How to Localize a Mobile App for International Markets 

 October 3, 2019

by Elisa Abbott


(While I’m busy writing my book, here’s a guest post on a topic close to me. I grew up in Japan as an American citizen, so I know how tricky it can be to cross cultures. Elisa Abbott gives us an overview of how localization is more than translating strings. —Jon)

As the world’s population is entering a phase of unprecedented growth, it’s essential to recognize that more and more people will own a smartphone. Billions of people don’t speak English as their native tongue, and maybe don’t know it at the most elementary level. This brings us to the idea that a high-quality localization (abbreviated l10n) of your app isn’t just an advantage—it will eventually become an indispensable part of app development.

Localization  is the process of integrally translating your app content, yet also taking into account the linguistic peculiarities of a particular region. While this appears to be a very lengthy and strenuous process, research suggests that it has astonishing returns on investment. In this article, we’d like to look into the technicalities of localizing your app. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

What localization is and what it is not?

It’s essential to address an age-old question regarding what the difference between localization and translation is. While both practices share a host of similarities, there are some fundamental differences that set them very far away from one another.

From a linguistic standpoint, translating a text is all about preserving meaning. Translation specialists will often use the word “faithful” when talking about translations. A faithful translation intends to replicate meaning while abiding by linguistic norms.

Localization tends to depart from the universal standards of a language and focus more on regional standards. It tries to accommodate the way people speak in a specific part of the world.

Let’s exemplify. There is an extensive list of countries that feature English as their official language. Let’s just focus on a few:

  • USA
  • Belize
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Jamaica
  • Ireland

Now imagine that you’re a business that wants to market its services or products overseas. How efficient would your marketing campaigns be if you were to just “translate” them in standard English? Considering the vast geographical and cultural diversity among these countries, it’s safe to say that they speak and use English differently. In situations like these, localization is an essential mechanism for making your product appealing by tapping into a country’s cultural and social background.

Start with internationalization

Prior to localizing your text, you’ll have to make sure that you extract all the strings that contain text in your app and take a close and careful look. Your first task will be to internationalize the text you’ve just extracted. To some extent, internationalization is the complete opposite of localization, yet it’s necessary for the successful completion of the l10n process.

Internationalization has to do with both design and text, and it implies achieving a neutral interface—an interface that doesn’t contain any cultural or region-specific content. Once your text is universalized, you’ll be able to provide it to localization specialists.

As we mentioned previously, you’ll have to extract the strings from your app’s code and divide it into text and code. Once the two are separated, you’ll be able to make the necessary changes to the text.

This “clean” version of your app’s copy is called a resource file, and you’ll be using it to then translate or localize your app into a multitude of languages.

Both the AppStore and Google Play are interested that the apps that are placed in their marketplace are localized adequately so that you can find some great information on the procedure both from Apple and Google.

Make a thorough termbase

Analyze your text and extract the most commonly used keywords and write them down in a document for further translation and localization. When providing the localization experts with the resource file, you’ll want to underline the terminology your brand uses. This is an essential step in the entire process because you’ll want to replicate these keywords or brand terms in a different language and culture. Here’s what your termbase will contain:

  • Product or service-related keywords and their possible synonyms and equivalents
  • Brand keywords
  • The words you commonly use to describe your business/services/products
  • The keywords you use to describe transactions (buy online, online shop, discount, and so forth)

Choose your markets

As we mentioned previously, localization is an entire saga you embark on, and it’s a fairly complex process with a myriad of ins and outs. Therefore, it’s safe to say that if you can localize your product, it doesn’t mean you should. Make sure to reach an in-depth understanding of what the most suitable markets are for your app.

Fundamentally speaking, why is app localization important? The answer is that most people in the world don’t speak English. At all. That implies that they are dissuaded from making purchases in a language they don’t speak. Therefore, if you want to make your product or app accessible to users overseas, and make it appealing for them to purchase it—it’s essential to localize it.

The Common Sense Advisory published a study that has established the importance of localization once and for all, called “Can’t Read Won’t Buy.” The findings of this study indicate that people all over the planet will instead buy a product that is advertised to them in their native language, rather than a less expensive one. In France and Japan, for example, that figure reaches 60%.

The Asian market is now booming. Most probably the most desirable languages for app developers to localize for are Korean and Japanese—markets that are famous for their passion for smartphones.

Be paranoid about space

If you’re localizing your app for a part of the world that doesn’t use either Latin or Cyrillic characters, it’s essential to start obsessing with the space in your UI.

Considering how surrounded we are with English-centric technology, it’s easy to forget about how different letters and characters are in other languages. If you don’t take that into account at the earliest stages of development, you may be facing issues with localizing your product later on for languages like Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, and others.

Here’s a great depiction of the above issues:

Study the culture and the cultural elements

Once you’re done research the best markets to enter and you’ve established all the peculiarities regarding UI space, it’s time to research the culture. There is a host of important factors that need to be taken into account when localizing a product.

Small cultural symbols are an essential component of making an interface comfortable to comfortable and appealing for a user. These symbols differ significantly from country to country.

However, it’s essential to take into account that misusing these symbols can have an adverse effect on your marketing and can render all your efforts to make your product appealing useless.

A widespread issue with localization is the fact that businesses consider that a country speaks one language by default. Consider localizing your social media and your app for multiple local and languages.

Traditional symbols and cultural values are also an excellent vehicle for localization. At this point, it’s essential to work with a cultural consultant.

Decide what type of localization that you’re after.

After you’ve researched all the essential markets and studied the cultural elements you’d like to explore, it’s also vital to establish the desired “degree” of localization. Your organization strategy and budget will generally define this.

Primary localization—the localization of App Store texts and marketing materials.

Partial localization (aka Minimum Viable Localization)—everything in the primary localization, as well as in-app text and UI.

Full localization—a thorough localization of every single component.

Testing is the key

Even though localization is a long and scrupulous process, it needs to have its testing phase. Whenever the localization process is over, you need an external entity to review the quality of the localization.

For instance, consider hiring a third-party tester, that will conclude that localization has been executed correctly and that there aren’t evident and hidden issues with the translation. There are now many third-party services you can find at  Pick Writers, to which you can outsource localization validation and testing, in order to avoid hiring another in-house team of specialists.

When working out the budget for the localization, always include language testing services.

Collect feedback

Another great way to calibrate and improve the quality of the localization is by involving your users to contribute. If you already have a user base in the market you’re trying to localize for, allow them to make the necessary contributions and recommendations, in regards to the final product of the localization. Make sure that your app will enable users to leave comments and feedback.


Localizing your app is most certainly a costly process that is demanding from a multitude of perspectives—time, budget, effort, and many other facets. However, it remains one of the best ways to enter foreign markets and reach non-English speaking audiences.

Localization will allow you to mitigate cultural sensitivity and stimulate brand loyalty. Good luck!

Advanced TDD Workshop for iOS Developers—On Sale Now

Elisa Abbott

About the author

Elisa Abbott completed a degree in Computer Science. She finished her study last year but is already a true expert when it comes to presenting a text in a creative and understandable manner. Elisa is thirsty for knowledge and is always on the lookout for tips to share with her readers.

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