A few days ago, I was talking with a couple of people about differences between countries. All of us probably know that, especially between the most well known countries, there are obvious differences in people’s character, lifestyle, meals, language and so many other things. However, something that not so many people know are the slight (and more fun) differences which are pretty common in daily life.
The conversation turned to several anecdotes related to colleagues with other nationalities who I have been working with, and how all these small details may impact when you are building a digital product. When I was on my way back home, I decided to write a post in order to help anyone who may be interested in the topic. So here it is.
How to internationalise a digital product
When the time comes to expand an ecommerce or digital product to another country, we think about «operational» issues (such as sales process, customer service or legal subjects) but the digital assets are sometimes simplified for translation, something that is certainly not enough to transform visits to our site or app into satisfied customers.
However, the reality is very clear: wanting to achieve good results only with content translation means not knowing how much these elements affect the success of a digital project. In fact, there are two specific processes to prepare a software product to be adapted for use in other countries. They are “internationalisation (i18n) and localisation (l10n)”.
In general, the complexity of this kind of process is unknown and very variable. From the purely technical to the more business-related aspects. There are many particularities to play the game properly, and it is not always easy to resolve these issues.
In my career, the best solution has been to work with a native speaker or market’s citizen (ideally linked to the company or at least familiar with the objectives of the project) who can identify most of the key points.
Although I am not going to detail operative aspects, I would like to summarise some issues and problems that I had to cope with. We were able to solve some of them 🙂 and others not 🙁
Dates and times
Something so common as a date and time can have multiple versions depending on the country that we are focussing on. In addition, other related aspects, such as being able to correctly configure the start day of the week (Monday vs Sunday) in a date picker can avoid huge usability problems.
On the other hand, if you are using server time to perform some kind of operation, it may also be necessary to take into account the different time zones. This issue will be quite common if your digital product has shipping date calculations, extra charges for urgent services, countdown offers, discount codes expiration or similar stuff, so remember that “today” in Europe may be “tomorrow” in America.
And the last tip: do not forget transactional emails. They should be managed by the same system as the website to achieve consistency throughout the whole process.
Reading from right to left is one of the most well-known patterns in Arabic. Although the W3C has detailed information about it, when the moment of truth arrives, it gets very complicated (so much so that, in our case some years ago, we were not able to get it to display everything correctly).
The length of the texts varies considerably from one language to another. Of all those I have worked with, French and German are by far the ones that generate the longest content; Chinese and Japanese the least (although these have other problems, as you will read about below). Designers must take special care to fit them all together in buttons, menus, banners… without sacrificing the correct visualisation of the content.
Prices, currencies and payment systems
If we want to sell in countries that use a currency different from ours, in addition to the price conversion system, we should take into account other points. Related to the previous section, the prices take up different spaces depending on the different currencies. For example, an amount in Mexican pesos or Thai baht can easily reach five or six figures instead of two or three in Euros. If we combine this fact with an excessively tight layout, the visualisation of the prices is not optimal and it may generate doubts among users.
But it is not the only aspect that we should be careful with. To achieve the best user experience, we will choose between a comma or a point to identify big amounts (1.000 vs 1,000). Moreover, we will have to place the position of the currency symbol (€, $, £…) before the amount in some cases or after it in others.
In the payments field, it can be interesting to offer options adapted to each of the markets with the aim of achieving higher conversion rates.
You can accept cards not so worldwide popular but quite common in specific countries (American Express in United States, JBC in Japan…). Additionally, instalments are quite common in countries such as Mexico or Argentina, and they will help you to improve your results. Finally, there are special kinds of payment which are available but just in one country ( “Boletos” in Brazil, “iDeal” in Netherlands). This last option sounds a bit weird, but they are extremely popular to make online purchases. As a little example, we recently included one of them in a market on Air Europa’s website and it got 40% of the total sales the first day that it was available.
Finally, and although it is more related to the financial area, not all payment systems allow easy internationalisation. It is almost always necessary to resort to IT teams to carry out new integrations and/or solve various problems such as incidents due to incompatibilities, small differences between what we register in our systems and what appears on the customer’s bank statement, overly strict anti-fraud measures that reject the payment, etc.
Information architecture and SEO
In this field, we must bear in mind that literal translations, although more correct from a linguistic point of view, may not be the best option. There are multiple terms or keywords which are totally different depending on the country. It will depend on your business, target and SEO strategy but some examples may be “cellphone (United States) vs mobile phone (United Kingdom)” or “camiseta (Spain) vs remera (Mexico or Argentina)”. Additionally, some idioms or funny winks/memes may not be identified properly by all country users.
On the more technical side, aspects such as ccTLD domains, language specification, canonical and hreflang tags, or the corresponding sitemaps also play an important role in an internationalisation process.
On paper, it is always clear that all points of our product (as well as integrated or external tools) must use the encoding UTF-8. However, when it comes down to it there is always something wrong. An unusual character such as Czech or Polish is imported incorrectly from a CSV, Asian characters such as Japanese or Chinese cause a problem in one of the systems, the email marketing application has problems when processing the subject lines… Most of them are solved with the collaboration of the developers, but it always consumes more resources and time than expected.
One of the most sensitive points of a digital product can be the data input by the user. In international sites or apps, especially in a shopping cart, a lot of countries have mandatory specific fields which are not necessary or not common in other ones.
Moreover, the field order (the house number before or after the address), the country drop-down selector or the type of alphabet in which the user fills the information (will we be able to process a purchase with all the data in Cyrillic or Chinese?) can transform a simple form into a puzzle impossible to solve in a simple way which works for all cases.
And, obviously, do not forget about validations: it will not be the first time that the characters included in some of the fields do not pass too strict a validation, causing the user to abandon the purchase process because he/she cannot solve it.
Many of the special events that serve to launch campaigns are celebrated on different dates in different countries. As you can check on this site, Mother’s Day, sales, bank holidays, back to school, etc. vary from region to region. This causes an extra effort as you have to adapt your messages (web promotions, email marketing, Adwords campaigns, social media messages…) to the particularities of each market in which you work.
In addition, bear in mind that if you do not have a Content Team that can create the texts quickly, your speed will be slowed down: an email marketing campaign, a change in Adwords campaigns, an express promotion, etc. will have to wait until the translations arrive.
Cultural factors and customer mentality
Last but not least, we must take into account that cultural aspects and consumer habits vary from one country to another. It will be necessary to consider different product and pricing strategies, as well as promotions or discounts focused on each market and take into account different use patterns.
In some countries, customers will look more for quality aspects; in others, they will look for the best price or good customer service that allows them to resolve their doubts before making a purchase. Likewise, the behaviour of users changes in relation to special dates (Christmas, Valentine’s Day, summer holidays…), or even the day of the week or time of day when the most purchases are made and the best conversion rates are achieved.
Many factors. Some are simple and some are not. Some are essential and others can sometimes be sacrificed.
On a technical level, it is better if everything is thought out from the beginning (something that almost never happens and that will always generate some «if we had foreseen it before…») but it implies reducing the speed at which you deliver in the early stage of product development.
I think the best approach before launching a new market is to make traffic and conversion estimates to assess whether it can be profitable. Nevertheless, bear in mind that until everything is adjusted, it will be difficult to reach the same levels as in the original language/market. Additionally, take into account that some surprises will arise for the process so, do not forget to save time in your planning to try to fix it.