalogue articles according to the target culture can make a huge difference. Localising the app layout also refers to things like adding extra space in text boxes or adding additional fields in forms (in Spain, for example, everyone has two surnames, so you need two fields in personal information forms).
  • Emojis, colours, and symbols. Your translator will also need to consider the best localisation strategy for emojis, colours, and symbols. Thumbs-up emojis are offensive in Nigeria. In China, the white colour tends to represent death and mourning (it’s the colour worn for funerals). In Japan, the colour purple represents danger.
  • Identity. Consider this example: if your app will be marketed in Asia, and it includes images of people of western ethnicity, those images or pictures should be changed to people of eastern ethnicity. You want your users to feel represented by your product, which you achieve through appropriate brand messaging.

As a consequence of preferences like the above, a good localiser needs to have outstanding cultural analysis and cognitive research skills to be able to synthesise localised content and visual data in such a way that the user doesn’t feel bored, offended, overwhelmed, underrepresented, or any other negative feeling.

Naturally, front-end developers play an essential role in the localisation of mobile apps, and you need to involve them in the process. They are in charge of implementing the required flexibilisation in the app – which the localiser will have identified.

6. Researching local competitors can save you from disaster

It’s a common mistake to localise an app in the target language and then publish it on the App Store without any prior research or testing. Unfortunately, doing so is a sure way of making a mediocre impression from day one on your prospective users.

Before localising an app, getting to know your local competitors and what they offer will be paramount. You can then establish your prices and create marketing campaigns on a competitive level.

In addition, once the app is published, you need to keep an eye on it and monitor how users like it. Social listening tools and multilingual sentiment analysis can help you to monitor your successes and shortcomings, as well as your competitor’s, in every language.

7. Taking feedback seriously is vital for success

A reliable system of feedback is an essential part of any agile app development process. You need to understand how users feel about each iteration of your app, and what they like or dislike.

Whether you gauge users’ preferences by interviewing them (e.g.: “What do you like most about our product? What do you like least? How can we improve it?”) or by monitoring their behaviour closely (how often they use the app, what they post on social media, etc.), you’ll want to compile and analyse the resulting data in order to understand your users better and continue improving your app.

This process will need to be repeated in every language that you localise your app into.

8. Your app localisation results will be as good as the tools you use

Technology is always improving, and there are several solutions designed for mobile app localisation that can help you in the process. One example is Translation Management Systems, which can be used to organise and centralise the work of all localisation stakeholders, both internally and externally.

Your human resources are also a crucial tool in the localisation process. Stick to professional localisers, developers, and testers with proven experience.

App testing tools

As explained by VMO, 

“Mobile app testing is a form of A/B testing wherein different user segments are presented with different variations of an in-app experience to determine which one induces a desired action from the user or has a positive (or better) impact on app key metrics. By consistently figuring out what works for your mobile app and what doesn’t, you can systematically optimize it for your desired metrics and unlock limitless growth opportunities for your business that were always lurking in plain sight.”

App testing tools usually use the following methodologies:

  • Locally testing with emulators. It is usually performed by developers or testers, who look for bugs and analyse how an app performs on different devices.
  • Testing on real devices. It can be performed by QA teams, but also by the localiser directly (and not just in his/her target language.

Testing can be either:

  • Functional testing:  it helps determine whether the app features work the way they were intended to. It also ensures that users can perform all the necessary actions.
  • Linguistic testing: it checks for correct and context-appropriate translations, and usually involves the inspection by a native speaker.

App Store and Play Store guidelines

Another good tool is the guidelines published by Apple and Google for the App Store and the Google Play Store, respectively. They are very descriptive, so you can consult them to find out what they want from your app in terms of content, features, usability, security measures, etc.

App localisation-Android-vs-iOs
Android vs. iOs

Bonus tip: Don’t underestimate SEO and ASO

Metadata and keyword localisation are crucial. Multiple studies have shown an increase in app downloads following metadata and keyword localisation.

However, in order for your app to rank high on search engines, you need more than just translating your keywords into different languages. The right thing to do here is to perform some research on what keywords rank top for a certain target locale and then localise your metadata and keywords for such markets. This process is called multilingual keyword research followed by SEO translation, and only expert marketing translators know how to do it right.

Then we have App Store Optimisation (ASO), which is a strategy that uses metadata, keywords, ratings, and reviews to increase the ranking of mobile apps in-store searches. The goal of ASO is to improve your app visibility and expose it to potential new users.

As you can see, mobile app localisation is not just about translating words into other languages. It’s a complex process that requires great attention to detail in terms of the content, the design and functions of your app, and its marketability via metadata, keywords, and app store guidelines. Crisol Translation Services are here to help you make the process easier and successful: speak to us today.

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Maria Scheibengraf Crisol Translation Services SaaS Translation Services

Author: Maria Scheibengraf

Maria Scheibengraf is an English-to-Spanish marketing and SEO translator specialised in software (SaaS, martech, fintech), and Operations Manager at Crisol Translation Services, which she co-founded in 2016. With a solid background in programming and marketing, Maria has an in-depth understanding of the technical intricacies involved in software programs, websites, and digital platforms. Maria is also the author of The SEO Translation Bible.

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