Four steps for app localization

Ally Gilboa, CEO of AQ Group-Language Solutions, is a speaker, translator and author. She has over 20 years of experience in the translation industry.

Four steps for app localization, Ally Gilboa

Ally Gilboa

Four steps for app localization, Ally Gilboa

Ally Gilboa

Ally Gilboa, CEO of AQ Group-Language Solutions, is a speaker, translator and author. She has over 20 years of experience in the translation industry.


here is a growing demand from startups, developers and entrepreneurs for localization as the main key to increasing their app’s visibility and exposure in global markets, as seen with popular apps such as Waze, Moovit or Houzz.

Localization is how an app can reach new users and potential market segments, but unfortunately, too many apps fail in going global because of bad localization. Only successfully localized apps can get more downloads, automatically lead to an increase in the app’s MAU (monthly active users) and ultimately their revenue.

Plenty of amazing startups are out there, but how do they reach their international audience? There is an unequivocal answer — only through professional localization!

Startups can be more successful and accessible in marketplaces around the world as localization guarantees that the app speaks the language of its target audience.

Statistics show that mobile apps are on the rise and the number of smartphone users is expected to grow from 2.53 billion in 2018 to around 2.87 billion in 2020, making the smartphone the most common item in every person’s pocket (Figure 1).

Localizing mobile apps has become a necessity as it helps in customizing apps based in different locations around the world. Localization opens new doors and attracts new users who will increase the growth and revenue of startups.

Almost half of the world’s population is online, looking for new apps. These are potential buyers of any startup, and localization is a great way to speak their language on a local level.

Smartphone users, in billions. Source: eMarketer, April 2016.

Figure 1: Smartphone users, in billions. Source: eMarketer, April 2016.

Why localize?

In the beginning, every app is unknown. The most important contact with any potential audience is the first one, where trust is built. Startups show their target audience how much they respect their culture and in return, the audience will show more interest.

A recent study called “The Impact of App Translations” by Distomo provided interesting insight into the importance of app localization and showed that localizing apps resulted in a 128% increase in downloads per country and a 26% increase in revenue for each country added via app localization.

Another statistic from Statista (Figure 2) presents some important information on the projected mobile app revenues from 2015 to 2020, and it seems that mobile is one of the world’s fast-growing industries. In 2015, global mobile app revenues amounted to $69.7 billion, and in 2020, it is expected to generate $188.9 billion.

Startups have to look closer at the future world and realize that every app needs to be convenient for the target population. Apps are no longer just for social networks and games. Apps are the ultimate way for users around the world to interact with companies and organizations more quickly and effectively than ever. Let’s look at three that used localization to build up their success:

Waze. Waze is one of the world’s largest community-based traffic and navigation apps. Drivers join other drivers in their area and share real-time traffic and road info, saving everyone time and gas money on their daily commute. Waze was translated into more than 50 languages, and is used in more than 200 countries.

The social component in the business model gives Waze a big advantage in broad app distribution. The company enjoys user collaboration and shares all its app’s developments with them. They cooperate with the company by giving community help in the localization of the app. “Translation into specific new languages such as Azeri arises from the requests of the users themselves,” said Guy Berkowitz, operations manager at Waze.

The app is available in multiple languages thanks to a global community of volunteers from many countries who have taken on the translation and localization process together with experts in localization.

Worldwide mobile app revenues in 2015 and 2016, and projected 2020, in billions of US dollars. Source: App Annie, via Statista.

Figure 2: Worldwide mobile app revenues in 2015 and 2016, and projected 2020, in billions of US dollars. Source: App Annie, via Statista.

Moovit. Moovit is the world’s number-one transit app — an urban mobility data and analytics solution for municipalities and transit agencies to better manage their systems. It offers real-time arrivals, schedules, maps and more. The app has over 300,000,000 riders and is used in 86 countries and over 2,700 cities around the world. The company has reached those numbers after conducting professional localization.

Houzz. Houzz is an app and a platform for home designing, decorating and renovation. The app (and its related website) provides information related to home remodeling or decorating. With this app you can share your design ideas and find other home ideas; you can ask and get quick advice from designers; and you can find a list of professionals in your area, such as architects, interior designers and home contractors. You can even buy home accessories and furniture to design your home from the app.

Houzz was founded in 2009, based in the US and expanded overseas. Its biggest market is the US and then UK, Australia, Germany and Russia. It has launched a site and apps for Asian markets such as Japan and Singapore.

CEO Adi Tatarko told TechCrunch that “the company decided to localize for Singapore because its platform was already doing well there,” and added that “There are two main criteria we look at when evaluating new markets for Houzz: one is a strong local demand for the Houzz offering and the second is demand from the global Houzz community in a market’s design aesthetic and expertise… Both Japan and Singapore met these criteria.”

With the localization for Singapore, Houzz focused mainly on adapting the language and certain terms according to the target market. For example, instead of using “laundry,” the app uses “service yard.” Other changes and additions have also been made to match to the new market style and its preferences.

Last year Houzz also launched its localized platform for India. In an interview on India’s Economic Times website, Tatarko said: “We look at two things when we consider localization: one is the professional community and industry, and the second is interest among our global community to get access into another country.”

Localization and internationalization

Localization is the process of customizing the app’s content in order to serve different users with different preferences and habits in different regions.

Internationalization is the process of customizing the app’s code for localization so it can be modified and released in other languages. It is the first step in the process of mobile app localization as the code needs to be ready before installing the localized content. For efficiency, it has to be done in parallel with the app development process.

Localization and internationalization need to go hand in hand as they are dependent on each other.

Entrepreneurs and startups see the success of their innovative app as the Holy Grail in their field, which is why there are no shortcuts in presenting their app to world markets.

Localization is not just about translation and converting messages. It is a long process that requires a great deal of investment. There are four stages in the app localization process and this process is usually carried out by a project manager, localization engineers, professional translators and quality assurance engineers. The stages are development, internationalization, localization and testing.

Development, research and analysis

It is important to understand any venture in-depth, and then to become familiar with the app and its objectives. You then need to see how all the elements involved match and work smoothly within a new language including its cross-cultural sensitivities.

One of the most important things at this stage is asking the right questions. You need to conduct professional research and analyze it. Questions would include what the market’s purchasing habits are and what some correct language choices might be. Analyzing the findings will reveal problems and other challenges so the experts involved can offer professional solutions.

China, for example, is the largest app market and is now Apple’s most profitable market for apps. Figures from the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) show that:

  • It would take 83 languages to reach 80% of all the people in the world, and over 6,000 languages to reach everyone.
  • 56.2% of consumers say the ability to obtain information in their own language is more important than price.
  • 95% of Chinese online consumers indicate a greater comfort level with websites in their language.
Language Translation Ratio
Korean 조회 0.8
English views 1
Chinese 次檢視 1.2
Portuguese visualizaçṍes 2.6
French consultations 2.6
German -mal angesehen 2.8
Italian visualizzazioni 3

Table 1: English words are often shorter than many equivalents.

So, before they even start translating the first word, startups need to meticulously plan their localized project and after conducting thorough research, they can decide which language(s) to localize into and where their potential users are going to pay for the app. They need to localize everything; the app’s description, how to use it, the warranty, support, terms of payment and all marketing materials as well as their website, information about the company and all legal liabilities.


Translators have to get a list of keywords that relate to the target audience and to the search engines in each specific region. Local SEO is very important since startups need to think like their local users.

There are some important elements to consider during the translation process.

In each language there are different linguistic, cultural elements and variations; even in the same country there might be differences from region to region.

For example, consider target audiences in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand, where English is the spoken language. But obviously, the audiences speak British English, American English, Australian English and New Zealand English. It may seem to be the same language, but there are slight differences between them as the culture affects the language. The cultures in these countries may also differ among states or regions, as they do in the United States.

Spanish is notably one of the most requested languages for app localization in the world, and there are obviously different types of Spanish spoken around the world.

As for design and space issues, some languages are longer than others and they take different amounts of space in the mobile app. There is a difference in the length of words. For instance, in German words can take 30% more space than English. However, in Japanese, words may take up less space than English.

Table 1 shows comparative lengths of the word Flickr used for views as a ratio to the original in English.

Another issue is the vertical writing sometimes used by Chinese, Japanese and Korean, which may require significant changes in the app.

Cultural sensitivity in each language is also very important and there is a need to choose the appropriate images and the right colors in order to respect the audience’s culture.

There are also some languages that have bidirectional text, like Hebrew and Arabic, so there is a need to reverse the text and likely the order of the images or icons as well.

Time to test!

Localization testing is a must, as it ensures quality of the app and verifies the linguistic accuracy according to the target audience and its specific area.

In addition, after this phase of localization it is a good idea to have the app used by a focus group consisting of potential users of various ages from the target area. Collect their feedback on every element of the app: the language, culture, layout and UX, then make all the changes and final adjustments.

Ready, steady, release

Finally, the app has been internationalized, localized and tested and it’s the right time to move forward to the next stage — to release it and spread this amazing innovation to the world in its languages.

Once that project is completed, it is time to look ahead to the next localization phase in other languages, which will likely be easier and more effective as the process is now familiar and somewhat predictable.

The success of every startup in entering into a new market depends on preparation: thorough research, detailed planning and professional localization. Investing in these initial steps in advance will help to minimize risks, introduce the app successfully and to increase sales significantly.