Expert tips for localizing international products

Best Practices

2021-02-02_Oura_blog_banner_3

Does your product speak different languages?

There is no universal solution for localization, as each organization and product is different. However, there are several factors that can considerably improve the potential for success. In this blog article, Oura’s localization manager shares her views and tips on localization.

We interviewed an experienced localization professional, Tarja Karjalainen, for this article. She is the localization manager at Oura Health and is responsible for the localization of the Oura Ring, a personal health tracking device, for different markets. You can read Oura’s story here.

This article covers the following topics:

 

Why should a product or service be localized when a company is targeting international markets?

There is an incredible range of different cultures and people in the world, and their interests and preferences vary widely. This is why localization is needed!

If a company introduces a product to international markets in the same way that they did in their home market, they will soon discover that the style, or the product itself, doesn’t speak to the customers.

For example, if a Finnish company develops a product in Finland, our culture and way of thinking will inevitably be reflected in the product. There will also be influences of our language, even if the product is created in English. The product may work well in some parts of the world, but there will also be markets where it doesn’t speak at all to potential customers. The product simply doesn’t work because the cultural background is so different. It’s too different from what to customers in that market are used to. 

An excellent product that works fine in some markets may not necessarily work in others. This is usually because the product doesn’t feel natural in terms of usability or appearance, or it doesn’t appeal to consumers in the right way.

This may come down to small details. Language is the first way to adapt a product to the target market. Other factors may be the color scheme, design or content.

Some markets have a high tolerance for product diversity. These include small linguistic and cultural areas, such as Finland, where consumers are used to the fact that products are not usually localized for them.

In Germany or France, for example, people expect products to be available in their own language. In some cases, legislation may require products and the related materials to be translated into the local language.

And what about marketing? A company may make a strategic decision to market in English in Finland, for example. This works in theory, as Finns have a good command of English on average. In practice, however, customers may not even be aware of why they are not drawn to advertising in English. They notice and understand the advertisement, but it doesn’t give rise to the kind of emotional reaction that marketing should evoke.

Customers must understand what is being offered and sold to them, but they must also be touched by the product or service. This is usually achieved through language. Language can be used to add the layer that provokes an emotional reaction in people and gets them to buy the product or service.

 


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What are the benefits of localization?

Localization makes a product accessible in other markets.

It’s the key to international growth.

In negotiations with a German customer, for example, a deal may require that the product and the related materials are translated into German. In such a case, adapting the product and materials to a new language seems justified: it seals the deal. German is an interesting language in the sense that it opens the door to the wider German-speaking world—to other markets, including Austria and Switzerland, where German is the main language. In other words, the same investment can have more far-reaching impacts.

What should be studied about the target market before localization?

The same kind of user and customer studies should be conducted as in the main market. In practice, there is no difference in this respect. The company must determine who the buyer is and to whom the product is being sold.

It’s totally possible that the buyer persona or target group is not the same as in the main market. For example, the target group in the main market may be 30-year-olds, while the buyer demographic in the new market consists of people aged 40–50. In other words, the target group may be completely different.

A good example is a watch. It has a functional role in many European countries: it tells the time. The most important thing is that it works as the user wants it to work. However, the situation may be different in other markets: functionality is important, but the watch should also look good. In one market the appearance of the watch is not the most important criterion, while in another market the watch can be a status symbol or a fashion statement. There can be demand for the product in both markets, but the features that are important to the buyer may differ considerably. These include appearance and functionalities, for example.

Understanding the target market is extremely important.

It’s also good to know what kind of language the users or customers use. This means not only the language they speak, but also the way in which they speak the language. This calls for a little bit of detective work. If the product has already been launched in the market, there are already active users. This is a good opportunity to study how these existing customers or users talk about the product. These conversations and comments can provide ideas about the kind of language that should be used when communicating to customers in order to ensure that it resonates with the target group as effectively as possible.

Product-localization-globe

For translations of applications, for example, it’s a good idea to study how people in the target market talk about the product in their own language. These aspects can be integrated into the company’s communication. Product communication is determined by the tone and brand to a large degree, but influences from the target market and customers’ way of speaking can be included in translations and localization. This makes the message suitable for the target group.

Keyword research should also be carried out concerning the target market, as it enables the company to understand which local keywords are most popular. By studying the language and terminology used by existing customers, the company gains a better understanding of what the actual keywords could be. A direct translation is not always the same as the most frequently used keyword.

What are the stages of the localization process?

There is no universal process for localization—it always depends on the team. The process must reflect the localization team, meaning that they should be comfortable with the process. The best process is one that everyone believes in.

The main stages of a localization process are planning, translation, testing, and publication in the new target language.

Ideally, the localization of a mobile application should begin at the design stage. For example, when adding a new functionality to an application, the designer should take localization into account: will this work in all markets? Does this take the specific requirements or needs of various markets into consideration? Is this interesting? Will this update work as such in all markets? How many markets will this be useful for?

The planning phase also includes a briefing for the localization team and translators. Information about what is to come, be it a product or feature update, is important for everyone involved in localization. When the material is submitted to the translators, they already know what it’s about.

One of the challenges of localization is the limited time frame. If the translators are allotted only two days, how can they succeed?


This should be considered especially when the material to be translated is extensive. A professional translator can translate 2,000 words per day on average. The process requires more time if the translations are creative in nature—that is, the translator is adapting the original content to the target language. This is the case with marketing content, for example, where the translation is adapted to the target language to ensure that it speaks to a specific target audience. The same kind of creativity may also be needed in translations of mobile applications and other software, such as user interfaces.


The localization team should keep in mind that even if the time allotted to translation is very limited, preparations can be made in advance. If the translator is not briefed until they receive the material, they may—and probably will—need to rush. However, if they can study the topic before the material is submitted to them, they will have more time for the actual translation.

Testing is another challenge. Companies often skip this phase, although testing the translated version is really important: What does the new language version look like? Does everything work in the same way as in the original version?

What is a good translation process like?

Cooperation is key in a good localization process. The quality of all processes depends on the people involved.

Technology should be used to eliminate any unnecessary work phases from the process. These include, for example, all repetitive manual tasks, such as transferring files. All tasks and work phases that don’t improve the quality of the translation or help the product should be automated.

In the case of software products, for example, the process should be automated in such a way that the strings can be submitted to the translators quickly and easily.

Technology should be used wherever possible to allow as much time as possible to translators for creative work, as well as for discussion and the exchange of ideas between the localization team and the translator.

However, it’s not a good idea to build the process around a single technology. The largest amount of time should be designated to creative work.

Product-localization-planning

Tips for building and developing the localization process

Discussions should be had with everyone involved in the process. The best processes are usually created through discussions with people.

The company should listen to the problems and opinions of all stakeholders. A solution to a single problem can be reflected in many people’s work and thereby also their attitudes towards the process.

The bottlenecks must be cleared if the goal is to develop an existing process: what people need to do, what is expected of them and what they cannot do in the current process. The process can be improved based on these discussions.

What material should be localized for new markets?

This depends on the product, as well as on the goal of localization: customer satisfaction and retention or financial growth? Which one of these will be sought? It's important to crystallize the goal of localization.

Data is also part of the answer. Companies are continuously collecting data about their products and their use, website visits and similar aspects. The collected data also holds an answer to what should be localized and what needs to be localized.

For example, if an organization has an extensive support website and its localization would use up the entire localization budget, it’s a good idea to study which pages or articles are the most commonly read and searched support materials. This information can be used for prioritization: instead of localizing everything, the company can only localize what seems to be most popular and useful based on the collected data.

To support the selection of the material to be localized, the company should think about what the product is, how it is used and what needs to be localized for the user to be able to use the product.

For example, a mobile application must be localized to the target language to enable users to use the app smoothly in a natural way. Localized support material must be available to enable users to help themselves. For example, technical support resources should not be used for problem-solving for which there is localized material available.

If a company has white papers or similar material produced in English and five target markets, the material doesn’t necessarily need to be localized for all five markets. Background research is needed here as well: which market has a clear need for the material?

Existing data and a knowledge of the target market and the target group often provide the necessary information about what material should be localized.

How can a company ensure that its message gets across when a product or service is localized to a language not used in the company?

The best way is to build a team of experts with sufficient subject knowledge and language skills. This eliminates any problems related to the language.

It’s a good idea to invest in such a team and participate in its training and development. This usually guarantees good results.

If the language in question is not used in the company, they can have the material checked by a third party once a year or once in a quarter, for example.

One option is to use a localization test service. This provides the company with feedback on the team and the quality of localization.


Back translations are also an option if the company wishes to ensure the quality of the translated material before its publication. A back translation means that a professional translator translates the material from the target language back into the source language. Back translations are often used in medical translations, but they are also useful when a company wants to ensure that the right tone is being used in the translation or that their message gets across in the target language.


In consumer products, I listen to the customers most intently. Customers seldom provide feedback if there are mistakes in the translation or it sounds strange. On the other hand, there are products on which customers give very helpful feedback.

For me, customer feedback is the indicator that I follow most frequently, weekly or even daily, in all our markets and languages. If customers are telling me that the language is of a poor quality or incomprehensible, this inspires me to study what has possibly gone wrong. This is usually the best way to identify problems.

If we have the material checked by a third party, the reviewer has a different perspective than a customer. This is why I think customer feedback is very important.

I strongly encourage everyone to request feedback from customers, particularly for consumer products, but for business-to-business products as well, as they are still used by people.

Product-localization-in-cooperation-with-Oura

Should a designated team be established for localization?

Yes, always, a team of at least one person. It’s very important that a designated person manages and coordinates localization and takes care of it.

People don’t necessarily realize that localization involves a huge number of aspects. It’s such a multidisciplinary process that the person responsible for localization works with every function within the company in one way or another.

One person is enough at the beginning, but a team is usually built around localization over time.

When a designated person or team is responsible for localization, people realize its importance in a new way. This shows that the company invests in localization and wants to do it well.

Should designated translators be used in the localization process?

Yes, of course. If a translator is part of a project or team in which they translate for the same customer, they have a certain ownership of the work.

This is what I hope for from the translators who work with me. The translator becomes thoroughly familiar with the product over time. This also makes the translation work easier and quicker.

For me, it would feel strange to have a new translator in every project and always start everything from the very beginning.

I would say that a good understanding between the localization manager and the translator has a major impact on the final result.

What information should be provided to the translators or the localization team before starting the translation?

There is no additional information—all information is important. The more information the translator has, the better the result.

They need any information that you can provide. The translator also needs to know where the translation will be used and what the text looks like.

In the case of applications, for example, I hope that the strings to be translated will no longer be submitted to the translator without the context. Even if the content of a string is extremely simple, the result will be better if the context is provided by means of screenshots, for example.

I worked as an user experience (UX) writer for digital platforms for several years. The situation there was exactly the same. If I wrote content without seeing where it would be used, the result was very different from when I was provided with the context.

In short: always seek to provide the translator with all the information available and the context.

What is a good briefing for a translator?

Think about the situation through yourself. If the briefing that you prepared were given to you, would you be able to understand what you should do?

You should write a briefing that you could understand yourself and that would provide you with sufficient information. Translators are just like the rest of us. If we aren't given a good brief for an assignment, the results will not be good.

Tips for companies considering localization

Localization should been seen more as an enabler of growth and less as a set of processes and expenses. This enables companies to consider in more detail what localization projects they should promote.

Major multinational companies have also started localization from small-scale projects. Localization has increased with the return on investment.


Read our previous blog article in which Esri’s localization expert Jonathan Turpin shares his views on localization.

 

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