Localization beyond translation

In my previous life, I worked on bridging gaps between international versions of software productsmy team and I conducted user interviews and usability studies in both the US and Japan, focusing on our end users, “Visitors”, to see how different parts of user experience that we offer are perceived by people from different cultures and find a way to adapt them to their needs.

A trend that I see with the majority of software out there is that it’s not localized but just translated. And the majority of the time this works out OK – either the market we are localizing for is not too significant and localization doesn’t matter that much, or customers from that market share a common culture and expectations from the product with us, and we don’t need to do anything apart from translation.

But what happens when you want to bring an existing product that is popular in a big market like the US to another big, but a distinctively different market, like Japan? In this case, merely translating labels and copy inside your product will result in less than optimal results.

To achieve the best results and acceptance of your product, you need to take into account the cultural aspect and how it affects the evolution of IT products in each country.

To show this, I want to share a couple of differences between the US and Japanese customers that I discovered:

Details matter.

Japanese customers appear to be more detail oriented. They often question reasons behind what they see on a screen – if they see that some content or product is marked as “Popular” or “Recommended” they wonder why is it, and how this was decided. We have to provide a clear explanation why some content is featured. Otherwise, they will actually avoid it and seek other content, the quality of which can be proven and explained.

I want the popular thing!

Speaking of “Popular” content, Japanese customers care about the things that are popular/trending more than US customers. They always look for “Top chart” or “Ranking” when looking for stuff.

I like to browse.

Japanese customers discover and look for content by browsing and navigating to relevant parts of the product, instead of using Search functionality.

Fear of the foreign language.

When Japanese customers encounter random English (or any other language that they do not understand), they immediately feel that “this product is made by a foreign company, not meant for me, probably half-baked and will only cause troubles.” Incomplete translation is not tolerated and results in an instant loss of credibility.

Shape of the language.

Different layouts work better for different writing systems. You can fit more information into smaller spaces using Japanese characters (one of the reasons Twitter is so popular in Japan), and you need to structure your layout accordingly. Presenting content in a grid might work better than in a list.

What do you mean by “stay 6 ft away from it”?

Different environments, living spaces or lifestyles results in the different expectations and usage of the product. Kinect failed in Japan because Microsoft decided to sell a product that was supposed to go into large, US-sized living rooms in a country where having a living room by itself is a luxury. Even if you have one, it’s probably super small and can’t even meet the minimum distance requirements for Kinect.

It is really fascinating to see how customers behave and interact with our products in different ways based on where they are from and how they were raised. We are all humans, we have a lot in common and that’s wonderful, but we need to look at each other more carefully, seek and acknowledge our unique differences, embrace them without fear, and customize our products to meet those differences instead of creating something that is “one-size-fits-all.”

Start from curiosity. Welcome and seek out difference.

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