Four principles of successful product globalization

How to close the loop with localization best practices
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How will the world experience your product? 

We've never met a product manager or product development manager who doesn't want their product – their 'baby' – to conquer the world. So what does it take to succeed with product globalization

First it takes a great product – but you've got that covered. 

Then there's the will to localize the product experience for different markets. Frustrating as it might be, if you don't do this then your great product will face stiff competition from lesser – but locally developed – products. There's just too much evidence that localization (or lack of it) directly affects people's willingness to buy. If you expect to compete with Italian businesses in Italy or Chinese companies in China, you've got to put in the work to meet the linguistic, cultural and functional expectations of customers born and bred in those countries. 

How difficult can product localization be? 

As with many things in life, localizing your product can be challenging if you dive in without grasping its intricacies. But once you understand some key principles and best practices, you'll see that it's possible to take this complex activity in stride. At RWS we're fortunate to be both software developers and among the world's leading providers of localization services – so we appreciate what matters from both these perspectives. Based on our own experiences and those of the many organizations that have turned to us for help going global, we've identified four principles that are critical for success: 

  1. Start with internationalization
  2. Cater for an expanded product experience
  3. Make localization agile
  4. Don't forget quality assurance

All four principles matter equally

1. Start with internationalization

Most developers will know the pain of having to go back and redo their work to retrofit to a new set of requirements. 

That's why, for example, you don't develop for one specific device or computing system and then go back and (re)develop for different platforms. You build multi-platform compatibility in from the start. Similarly, you have a much better chance of efficiently and effectively catering to users with disabilities if you design accessibility in from the start, rather than treating it as an afterthought.

Internationalization simplifies localization 

Internationalization – often written as 'i18n' (18 being the number of letters between 'i' and 'n' in the English word) – is the application of this principle in software development to cater to users outside of your home market. It means that even while developing for your home market, you build in compatibility for different currencies, tax regimes, character sets, language direction, formats for names, dates, addresses, and so on. This 'multilocal' approach avoids having to go back and build these in after the fact, when it's time to localize the product for an international launch. 

Without the design and development practices of internationalization, localization becomes much more difficult, time-consuming and costly to do well – and the risk of failure much higher. I18n is critical to efficient and effective product globalization because it simplifies product localization.

Top i18n tip: the value of in-context preview

While internationalization is theoretically independent of localization – it simplifies localization in advance of it happening – developers are much more likely to get i18n right if they can readily preview their work for specific localization use cases. 

This is particularly important if you're developing for a big multinational launch, but even if you'll only be targeting other markets some time in the future, it helps for programmers and UX designers to be able to see the likely effects of localization on their work. 

For this, they need tools with in-context preview – and it helps if the preview capability can make use of integrated neural machine translation (NMT). This can deliver a translation preview that is good enough to constitute a localization beta, helping your developers to close the loop from internationalization to localization.

Machine translation and product localization

NMT is brilliant for in-context preview (as noted), and to save time and effort for human translators when localizing all sorts of product-related content. But be careful not to rely on it for the final translation of: 

  • Strings with length restrictions – because the NMT algorithm can't know that a translation needs to fit into a specific, constrained space. 
  • Short strings that lack the context for NMT to identify the correct translation reliably. These are extremely common in software, for example:
        The English word 'open' will be used as an isolated string both for the action of opening a file, folder or project; and to denote that a project or process is not yet complete. Since these two meanings require different words in many other languages, the chances of an NMT gaffe are high.

2. Cater for an expanded product experience

Driven largely by the raised digital expectations of customers in a digital-first world, what they experience as 'the product' is expanding – and this has implications for product globalization. 

Firstly, it's now common for physical products to have a software interface or companion app. Often, in fact, it's this digital experience that differentiates similar physical products, the result being that for many product managers the product experience is bound up with how well the digital user experience complements the physical experience. This convergence of physical and digital is the first way in which digitization has changed the nature of products and the product experience.

In a connected world, products have fuzzy edges 

The second is that users increasingly look for product-related content online – and in new formats. It doesn't matter if the product is physical or digital, they're looking for demos and how-to videos, online FAQs and knowledge bases, interactive assistants, e-learning modules and more – preferably accessible from within the software (or, for physical products, the associated app). 

This move to digital content isn't just about a format change for product materials such as user guides, or an evolution in the delivery of in-software help – though these can be challenging enough if you want to deliver a brilliant product experience. In many cases it signals a fundamental blurring of lines between the product and what happens upstream (before customers buy it) and downstream (after they buy it). 

Where does your product start and end?

If customers are buying a product online – especially if it's a digital product and even more so if it's software-as-a-service – then the product arguably 'starts' with its online marketing presence. Or, if the users of a product don't distinguish between 'product documentation' and 'support documentation' – and may expect to find these in the same place – then support content is very much part of the product experience, even if responsibility for it lies outside of the product team.

"My role has definitely evolved to reflect new customer expectations. Their experience with my product starts with what they encounter online once they're interested enough to dig into how it works. So I now share responsibility for this with marketing. Even if I didn't, I'd want to make sure that customers see how their expectations are matched by the product I'm responsible for."

Rares Vasilescu, Vice President of Software Engineering, RWS, on the expanding role of product development

The implications for product globalization

One of the most common product globalization pitfalls – a danger even for those committed to internationalization best practices – is to delay translation until you're suddenly faced with a looming launch deadline. This is never a good idea, but makes even less sense in the face of the expanded product experience, which exacerbates two common translation challenges: 
  • Volume. With products encompassing a greater variety of content than they used to, there's simply more to translate – especially for major global product releases. More to translate means a greater risk of delay, affecting time to market. The pressure put on the localization process to avoid such delay means a greater risk of translation errors or cultural missteps, either of which can all too easily endanger perception of your product and your brand.
  • Consistency across silos. When the product experience is a combination of different types of content created in different ways at different times, it's much easier to end up with inconsistencies – for example, different terms chosen for the same concept in the UI, user guide and training materials. The confusion this causes for customers is the very opposite of the positive product experience you'd want.

How to take the expanded product experience in stride

If you want your product to conquer the world, you've got to give translation the time and consideration it deserves – across every content element of the expanded product experience. This starts with internationalization best practices, such as clearly and reliably separating translatable strings from source code. But it doesn't end there. To close the loop your next step is to:

  • Embed the translation process effectively into your product development and management processes. Your solution for this could be investment in specific technology, a relevant service, or a mix of both.

Translation solution essentials

To cater to the expanded product experience, you want a solution with: 

  • Easy scalability to tackle the ever-growing volume of product content that must be localized
  • Cross-content capability to manage the different translation needs of different types of content, while reliably ensuring consistency across them all
Learn more

3. Make localization agile

It's easy enough to say that you need to embed translation into your product processes. But the shift from waterfall to agile software development – and to models such as iterative or incremental development and continuous delivery – is a challenge for a traditional translation process. 

Continuous localization: how to take agile translation in stride 

Traditionally, the translation process deals with neat packages of approved content flowing through a linear process. But in agile development, product-related content is continually generated in small, iterative (continually updated) batches. These go out for translation and return at different times, creating version-control issues that are a challenge for the traditional process. If you persist with a linear translation model in the face of this asynchronous and atomic process, you can expect to struggle with localization.

Fortunately there are translation solutions – both technology platforms and services – that have evolved to manage translation in an agile way. You'll want to: 

  • Invest in a continuous localization solution, which again could be through technology, a service, or a mix of both.

Continuous localization essentials

A continuous localization solution will be designed to:

  • Scale easily to handle any number of projects, files or tasks associated with the agile process
  • Integrate seamlessly with the way your developers work, becoming the crucial link in closing the loop from i18n to l10n
Learn more

Agile translation tip: let in-context preview evolve 

In an agile development process you're never done with internationalization, and you want to keep previewing the effect of new product iterations on localization. Continuous localization has a knock-on benefit here, because it provides approved translations as you develop, which you can plug into your in-context previews to deliver increasingly accurate previews of the final as you get closer to launch.

4. Don't forget quality assurance

In your home market, both the functionality and experience of any new or updated product are thoroughly tested. But when it comes to product globalization, companies often act as if there's simply no need for testing of localized product versions. 

Why take the risk?

Given how many ways there are for localization to go wrong – from embarrassing translation errors or confusing inconsistencies to user interface failures and cultural gaffes – this oversight adds a hugely unnecessary level of risk to what are usually significant business investments in growth. 

Nor is this just about language. In one example it turned out that an important new feature in a mobile phone relied on the availability of a 5G network to work – not a problem in the home market where it was developed, but a recipe for failure in countries with slower 5G rollouts.

How to localize QA for global product success 

With most QA teams only equipped to test their organization's products in one language and one primary market, overcoming the multilocal QA challenge means there's one more step to take to deliver a comprehensive product localization solution: 

  • Get access to on-the-ground testing resources in the markets you're targeting.

Globalization testing essentials

If you can't do it in-house – and very few can – you need to look for a localization partner that offers an international product testing service. Besides being wherever you need it geographically, this service will need to cover much more than linguistic testing (important as that is).
Learn more

Ready to close the loop?

Start with internationalization, cater for an expanded product experience, make localization agile, and don't forget quality assurance. Adhere to these four principles and you'll have everything in place to deliver a product experience that anyone, anywhere in the world, can appreciate.

Internationalization is the best foundation for product localization, but doesn't take you all the way to a localized product experience. To close the loop you'll need a comprehensive localization solution – through new technology investments, partnering with a service provider, or a mix of both – that has these characteristics: 

  • Easy scalability to address the challenges of both the expanded product experience and the agile development process 
  • Cross-content capability to achieve a consistent product experience across diverse content localization needs in a connected, digital-first world 
  • Support for continuous localization as a natural extension of your development workflows, fully integrated with the way your developers work 
  • Localized product testing to ensure that QA is as much of a priority beyond your language and cultural borders as it is at home

Want to close the loop?

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