The ultimate guide to localizing your app: 10 steps to success

What does an app need for global success? Answer: a solid localization strategy. This step-by-step guide is your trouble-free route to an international app.

The secret is out: it pays to localize apps. More languages mean more users. More users mean more downloads – 128% more per target market, to be exact – and more downloads mean more revenue.

Each app localization project might look unique, but they all share the same fundamental basis, whether you’re a startup or a large international firm. There are two key terms to familiarize yourself with here.

What is localization?

Localization is the process of tailoring apps for the cultural context of each market or country. The aim is to give every user the same emotional experience as in the original. Translating a text is just one part of the process – colors, images, and appeals to the target audience can all be tailored as well.

What is internationalization?

Internationalization encompasses the systemic requirements for localization. It involves coding the app so that it is suitable for multiple versions in different languages and you can swap out content as needed later. This affects the characteristics of the user interface, such as character and date formats, numbers and currencies. For example, it would be awkward to select a typeface that doesn’t support “ñ” when you’re trying to expand into Latin America.

Creating a truly global app is just a question of following the correct method. No matter how big or how small the project, these 10 steps are standard.

1. Check the technical requirements for the app

In many cases, your app will be internationalized by default, but it’s still good to double check. If your app hasn’t been programmed for multiple languages, you will need to change the code. Get your developer team on board now to make sure you can work in cooperation with them throughout the entire project. You can also get help from tools, such as xCode for iOS or Studio for Android.

2. Define your target audience

Before you proceed any further, ask yourself: where in the world holds the greatest chance of success for your app? Executives will have to decide whether the app will target multiple markets or just the one. Crunch the numbers from Statista and App Annie to help make this decision. Your app’s own download numbers in the App Store or Google Play can be a good indicator of where you already have an audience’s attention. Localizing your app for that market can bring up your downloads by an order of magnitude.

3. Check conditions on the ground

Once you know which market you’re going for, you’ll need to survey the terrain. Ask as many questions as possible. What languages do potential customers speak? How do they behave? Would the current app look appealing to them? What technological requirements should you keep in mind? It’s easy to assume that things will be the same as at home, but different markets mean different cell service providers, screen sizes and operating systems. The clearer the picture you get at this stage, the clearer the view you will have of potential challenges. Online surveys or, even better, a translation agency with experts in the country will help you identify the changes that you have to make for a strong launch in the new market.

Doing your research well in advance will give your developers plenty of time to make necessary adjustments. Should your app need its code tweaked because some languages take up more space onscreen, for example, go back two steps and double check on your internationalization.

4. Set the project timeline

Only now can you figure out when the app will truly be ready for launch. You’ve gathered enough information to understand the challenges ahead, so you can set accurate deadlines, know which teams (internal and external) need to be involved, and determine the order in which the localization project will unfold. Ask yourself more questions: at what stage in the product development process should the translation begin? Should you localize into several languages in parallel, or go one by one? The path you take will be determined by the resources available to you, as well as by your LSP – bringing us to step five.

5. Select your language services provider (LSP)

Going it alone is a surefire way to sink your localization project. Localization is more than translation. And simply using a machine translation service such as Google Translate or DeepL runs the risk of introducing new errors, like making your homepage your Zuhause (even German speakers use the English “Home”) or your “page views” into “page consultations” – from the same word in French. Partnering with a professional localization company will not only give you linguistic expertise, but also provide cultural insight and essential technology.

Translation management systems (TMS) simplify the translation process immensely. The TMS connects you with your LSP partner, sends your content for translation and integrates it directly into the app when it’s ready. You can track the status of your order and take advantage of quicker processes, since text that has already been translated is stored in a translation memory. This lets you save time and resources, especially when translating into multiple languages.

Your concrete needs will influence your choice. Try to pair up with an LSP that has the same outlook: for a startup looking to bring its app to multiple languages, a smaller agency might make a good partner. If you’re already operating internationally, a global full-service provider is a better bet.

6. Make the necessary linguistic and cultural adjustments

The time has come: you just have to say the word, and your entire app will be translated. Depending on the content, you can use machine translation, specialist translation, or transcreation. In most cases, translation will occur using XLIFF or XML files, which take the contents of the app, process them into strings and send them on to the translator. For context, you can send along screenshots or comments, or just integrate the translation environment directly into the design tool for your app. Pro tip: you can start publishing translated content continuously while still developing the app, no matter which release you are on. Read more about the benefits of continuous localization here.

You’ll need to localize a lot more than just the content of the app: marketing materials, campaign texts, emails to customers and your app store page’s content – including the description, keywords and video clips – all need to be adapted too. Jump ahead to step eight for more about this.

To make sure the user experience is as authentic as possible, you’re also going to need to make cultural adjustments for your target audience. What does that mean in practice? The app needs to feel right at home for users, as if it were developed exclusively for them. Tailoring the user experience to the culture and habits of each market involves checking number and date formats, units of measurement, appeals to the users and the app’s imagery. Each market and region has different preferences for colors, for example. By internationalizing, you’ve already laid the foundations for this.

7. Test the UX in the layout

Although your translations might be complete, you’re not out of the woods yet. It’s now time to test the user experience and the app elements in your current layout. The initial functionality test can be an internal one, with the next step being a beta test with users in the target market and their devices. Local experts from your LSP partner often take on this job.

Testflight is the best beta-testing app for iOS, while you can test apps directly in Play Console on Android. Check for completeness, length and line breaks in the different languages: you’ll ensure an improved user experience and eliminate any final display errors.

8. Optimize your app store presence and your marketing

Most users will see your app for the first time in the Apple App Store, Google Play or a different store entirely, depending on the market. But this will only happen if you tailor the store contents to the new market. We call this app store optimization (ASO). Keywords, descriptions, screenshots, videos and – depending on the app – even the title must be analyzed individually and adjusted for each new language and specific market. This way, your users can find you no matter what they type in the search bar.

The two most important advertising platforms for apps are social media and paid search ads in app stores. Find out whether Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, WeChat, Snapchat, TikTok or something else calls the shots in your new market and direct your marketing campaign towards this key player.

9. Review rankings and update the app

The lion’s share of your work is now done, and your localized app is ready for release. Once you wish it bon voyage, you’ll need to start evaluating the results. Check the analytics built into the app stores and filter download statistics and ratings by market or language. Just like search engines, search terms in stores can change according to new trends, so keep an eye on your app’s performance and update keywords where necessary.

The same applies to your app’s rating, which is a decisive factor in how high your app ranks. The more positive reviews, the better the perception of the app – and about 80% of users do check reviews before they download an app. In addition, potential improvements are often hidden in user feedback: look at points of criticism and address them in the next update. You’ll increase the app’s added value with each release and perfect the local user experience to boot.

10. Localize again. And again. And again.

You’ve made it to the last step in this journey. But localization doesn’t stop here. New features, content and areas of business mean that apps are constantly changing, even in their localized versions. Localization is a continuous and never-ending process.

In addition, you can always consider adding more languages and markets to your app. What do you need to do in this case? Just start again from step six. The best part: your teams and LSP partner have already worked together and can therefore get back in the game without a hitch. And you’ve probably chosen continuous localization as the strategy for your app anyway. Congratulations – you’ve built the foundation for limitless growth.

Is your app ready to take the next step? Let’s talk.

Cover image via Twenty20

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