How to integrate cultural distance into your app development

It is only natural for a company to focus on its home country when they start developing an app. It’s the market you are most familiar with, and it is where most of your current resources are deployed. However, if you want to continue to grow, and expand the relevance of your app, there may come a time when you need to consider moving into different regions and countries.

More than 5 billion people use mobile services and more than half of those devices are smartphones. When you consider the fact that only a fraction of the world’s smartphone users live in the US, you can see that there is massive potential for growth when you decide to start pushing your app into new markets.

If you are planning to market your app internationally, you have to consider the differences between the people in different markets. Beyond differences in language, people in different places have different cultural values and they respond to messages and imagery in different ways. This is what is known as “cultural distance” and it should be one of your top considerations when developing an app for different regions.

Internationalization

Internationalization is the process of creating an app in such a way that it can be adapted for users in different countries and regions. If you plan to market your app for an international audience, this should be a part of the development process. If you are working with an existing app that was not coded for internationalization, your development team will need to go through the app to separate the content portions of the app from the code that makes the app function.

Along with the internationalization of the app itself, you will need to globalize the efforts your company puts into supporting the application. You will need to look at how you want to position the app in different markets, your advertising efforts, the need for staff in different regions and the potential that there may be legal concerns that come with moving into new markets.

Localization

Under ideal conditions, localization will come after internationalization. This way, your app is adaptable for different countries and regions. You’ll be able to make it so things like text and other content can be switched out based on the international market of the user. Not only that, you will have laid the groundwork to move the app into these new markets.

Language is one of the more obvious concerns when it comes to app localization. While English is widely spoken throughout the world, it is not the native language of most people, and most app users prefer an experience that is in their native language.

While it may be tempting to use some type of machine translation, it is recommended that you hire human translators when you localize your app. Some of the machine services do work well, but they are also prone to mistakes. At best, these mistakes will be embarrassing; at worst, they could damage the reputation of your company.

Beyond language, you also need to consider cultural context when localizing an app. This is where cultural distance will play a role in app development.

Accounting for culture

Culture has a significant impact on how people view the world. Translating your app might put the words in the language of your target country, but that does not mean you are sending the same message or speaking to the audience in the most effective way.

Even when translated word for word, some content might have a very different meaning in different places. Obviously, a common turn of phrase in one country might seem like nonsense somewhere else. You also have situations where a translation retains its meaning, but the message might be received negatively in a different culture.

The same is also true for images. An image that evokes positive feelings in one culture might be negative in another. Furthermore, you might have images that work well in one culture, but they just don’t convey any kind of meaning in a new market.

When you are working to localize an app for a new market, you have to think beyond translation. How will the messaging carry over? Will the images have the right impact on the new audience? These cultural differences are important for businesses that want to operate in different countries.

Cultural distance examples

A good example of cultural distance is between those that are individualist as compared with those that are more collectivist. Individualist societies value being self-sufficient and favor the rights and needs of the individual over that of the broader society. In collectivist societies, the group takes priority over the individual and people are more reliant on each other. 

Another example of cultural distance is the acceptance of indulgence. In some societies, people feel freer to express and act on their desires. On the other hand, you have societies that are more restrained. In these societies, people are expected to have more control over their desires. 

These are just two examples of cultural distance, but there are many more that may need to be considered. As you assess a new market, consider the cultural differences and account for them by adapting your messaging and the imagery you use. You may even need to change the way your service functions to account for cultural differences in some places.

As a final tip, keep your eye on things like international downloads, engagement, app analytics, and user feedback. There is a chance your efforts at localization won’t be perfect for some regions. If you notice problems with the analytics, engagement, or user feedback, it can be the first sign that you got something wrong.

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Rae Steinbach is a graduate of Tufts University with a combined international relations and Chinese degree. After spending time living and working abroad in China, she returned to New York City to pursue her career and continue curating quality content. Rae is passionate about travel, food and writing.

Rae Steinbach

About Rae Steinbach

Rae Steinbach is a graduate of Tufts University with a combined international relations and Chinese degree. After spending time living and working abroad in China, she returned to New York City to pursue her career and continue curating quality content. Rae is passionate about travel, food and writing.

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