Welcome to the big, scary world of app localization. Whether you're launching a brand new product or targeting new markets after many years, venturing into unknown territories always comes with a unique set of challenges.
With mobile app localization, the biggest challenge is often getting started. There are so many moving parts and potential pitfalls that it can be challenging to know where to begin. A lot of the information online is either outdated or biased, with every translation agency and technology platform trying to pull you in. Finding the best path forward in all the noise is almost impossible.
This guide is designed to help you get started with app localization, and give you some best practices that will set you up for success in the long run. We'll cover everything from why localization is important to how to go about selecting the right markets, preparing the materials you need, and translating your app content.
We'll talk about mobile app localization here, but most of what we'll cover applies to web and desktop apps, too. So it's worth a read, whether you're after app store downloads or SaaS subscriptions.
By the end, you'll have a clear understanding of what it takes to localize an app and be well on your way to reaching new users around the world.
Here's the big question that's obviously keeping you up at night: Why should you even bother localizing your app? After all, English is the most widely spoken language in the world, so couldn't you just launch your app with a user interface in English in every app store worldwide and let everyone else figure it out?
The answer - in most cases, though not all - is no. While it's true that English is the most common language online, that doesn't mean it should be your only focus. There's a reason why big companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook all put so much emphasis on localization. It's not just a "nice-to-have" - it's an essential part of business in the global market.
Why? Let's start with the obvious reason: By only targeting English-speaking users - or English-speaking countries - you're excluding a considerable portion of the potential market for your app. The Apple App Store is available in over 40 languages, for example. And localized apps get downloaded significantly more. I've seen stats referring to 200% to 10x more app downloads.
But the value of localization doesn't just boil down to reach. There are other benefits to investing in localization, even if most of your target market handles English reasonably well. Communicating with people in their native language generates stronger emotional reactions. You'll be charging your interaction with emotion. And emotional interactions are much more memorable.
In other words: By using a language they're comfortable and fluent in, you'll leave a lasting impression. Your users will be more likely to download your app, keep it on their phone, and recommend it to their friends.
Plus, it'll show people in that market that they're important to your company. They're not just a side market if they're important enough to localize for. And that, in turn, can improve user satisfaction, loyalty, and engagement.
And finally, having a localized version lets you adapt your product to match the needs of each market. Rather than have a one-size-fits-all solution, you'll be flexibly responding to the specific needs of your users. That's a powerful way to refine your app, making it highly usable and valuable for those local users.
Frankly, no. There are certain cases where you're better off delaying localization for a bit or avoiding it altogether. It's an expensive and challenging task to take on. You want to ensure you have a good chance of getting a good ROI for the effort.
So, before you get started, closely examine your reasons for doing mobile app localization. Do you have a solid (data-backed!) reason to assume it'll be worth the investment? If not, it might not be the right time for you to move forward.
Then, ensure have the resources and time to invest in it. App localization without the proper prep work will likely not generate good results. And likewise, you'll want some hands on deck to oversee the process. Especially when you're just starting, don't count on promises from any external vendor - always double and triple-check you're getting what you paid for.
If you're certain localization is the right move for your app, congratulations! You're on your way to reaching a whole new global audience.
The process of localizing your mobile app can be broken down into three distinct steps:
Obviously, steps 2 and 3 repeat themselves with every new version or update you release. Often the lines get very blurry, and steps 2 & 3 happen simultaneously for different parts of the app. It's called Continuous Localization, where each bit of copy required gets translated instantly. If you're using the agile methodology in your company (who doesn't these days), you're likely already familiar with how this works.
But this post isn't about steps 2 & 3 - it's about what happens before them. The incredibly-important-but-also-overwhelming step 1 of Setting Everything Up. This is essentially building the infrastructure of a successful app localization process.
A lot of what we're doing at this stage only happens once, or you'll want to tweak it once every few months. So don't get discouraged if it feels like a lot. Getting the proper setup in place will 100% make things easier for you in the long run.
It's tempting to storm into a translation agency's office, throw your phone on the table and yell, "I want this entire app translated, stat!" But let's face it, that's not practical. And we're not in an early-2000s medical drama. You can put the beeper down.
You want to start by dipping your toes in the localization pool - choosing a small section of your app to localize first. Once you finish that first project, you'll want to take a step back and improve some things in your process. You'll quickly become overwhelmed and bogged down if you commit to considerable volume from the start.
The best strategy is to start small and expand from there, always ensuring you get a good ROI for your efforts. Choose a small section of the app, then add the rest once you have a workflow you're happy with.
Of course, this doesn't mean you should launch a version of your app with only the onboarding flow localized. You still want to give your users a full localized experience - but you can decide to leave some features out for the moment and add them in once you're more established in that market.
Alternatively, you can simply start with a small section and get feedback through user interviews and testing. Then add the rest and officially launch the app in that language.
The localization world today is much more diverse than it used to be. In the early days, you would go to a large localization agency, and they would handle everything for you. But with the rise of technology, you can easily reach freelance translators and collaborate with them to get the job done. This means you have more options than ever before. Let's take a look at some pros and cons:
Translation agencies, often called "language service providers" (LSPs), have been the standard for getting app copy translated in the past. They handle all aspects of the app localization process, from recruiting and managing translators to quality assurance.
Working with a big agency for your mobile app localization can be helpful, especially if you're new to localization. They have the experience and knowledge to help you through the process. You don't have to do a Ph.D. on translation software or browse through dozens of translator profiles. And they can also offer additional services like copywriting, transcreation, translation management, and project management.
Many of the larger translation agencies invest heavily in technology - which means they have proprietary tools to help them streamline localization. You can purchase similar tools (more on that in a bit), but they're priced separately and include a steep learning curve.
Plus, translation agencies allow for scalability, especially the larger ones. If you decide to add a language, all you have to do is ask - and they'll take care of it for you.
That doesn't mean a translation agency is the only way to go, though. There are certainly downsides to this option.
Agencies like to keep their cards close to their chest, so you don't get visibility over the entire localization flow. This means you have much less control over how things are going. You can't always verify you're getting what you're paying for. And while most agencies are honest, you still want to make sure. And in many cases, you don't have much control over which linguists are recruited for your project.
Large agencies often won't provide that personal VIP service. They have their methods and workflows, and you'll likely get a one-size-fits-all solution unless you know what to ask. Even if you have a personal project manager assigned to you, they'll be part of the bigger machine.
Plus, bigger agencies often won't let you communicate directly with their translators. It's a massive minus, in my opinion - and may even be a deal breaker. Communication between client and translator is one of the biggest contributors to localization quality. It's certainly not something you want to give up unless you absolutely have to.
When working with a small translation agency, you're likely to get more personalized service. They're running a smaller operation with fewer clients, so your business will naturally be more significant to them.
In general, small agencies tend to be more flexible than their larger counterparts, too. They'll often be willing to work harder to adapt to your workflow and software or to meet your deadlines.
There's also a better chance they'll let you have direct communication with the people working on your project - the actual translators. This is a significant plus, as you'll get to provide context and background information that can help them do a better job.
And another plus? Small agencies often specialize in one type of industry or have a strong focus on specific language pairs. This can be helpful if you're in a niche market or need expert-level knowledge of a language that's not commonly translated. Try and find an agency focused strictly on app localization services - their translators will likely also have expertise in that field.
But of course, there are some downsides to working with a small agency, too.
Small agencies do have some of the same faults as the larger ones. Mainly, they act as a barrier between you - the client who knows the ins and out of the app - to the translators who do the actual localization work. Even if they're willing to try to get the information across, it'll never be the same. Your control over the process will never be the same.
Plus, they have fewer resources and tools compared to the larger agencies. They're not likely to have their own in-house software or have access to every language in the world. They'll have fewer translators in their database, so they may not be available to work immediately. This makes them a good option if you want to localize into one language, but not as much if you're planning a massive multilingual endeavor.
Some companies prefer to skip the middleman and work directly with freelance translators. In recent years this became much easier, with collab tools galore and several free databases to source for linguists. I covered the best places to find freelance translators in 2022 here.
Directly working with translators gives you the highest degree of control and communication throughout the localization process. You can hand-pick the people you work with and ensure they have the right expertise or credentials. You're free to ask them any questions you have, interview them, or ask for a test piece (paid, of course). And you can monitor their work directly to ensure they provide consistently high-quality copy.
Working directly with freelancers also lets you develop an actual relationship with the people working on your project, which on its own is a significant advantage. People you've met in person - or on Zoom - are more likely to invest in your project (as long as you're nice to them during that meeting).
When you have direct communication with your linguists, you're free to give them as much context as you want, and they can ask you any questions they have. Since information flows between you with minimal interruptions, you'll get fewer misunderstandings and better-localized results overall.
The main downside of working with freelance translators is that you need to spend time searching for them. It's time-consuming and often frustrating. Good translators that are easy to find are always busy. Good, available translators are hard to find. The Triangle of Localization Futility sums that up nicely.
Even if you don't mind investing the time to find your translators, vetting them is more challenging than you imagine. This is especially true if you don't speak the language they're translating into. In this case, you'll have to get help from a second translator to review the first one. But then, how do you know if their work is good enough? You'll have to get a third one. I think you see what I'm getting at here.
And once you find the right linguists for you, there's still the little task of managing their work: Asking for quotes, sending out the materials, ensuring they read everything through, and checking for issues once they're done. Some freelancers are less reliable than others, and you're likely to deal with quite a few missed deadlines. Managing a team of freelancers isn't always easy, to say mildly.
If you have enough volume of work to justify that, you can even hire your in-house translator. This isn't usually a good solution if you're just starting, but it may be in the future, so it's worth including in this list.
This is an easy one: When your translators work in-house, they only care about your app. They won't have any other clients to learn about, so you'll be getting their full and undivided attention. And since they're staying on long-term, they'll be much more likely to take the time and learn about your users, voice, and brand identity. In-house translators are compensated per month or hour, not project. Which means they won't mind investing as many hours as needed in training.
Another great benefit is that once you hire in-house translators, they're right there - physically or in spirit. They'll be able to collaborate closely with your writers, designers, and product managers. And whenever you have a question, you can simply fire a quick email and get an answer. That can be very valuable when trying to conquer a new market you don't know well.
Plus, an in-house translator can often lead their language independently. You won't have to manage them as much, leaving you time for other tasks. And having a foreign market managed by someone who speaks the language and understands the culture is the ideal way to do it.
In-house translators are expensive, and you need to have a significant enough need in a specific language to justify the cost. An in-house translator may be valuable if you're translating a complex app with constantly updating content. But if you're just starting out, it's likely you'd rather work with freelancers or an agency.
The best option for you depends on your specific needs. If you're just starting out and are worried about finding your footing, a small agency may be a good fit. They can give you the personalized support you need to understand the localization world better.
If you're slightly more experienced and have plenty of strings or different languages to localize to, give a larger agency a try. If you find the right one, they'll be able to handle a scaling workload. Just ensure you're still monitoring their work rather than blindly entrusting them with your content.
If you're willing to jump through some hoops and quality is at the top of your priority list, go for freelance translators. This is also a scalable, flexible solution. And since the control is in your hands, you can choose the best translators out there. As a bonus, it may even be cheaper than working with an agency, as there's less overhead.
And finally, if you've reached that point where you have enough localization work to fill a part- or full-time job, go you! You can now hire an in-house translator and walk hand-in-hand towards the sunset.
Assuming you've worked with a professional UX writer to craft your original copy, you probably want the localized versions to have the same impact. For that to happen, I would recommend hiring translators with a background or training in UX writing. I discussed this in detail here - give it a read if you're interested to learn more.
If you plan on using Excel sheets to manage your localization, it's time to step into the 21st century. Today there are dozens, if not hundreds, of tools you can use to manage localization workflows and tasks, track quality, maintain consistency, and more. I wrote about some of these here and reviewed some of the most common pitfalls in mobile app localization.
You can find an extensive list of localization tools over at writingTech. But in essence, there are two main categories of platforms you should be looking at: Project management tools and CAT tools. Sometimes they overlap to an extent, and sometimes they are two completely separate platforms. Let's see what each of these is.
These platforms help you stay on top of all the steps and tasks involved in localization. They take care of things like maintaining your pool of translators, setting up translation tasks, receiving translated files from your translators, and putting your content through several stages (translation, review, proofreading, QA, etc.).
Some of these platforms are highly robust; you can even use them to manage translator payments and invoicing. Others are significantly simpler - and they're priced accordingly, of course.
If you've got an intricate app, have plenty of separate translation tasks, or plan to localize into more than one or two different languages, consider trying one. Using the right project management platform for your needs can save you time and hassle. For smaller projects, try utilizing the project management software you're already using in your company.
CAT is short for "computer-assisted translation." It's a general name for platforms and software that help translators work better and more efficiently. With capabilities like translation memories (a file that can store every string your company's ever had translated), term bases (fancy loc word for glossaries), context screenshots, and automated QA scans, these ensure your translators can produce the best results possible. Read this post for a more in-depth look at CAT tools.
CAT tools can come in an online or offline (desktop) version, with online ones being of the more modern variety. Some CAT tools require your translators to buy their own licenses, while others let you assign licenses to different users based on your needs. I would recommend going for the second kind so as not to minimize your pool of possible translators.
If you're working with an agency, you can ask them to recommend a CAT tool. But remember, they may suggest the one they're most familiar with, rather than the best one for your needs. Try and browse around for a bit yourself, and see which option seems like a good fit.
Do you have to use a tool or platform for mobile app localization?
Strictly speaking, no - you don't have to. But if you're working with multiple translators, multiple languages, or multiple projects, it can be helpful to use one. It saves you and your translators time and helps prevent mistakes that can impact your results.
There is quite a bit of information you want your translators to know about your app before they start working on the project. So, for example, you may want to give them the 411 on:
👉🏼 Your app's features and how it works
👉🏼 Who it's meant for
👉🏼 What its goal is
👉🏼 Any particular terminology you've used
Plus, there are likely additional instructions and style guidelines you'd like them to follow. For example, do you want them to convert dates, currencies, and measurements to their local format? Do you want them to use gendered or non-gendered language? How formal should they write? Those are just some of many examples.
Sure, you could set up a meeting and dump all that info on them - but how likely are they to remember?
Rather than do that, a better way to go about it is to create a brief. This is essentially a document that contains all the information in a clear, organized, concentrated way. It gets everyone on the same page from the start so that they know exactly what's expected of them.
Creating brief templates is helpful for several reasons. First, it ensures you don't forget to include any critical information. Second, it saves a lot of time later - since instead of creating each brief from scratch, you simply populate the relevant parts of your template, and bam, you're done. After all, a big part of the template doesn't change between projects - things like your brand voice, app features, and target audience, for example.
To make things easier, I would recommend creating language-specific briefs. This way, you can include relevant guidelines for each language. You don't want to send translators documents with irrelevant information - once they see that, they'll assume you're just wasting your time and skim the whole thing (justifiably so).
Also, keep your brief short and sweet. Only include what's essential, and leave out any fluff like your brand vision (sorry) and mission (double sorry). It's not that they're not important - it's that they're not necessarily relevant for a linguist working on your copy. If you're interested in reading more about writing brand voice guidelines for your linguists, read here.
Congrats! You've got your infrastructure down, and it's time to start localizing. To learn more about what happens now, take a look at this post. Good luck!