Software Localization Best Practices for Top User Experience

graphical black and white illustration in the style of a flowchart diagram, alluding to software development workflow

Planning to make your software more accessible for international users? This guide walks you through ten essential practices, from early-stage design considerations to automated testing tools.

Software localization is the process of adapting a software product to meet the linguistic, cultural, and technical requirements of a specific foreign market. It spans a rather wide range of activities, from internationalizing the codebase to designing a culturally appropriate user experience.

This article looks at key software localization best practices that every software developer should follow. From planning and internationalization to translation management and quality assurance, these basics make good sense whether you’re a solo indie dev, localization manager at an SaaS startup, or a business leader heading international development.

How Is the Software Localization Process Different?

Software localization generally involves translating the user interface, documentation, and other content into the local language, as well as ensuring that the software functions correctly in the target environment.

In parallel, it takes cultural differences into account, such as date and time formats, currency symbols, and color preferences. Plus it involves technical adjustments like supporting local character sets and input methods.

The global software market is expected to reach $858 billion by 2028 (Statista, 2024) and seeing as 65% of users prefer to buy products in their own language (CSA Research, 2020) and localized software can increase revenue, investing in it is a wise move. It gives your software a competitive edge and helps you build deeper relationships with your international customer base.

Benefits of Software Localization

Internationalizing your software offers numerous benefits for your business and users alike, and it ultimately helps save time and money. One key advantage is the improved user experience: localized software feels native to users, making it easier and more enjoyable to use. By providing a seamless and culturally appropriate experience, you’re heightening user satisfaction and loyalty.

black and white illustration of a laptop opened to a world map, symbolizing software internationalization or l10n and i18n

Another significant benefit is increased global market share. Localization enables you to enter new markets and simply reach a much wider audience. By offering your app in multiple languages, you have a good entryway into previously untapped markets and can expand your customer base.

Following best practices in internationalization and localization can also help streamline the development process and reduce your time-to-market. By designing software with localization in mind from the start, you’ll avoid costly delays and recoding in the backend. Plus, using a translation memory and automating workflows can significantly reduce your localization costs. By leveraging existing translations and minimizing manual effort, you have a good chance of getting a higher ROI on your localization investment.

Finally, localization ensures that software more readily complies with local laws, regulations, and cultural norms. Adapting content and interface copy to meet local requirements helps you avoid legal issues and maintains a positive reputation for you in international markets.

Ok, you’re thinking, that sounds great. Now what?

10 Software Localization Best Practices

1. Plan for Localization Early

One of the most important things you can do is to try to plan for localization from the very beginning of the development process. Designing software with internationalization in mind will save you and your team a ton of headaches down the line.

In a nutshell, you want your app to be language- and locale-independent. This means separating translatable content from the codebase, using Unicode encoding, and avoiding hard-coded strings and concatenated text.

Quick tips for internationalizing your software:

  • Use resource files to store translatable strings separately from the code
  • Support Unicode to ensure that text displays correctly in all languages
  • Avoid hard-coding text, dates, times, and other locale-specific elements
  • Use placeholders for variable data, such as user names or currency amounts

Internationalizing your software at an early stage gives you a solid foundation for localization and make the process much smoother and more efficient.

But what if you’re late to the party, already have a finished software product, and only just now realize you want to localize it?

You can still retrofit your application for international markets. Begin by identifying all localizable elements within your software package. You can then use gettext, Babel for Python or your preferred system to extract translatable content from your codebase, parsing the source code to identify and separate hard-coded strings and locale-specific elements. This extraction may require significant code refactoring to replace hard-coded text with references to resource files where translatable content is stored separately from the code.

2. Use Unicode Encoding

Unicode is a universal character encoding standard that supports a wide range of languages and scripts. Using Unicode ensures that your software can handle text in any language, and it’s actually pretty mission critical if you want to handle multiple languages and correctly display characters across different scripts without any garbled or tofu characters.

Other key benefits of using Unicode in app localization:

  • Supports over 150 scripts and 140,000 characters
  • Enables multilingual text processing and display
  • Prevents data corruption and loss during localization
  • Facilitates global software development and collaboration

To implement Unicode in your software, you’ll need to use a Unicode-compliant encoding scheme, such as UTF-8 or UTF-16, an important step in the software localization process. You’ll also need to ensure that your database, web server, and other components support it.

3. Externalize Localizable Content

Externalizing localizable content means separating translatable text and resources from the codebase and storing them in separate files. This makes it easier to update and manage translations without modifying the source code.

Some best practices to keep in mind when externalizing localizable content:

  • Use resource files, such as XML or JSON, to store translatable strings.
  • Organize resource files by language and locale.
  • Use unique identifiers, such as keys or tags, to reference strings in the code.
  • Avoid hard-coding text or concatenating strings in the code, as these practices can complicate translation and localization efforts.

By externalizing localizable content, you can streamline the localization process and reduce the risk of errors and inconsistencies.

4. Provide Context for Translators

I’ve mentioned this in a few other articles already, but it really deserves reiteration again and again. I can’t tell you how many working hours I’ve spent chasing down localization engineers who’d left zero context for my team. Providing context for translators is crucial. Not just for ensuring accurate and appropriate translations, but also simply for avoiding false friends within the interface.

Without context, translators may misinterpret the meaning of a string, use the wrong terminology, or just plain get dependency blocked because they are unable to proceed without clarification.

engineers at a startup

Here are some ways to provide context for translators:

  • Include screenshots or videos of the software in use. Some tools like Phrase and Smartling have this functionality built in.
  • Provide descriptions or comments explaining the purpose and usage of each string.
  • Specify character limits and formatting requirements.
  • Use a glossary to define key terms and ensure consistency.

Providing clear and comprehensive context is relatively quick and easy to do, and it really helps your localization service provider do higher quality work.

5. Design a Flexible UI

Designing a flexible and adaptable user interface is essential for successful localization, particularly in the context of mobile app development. Different languages have different text lengths and reading directions, which can impact the layout and design of the software.

There are a few things you can focus on for a “loc”-friendly UI so that your software looks and functions correctly in any language:

Flexible layouts: Use relative sizing and positioning instead of fixed pixel values. This approach allows your UI to adjust dynamically to various screen sizes and resolutions, making it more adaptable to different languages and text lengths.

Accommodate text variations: Text length can vary significantly between languages. For instance, German text is usually much longer than English, while Chinese text might be more compact. Design your UI to allow for text expansion and contraction, ensuring that buttons, menus, and dialog boxes can accommodate these changes without breaking the layout.

Support RTL languages: If you’re targeting regions where right-to-left (RTL) languages like Hebrew are spoken, ensure your interface can handle these languages smoothly. This includes mirroring the layout and adjusting text alignment to provide a natural reading experience for RTL users.

Cultural sensitivity: Use icons and images that are culturally appropriate and easily understood across different regions. Some icons like the shopping cart are rather broadly recognized, but others may not be. It’s a good idea to research and choose symbols that resonate with your target audience to ensure effective communication.

6. Conduct Pseudo Localization Testing

Pseudo-localization is a testing technique that simulates the localization process by replacing the original text with pseudo-translated strings. This helps identify internationalization issues early in the development process, before the actual translation begins, and is especially helpful when dealing with software strings.

graphical illustration of independent developers at work coding

Pseudo-localization testing is also helpful because it:

  • detects hard-coded strings and concatenated text,
  • identifies UI layout issues like truncated or overlapping text,
  • ensures that the software can handle different character sets and text lengths and
  • helps estimate the impact of localization on the UI and UX by taking into account various software strings.

To do pseudo-localization testing, you can use tools that automatically generate pseudo-translated strings, such as accented characters or longer text. You can then review the software to identify any issues and make necessary adjustments.

7. Perform Linguistic Testing

Linguistic testing involves reviewing the translated software to ensure that the translations are accurate, consistent, and culturally appropriate. This step should be a no-brainer because of how crucial it is for catching any errors or inconsistencies that may have been missed during the translation process.

At this stage of the game, you’ll generally be focused on:

  • reviewing the translations in context, using the actual software or screenshots,
  • checking for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors,
  • making sure the translations are consistent with the glossary and style guide and
  • verifying that they’re culturally appropriate and sensitive.

You’ll want to have linguistic testing done by native speakers of the target language who are familiar with both your software application, and the actual localization process in of itself.

8. Use a Translation Memory

A translation memory (TM) is a database that stores previously translated content so you can reuse it for future translations. Using a TM keeps your brand voice, terminology and content aligned, and it might slightly reduce your localization costs. It also has the potential to speed up the localization process, which is beneficial whether you’re using a localization and translation service or have an in-house team.

You’ll find it easier to share and manage translations across various teams and projects when you’re using a TM, as opposed to sending, tracking, and having to merge (yikes) individual files of translated text.

The TM is generally integrated in the localization software or translation platform you choose, and there are indeed quite a few options to pick from. If you’re starting from scratch, you’ll want to go with a tool that integrates with your localization workflow and supports the file formats and languages you’ll be working with.

9. Don’t Localize Without a Style Guide

Another one of the software localization best practices that’s worth investing some time in is the compilation of a style guide. This document outlines all of your standards for translating and localizing content. For remote teams in particular, it can be a particularly helpful reference for translators involved in your project, and it’s another good way to facilitate consistent, accurate, and appropriate copy for your target audiences.

At bare minimum, a localization style guide should include the following:

  • Terminology and glossary, including preferred translations for key terms and phrases
  • Formatting guidelines, both in terms of your corporate identity and formats specific to individual locales
  • Grammar and syntax rules, such as verb tense, sentence structure, and punctuation
  • Tone and voice, including the desired level of formality and personality
  • Cultural considerations, such as taboos, sensitivities, and local customs
computer code showing styling, for an article about software localization best practices

If you’re working on adapting software across multiple languages, I would create a guide for each target language and locale. Share the guides with all stakeholders: the localization team, external translators, reviewers, and project managers. The general practice here is not all that different from that in video game localization.

10. Agile Localization Tools

Circling back to the TM mentioned in #8 above, localization tools are generally a huge help in automating and streamlining the localization process. There are many different types of tools available, not to mention done-for-you localization services that save time and money by streamlining the entire process.

  • Translation management systems (TMS) help manage the end-to-end localization process.
  • Computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools give you translation memory, terminology management, and quality assurance features.
  • Localization testing tools help automate the testing and QA process.
  • Continuous localization platforms integrate with development tools and enable real-time, agile localization.

No one should be emailing Excel or .po files back and forth in this day and age. It’s not agile, and it’s certainly not scaleable.

Of course, you’ll need to consider factors such as budget, the size and complexity of your localization projects, and your existing tools and workflows.

Some of the most prominent localization solutions you’ll find at the top of Google’s search results are exorbitant. Don’t be put off by that! Even if you run a tiny business, there are plenty of budget-friendly tools, APIs and subscriptions available. By using a localization tool, you’ll be in a far better position to add more languages as time progresses.

To sum up, using localization tools allows you to:

  • automate repetitive tasks, such as file management and translation updates;
  • have a centralized platform for collaboration and communication;
  • enable real-time localization and faster time-to-market;
  • improve the quality and consistency of translations through automation and QA checks.

Overall, following these software localization best practices will make your software is accessible, culturally relevant, and help you provide an excellent user experience for a more global audience. By planning ahead, leveraging the right tools and processes, and prioritizing quality, you can maximize the return on your localization investment and drive greater international growth.

Jenna Brinning Avatar

Author

A localization consultant, writer, editor, and content publisher with over two decades of experience in tech and language, Jenna holds an M.A. in journalism and communication science from Freie Universität Berlin, and is a certified PSPO and PSM who loves helping startups and small businesses reach international users.

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