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The Nuts and Bolts of Global App Localization: An Exclusive Q&A with Juan Gil, Unbabel’s Head of Localization Solutions

When a business seeks to achieve global expansion, devising a strategy to localize software/apps to appeal to local markets can be daunting. It can be especially difficult to pinpoint which languages to prioritize, technical challenges to be aware of, business units to involve, and tools to invest in.

As Head of Localization Solutions Architecture at Unbabel, Juan Gil understands this more than anyone, and has 20 years of experience in guiding businesses towards fully integrated, cost-efficient solutions to prove it.

He shared with us during this Q&A a range of considerations companies must take into account when bringing their apps to the global stage, which include:       

  • selecting the high-impact languages to maximize ROI;

  • bringing in the right stakeholders at the right time of the process;

  • understanding the impact on team resources: Development, tech, and design;

  • successfully delivering multilingual content across multiple channels at scale;

  • leveraging AI + automation to establish a continuous localization process.

Here’s what he had to say.

Well, first of all, localization processes should be perceived as vital assets of your globalization strategy. In my experience, the preliminary step is to define your goals based on measurable data and customer in-market validation.

For example, one of the most common mistakes we’ve seen companies make when going global is attempting to translate every piece of content into every available language, hoping it will lead to greater ROI. However, the winning approach is one driven by data
 

💡 Take Ooni Pizza Ovens: By adopting a data-centered localization model, the world’s leading pizza oven manufacturer was able to conquer Europe and, between 2021 and 2022 alone, achieved a 61% conversion rate in France and an 88% revenue growth in Germany.


While the context of your organization will determine your strategy, generally the approach to opening a new market should be similar to your expansion within your primary market: It should rely on your internal knowledge of the market (if you have it!) and a data-driven approach to understand how your users will interact with your app. It’s key to have a clear understanding of how your content will be utilized, and across what channels, as well as which markets are engaging with it the most. Conducting an analysis of this information will allow you to focus your localization efforts where they are more likely to yield high-impact results. You should also analyze the markets your competitors are investing in for benchmarks. 

Equally, localization teams sometimes think that translating an app will open up a new market, but very often, this is not the case and it needs a concerted marketing and sales effort to make this happen. In a sense, the localization part is just the “enabler” within the overall globalization strategy.

One option to start this data-driven approach is to A/B test selected pieces of content translated into a limited number of languages, and assess their impact against your main goals, such as increased revenue and engagement. The data you collect will then help inform your expansion strategy.

“We measure English to English, English to local. We A/B test and experiment everything. You just can’t go in blindly… We wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise” 

– Emilija Paliulyte, Head of Performance Marketing at Ooni Pizza Ovens

Once you know which markets to target in accordance with these figures, your language services partner will be able to help you evaluate the nuances and challenges of each language and market, and identify which to prioritize depending on difficulty, cost, and potential opportunity.

In my experience, adapting apps to new markets is often thought of as a transactional process — not one driven by a high-level localization strategy that takes into account the nuances of each language and market. Businesses tend to perceive it as something as simple as taking words from your source language and converting it to a different language.

However, globalization goes well beyond translation — and, even more, translators aren’t the only ones who must contend with the challenges of app localization.

At its core, localization is a cross-functional process: Its success relies heavily on internal cooperation and awareness of all teams involved. And “awareness” for me is the keyword here. Having walked in those shoes before joining the localization industry, I know how you can obliviously walk into complex translation projects without realizing that a relatively small degree of upfront work would have saved so much time down the line.

Marketing, for example, will need to ensure the tone of voice remains true to the brand, authentic, yet nuanced across markets, while Creative should check for consistency in the imagery used and that it’s modified to be reflective of each target audience. Development teams must make sure that the app is optimized for a positive UX, no matter which language the users speak, while factoring in a broad range of variables such as directional script and character/letter size. And last, but surely not least, Customer Support should be optimized accordingly to handle multilingual inquiries at scale.

To deliver a superior customer experience, I believe that all departments need to align their objectives to the localization process and be conscious of how it works, how critical it is to global expansion, and how it impacts their tasks. Eventbrite is a good example of a company that knows the importance of cross-department alignment: By educating employees at every level of the business on the impact of localization and ensuring all teams were pushing towards the same goal, the leading ticketing platform successfully implemented app localization at scale.

In other words, the more relevant stakeholders you involve upfront, the less effort the localization process will require, and the more efficient it will be down the line.  

It can depend on multiple factors, such as how much you have already internationalized your app, or whether your content was written with translation in mind prior to localization efforts. For example, for many apps the content was originally written in English but isn’t translation-friendly, and when it comes to having it translated into five different languages, the translation becomes unnecessarily complex for your translation team. It would have been a smoother undertaking if you’d established best localization practices prior to the process, and therefore only needed to build upon it.

Based on my experience, the less you’ve considered localization from the get-go, the more time it will take to adjust, and this includes raising the awareness of your development teams so they know what they need to do to internationalize the app before launching it into new markets. As the success of companies such as Virgin Pulse and Eventbrite proves, the more of the process you manage to bring upstream, the less reactive your development teams need to be when it comes to localization.

In other words, to mitigate the impact, I believe it’s worth investing in making sure your development teams are aware of the complexities of different languages and how they will affect coding.

Romance languages, for example, have grammatical gender distinctions for nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, and create plurals differently. 

 
 

In German, articles, adjectives, and nouns change form to reflect the role they play in a sentence (subject, object, etc.), so even something as small as the article the needs context to be properly translated — your developers should provide that context by adding comments to the strings or redirecting the translators to relevant URLs.

 
 

And what of text expansion and contraction? The same word in English, move, translated into a language like German becomes verschieben, occupying significantly more space on the screen and potentially altering your app’s layout.

 
 

It can even be a matter of script direction: Hebrew and Arabic flow right to left, so if you are planning to translate your content into these languages, your app should be designed to provide bidirectional text support. 

I think that much like your developers, your creative team should be mindful of the characteristics of each language. As I’ve mentioned, languages can expand or contract both in width and height — Chinese symbols, for example, are taller than Latin letters — and shift the layout.

This is why it’s so important to adopt a flexible, responsive design that will allow your content to be rendered properly, both on smaller and bigger screens. And, much as you think you may have everything covered, testing the layouts with different languages (which you can do using MT technologies at this stage) is key to prevent any need for reactive changes to the design once the translations are in.

 
💡 Did you know that languages like German and Arabic expand up to 35% from the original width of the text, while others like Korean can contract up to 15%, and Finnish up to 40%?


When it comes to bidirectionality, creative teams should also keep in mind that script direction won’t necessarily apply to every aspect of the content: In Arabic, numbers are read left-to-right, while time progressions are represented right-to-left.
 

💡 Did you know that acronyms and measure units are translated right to left in Arabic, but left untranslated in Hebrew (and thus left to right)? This is also the case for the direction of symbols like “?” and “%”.


And what about your brand’s preferred fonts? Your designers should be aware that not all fonts will support all characters, and that the same font used for different languages won’t always occupy the same amount of space. They might need to compromise between what’s in the style guidelines and what works best for each language.

Likewise, they should consider the localization of colors and imagery. Not every design choice will be appropriate or convey the same meaning in every culture: Red is the color of luck and celebration in China, but a mourning color in South Africa. Similarly, depicting a woman in a sports bra in a workout app would be appropriate when targeting Western countries, but would not land well in Saudi Arabia.

Finally, numbers, currencies, and dates — which in the app’s structure will have their own frameworks — may require different formatting depending on the region. In the UK and the US, numbers above 999 are separated with commas, while in most European countries commas are used to mark decimals. 

This is where, as always these days, automation should come into play, as well as establishing a continuous localization process that is part of your continuous integration process.

Today, everything tech hinges on agile working and the ability to keep pushing out updates quickly and effectively. Tools like APIs and advanced file filtering can help you fold localization into your continuous updates across channels.

By leveraging these digital solutions, you’ll be able to select which content needs to be translated, automatically forward it for translation, and import back the final product. Even when we all try to align to standards when developing software, in my experience this always has a level of bespoke effort to cater to the unique design of your app and your teams’ cadence and existing continuous integration infrastructure.

As for ensuring that all content is translated and applied cohesively across channels, a Global Strings Repository can help you establish what we call a single version of the truth: Rather than being sent for translation from X different repositories (one for each channel), all software strings (short sentences or single words) that need to be translated will come from a central repository.

The way I see it, it’s all about investing in upstream awareness, understanding the challenges you will face, and pinpointing the concerns you will need to address. Once you know which issues localization will present in your software, you will be able to leverage ready-made frameworks to solve them in each of your tech stacks aligning to existing standards. In other words: No need to reinvent the wheel.

On a procedural level, setting up the solutions to automatically pull in and out the different content types and send them for translation is usually not a complex undertaking, and it will still rely on existing standards and tooling. However, the knowledge your team has of your app and processes will often make it easier for them to implement a solution that suits your processes and technology, rather than redefine their processes and technology to suit an off-the-shelf solution.

Why Unbabel?

Our holistic localization approach, Language Operations (LangOps), leverages AI and automation to support your language strategy across all departments — product, marketing, customer support, and more — with quality, consistency, and speed to market. Teams can centralize their data and manage all their assets within Unbabel’s portal, providing complete visibility across all departments to truly facilitate cross-functional collaboration.

What differentiates our solutions from others on the market is that we blend our AI technology to incorporate “humans-in-the-loop” for added refinement.

Want to learn more about how we can support your global app localization process?


 

About the Author

Valeria Rossi is a Content Writer at Unbabel, responsible for delivering engaging content across Unbabel’s platforms. She harnesses her own experience in the customer support industry to create helpful articles for her readers. Bilingual in Italian and English, with an academic background in foreign languages, Valeria brings unique insights to each piece she writes. She earned her BA in Modern Languages from the University of Genoa.

Profile Photo of Valeria Rossi