Taking Your App Worldwide
When you’re ready to release your shiny new app, depending on which countries you’re available in and what kind of (if any) user generated content you allow, there are several things to consider. Here’s what I know.
1. Localizing your app
Translating your product into other languages is the first and most impactful step to supporting an international user-base. App Annie reports that translation can increase your downloads by up to 120% and revenue by 26% the week after introducing a native language, especially in Asian countries.
Before embarking on this journey, you should understand the resource investment required to properly supporting native languages. First, you’ll need to instrument your code and UI to support the characteristics (e.g. text direction, word length) of supported languages; a process called internationalization (i18n). Second, you’ll need to build a process to translate your copy and keep it up to date every time you add new copy or make changes; a process called localization (l10n).
These considerations will create ongoing work for your engineers, copywriters and designers. In an early startup, these are probably the same person. At Google, there are dedicated people and processes and it adds a couple days to every development cycle. It will inevitably slow down your development iterations, so it’s best to understand what’s involved.
Translation. There are several companies that offer translation as a service, and some have APIs (i.e. Unbabel) that make the process self-serve. Using a service like this should save you time, but you should always spot check their work with a few friends that speak the language (if you’re so lucky) to ensure quality.
Engineering. Your code needs to be abstracted to easily render any given supported language. Use separate resource files to easily keep strings up to date, add new ones, and fail gracefully if a given translation isn’t available. Plenty of best practices resources already exist – so I’ll omit them here.
Copywriting. Your copywriter will have new constraints to what they can write. To make translation easier, avoid using complex sentence structures. Things like gender possessives and plurals get tricky in some other languages. Just keep it simple – which is better for your reader anyway. You can find some good writing-for-translation style tips here.
Design. You can no longer make assumptions about copy, so you need to allow for variable copy length and text-direction in your designs. Also, as you add more languages to the App Store and Play Store, you’ll need to translate your screenshots. Your designer must be equipped to factor in the characteristics of the different languages in their designs, which is a nuisance and definitely takes some fun out of the creative process.
Understand the implications. Educate your team. Build it into your process.
2. Nurturing your community and its content
If people are using your app, chances are they’re talking to you or each other. That means human interaction. That means communication, opinions, feelings, and bad behavior. Handling this elegantly across languages is no easy feat.
Content. If your app hosts user-generated content, depending on your philosophy, you want it to conform to your content policies. Enforcing content policies across a language barrier requires more effort and sophistication from your content moderation team. Also, you should want to know how people are using your product in different cultures and communities in order to make more informed decisions about what to invest in.
Moderation. What’s important to note here is no matter which method of moderation you use, someone on your payroll will need a sophisticated understanding of the content people are posting on your product. Images are easy (unless they have text on them), and for written text content you can use Google Translate for low-volume (either manually, via Chrome plugin, or via API which has a cost), but it’s not perfect and can miss a lot of important context. Companies like CommunitySift are working to make smarter tools, and companies like TaskUs help scale the staffing of moderators.
Support. You’ll get incoming support requests in different languages. Google Translate is a more effective option here than it is for moderation, as support requests are more about fielding specific inquiries rather than teasing out whether your user-generated content is abusive or not. Read Zendesk’s tips about multi-lingual support.
Curation. If your community team promotes great content to help shape your community, this is crucial to getting your international user-base excited. Otherwise, you’ll have your international users seeing no promoted content or only US promoted content, which can rub some countries the wrong way. You want your international users to feel like the product is for their country.
You’ll want to expand your community team to support key locales in a way that can handle all of these considerations in order to build a healthy, thriving community. This is another cost to keep in mind when making international plans.
3. Understanding local regulation and policy
Other countries are not like here. It’s easy to assume all people are alike but they speak different languages, have different norms, and can have really different expectations around privacy.
Think about and be prepared to deal with other nationalities expectations on their own terms. You’re at the mercy of their laws and court systems. How things work in the US don’t matter. In the US everything is legal unless it explicitly isn’t, and there’s an expectation for that to be true. This isn’t true in Europe, for example. Especially around data privacy. Everything is illegal unless it explicitly isn’t.
In the US there’s always a predictable process (which can be really slow). In other countries, government and court action can be unpredictable and happen suddenly without warning. This can result in even more legal cost and time because you’ll already be in court, whereas in the US you have a chance to comply before entering court.
If your product is on iOS, you should know that Apple will comply to the will of the government of wherever your app is available. Apple is far more likely to take swift action removing you from the App Store for breaking the law of another country than Google is from the Play Store.
When you’re ready
If you’re a young and small startup, I’d recommend launching English-only first and making the app available worldwide. Focus on the demographics that are key to your business in communities that speak your language. Only localize for high business-value countries when they reach a critical mass of usage and you can justify the investment.
Going global gives you more exposure to more users and it could uncover interest in regions you would have never expected. Increased exposure means increased opportunity but also increased risk. You need to ask how important international communities are to your business. For example, if you blow up in Philippines you’ll need to ramp up operations and costs to support those users. Do you really want to invest your scarce and precious resources into a low-value market? If not, what will you do? Cut them off? If so, why even launch there in the first place?
Special thanks to Dave Willner, policy leader at AirBnB and formerly Facebook and Secret, who I consulted about regulation.