Mind Your Language
If you sell an app, you could theoretically be selling it to anyone, anywhere. Within reason, of course. They'd need the capacity to download, install and run the app on the relevant mobile device, but the point is that the advent of the internet and mobile communications have pretty much done away with geographical barriers when it comes to reaching new markets. Physical goods may still need to be shipped, but software applications can be quickly and easily downloaded from Manchester to Moscow with a minimum of fuss.
While geographical barriers are not so important any longer, however, linguistic and cultural divisions remain. English is still to some extent the lingua franca of the business and online worlds, and is one of the most widely spoken languages in other areas too. Many speak it as a second language and research has shown that the overwhelming majority of multilingual users place more trust, and prefer to use websites and apps, in their native language. Clearly a monolingual approach to app development and marketing will be one that severely limits your potential customer base.
Consider the differences between localised and multilingual apps. Put simply, localisation is the adaptation of an application for use in another specific locale. The process will usually require linguistic translation, but could also involve local legal issues, such as copyright, and other cultural considerations. In essence, you end up with separate executable applications for each target market.
Multilingual apps offer a single menu, with options for language and cultural preferences built into the user interface. These choices may exist in the form of flags representing different regions, or in some other icon. Designing an app to be multilingual and (if you're being thorough) multicultural from the outset may prove to be less work in the long run than making several localised versions. Localisation comes into its own in situations where you don't know from the outset how many markets your app could sell in,m but wish to keep the option of later adaptation open.
Flexibility is key
To be able to adapt a mobile application down the line, of course, you need to build a certain amount of flexibility into your design from the off. This should be standard practice for all apps, bar those with a narrow, culture-specific appeal, for you simply never know how many languages you’ll need to translate it into in the future.
Using separate .ini files for all text strings will help smooth any subsequent translation process, and development tools that support Unicode characters will make it easier to adapt to non-Latin scripts such as Japanese, Arabic and simplified Chinese. Again, even if you don't expect to expand to these markets, a little flexibility in the design parameters will certainly do no harm.
You should also bear in mind that some scripts or written languages take more or less space to impart the same information. German, for example, has a tendency towards longer words than English. Ensure that menus are not hard-coded, and leave enough room for these lengthier scripts in fixed space areas such as menus, navigation bars and dialogue boxes.
You should also take time to identify the areas for translation. The user interface (UI), input and display are all obvious areas for translation, but don't forget aspects such as online help files and product documentation, and don't skimp on the process.
Translation is certainly not the only aspect that needs to be dealt with, but is perhaps the most important one. It's perfectly possible to use an automatic translation process for the purpose, but even the best of these can be prone to contextual errors, and may make your content sound stilted, jerky and unprofessional. Keeping the language in the original version simple will help with any subsequent translation, but hiring quality, native-speaking translators is still your best option, and you should make this a priority if resources allow.
Attention to detail
As well as language, you’ll need to consider details such as the format in which the date is displayed, currencies, time zones and measurements. Any symbols you use should be either universally recognised, or specifically tailored towards a particular market – the 'thumbs up' sign, for example, means ‘OK’ or 'Good' throughout most of the world, but can be an obscene gesture in some parts of Africa and the Middle East.
You'll have to do your homework - developing multilingual mobile apps can involve extra forethought, work and resources, but the potential customer base you can win should make it worth all the blood, sweat and tears.
Christian Arno is founder and managing director of Lingo24