Why Internationalization Is Not Optional



“We’re releasing the software exclusively in English.”

“The product is intended for distribution in the United States only.”

“Our vendor takes care of the entire localization process.”

“Our target audience does not mind that the user interface is in English.”

I have heard many of these responses when talking to product managers or software developers about internationalizing their products. “Internationalization” means designing a product in such a way that will meet the needs of users in all countries around the world or can easily be adapted to do so. Based on that definition, let’s analyze the responses above.

“We’re releasing the software exclusively in English.”

Internationalization is not about language. Well, at least not primarily. It’s about making a product usable for everybody around the world. But what kind of issues could one encounter in an English-only product?

  1. Number, date, and time formats may be hard coded to US format, which makes it difficult to correctly interpret certain information presented to the user:
    1. 01-02-2017: Does this represent “February 1” or “January 2”?
    2. 001: In Denmark, this represents “one thousand and one”, but in the US, it represents “one point zero zero one”.
  2. Data sorting: If the product displays lists of sorted items that may contain characters with diacritics, for example a list of people’s names, sorting them in a fixed manner may be confusing to people in other countries that expect a different sorting order.
  3. If the product allows user input of text or other data, what happens if a user, for example, enters text in Chinese? Will the product be able to properly store it and display it back?

What if marketing decides to localize the product later? Internationalizing a product is much easier if the effort is part of the initial development. Internationalizing an already developed product may require a redesign of the product architecture at a much higher cost.

“The product is intended for distribution in the United States only.”

The country one resides in does not dictate their language and culture. A consumer in the United States could be more comfortable with Spanish content or could have their operating system set to use Chinese standards and formats settings. A product that adapts to those preferences ensures a positive user experience and appeals to a larger audience.

Providing content for additional languages may be good for business. The Spanish-speaking population of the US has grown from 11 million to 40 million between the years 1980 and 2018 and there are over three million Chinese speakers as of 2016. A product may not be translatable if it’s not internationalized however. All the user-visible text needs to be extractable for translation in some form, which is facilitated by proper internationalization.

“Our vendor takes care of the entire localization process.”

That’s great, but at what cost? If your product is not internationalized, a localization vendor may need to employ time-consuming conversions or workarounds, and perform a lot of manual work, i.e. copy and paste, to localize your product. This is guaranteed to drive up the cost of localization, in some cases to the point where the cost of the actual translation is a fraction of the total localization cost due to all the manual engineering labor required.

A properly internationalized product should allow quick extraction of source content and integration of translated content, which can significantly reduce localization engineering cost.

“Our target audience does not mind that the user interface is in English.”

This may be true in some cases, e.g. for internal communication in a small US-based corporation where all business is conducted in English. Other internationalization issues beyond user interface (UI) language could still affect the usability however.

Some questions to ask up front:

  • Do you know your target audience?
  • Are they all current users?
  • How do you know their UI language preference?
  • Would you like to expand your target audience?
  • How about the people who know about your product, but don’t use it because it is not available in their language?
  • Did you perform a market analysis to determine the need for other languages?

Internationalization as a Requirement

Internationalization should never be an afterthought and is not something that can be achieved parallel to the localization activities. When internationalization is part of the product plan and development, not much additional effort is required to produce a perfectly internationalized product.

Even something as simple as a Microsoft Word document, an Adobe InDesign document or a Storyline e-learning course can benefit from good internationalization practices in several areas if there is even slight chance the document will be localized. Notable items include:

  • Concise, clear, and error free content
  • Use of styles
  • Font choices
  • Text flow and page layout
  • Use of images
  • Use of templates

For desktop and web applications, there are many additional considerations. In addition to the ones discussed above, the following items need to be addressed, among others:

  • Character encoding
  • Static vs. dynamic UI
  • String handling (concatenation)
  • Resource file format

We are continuously developing guidelines for internationalization of many content types and will be making them available to current and potential customers soon. We are available and ready to help you assess if your products are properly internationalized. It’s not as hard as it may sound, especially when the assessments and adjustments are done early in the product life cycle.

We invite you to contact us about your product internationalization needs.

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About Beat Stauber

Beat (pronounced “BEH-awe-t”) Stauber is a Senior Localization Engineer with over 20 years of experience. He is an expert in all aspects of internationalization and localization on the technical and process side. His strengths include designing localization solutions that focus on up-front internationalization, which facilitates localization and reduces costly rework later in the product life cycle. He has broad experience working with more than 40 languages, of which he speaks several, and has a proven ability to provide internationalization consulting services to software and content development teams. He enjoys authoring papers about internationalization and localization best practices and is passionate about training others on those topics.
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