The best ways for app developers to think global but act local

There's app localization, and then there's what Runkeeper said it was doing.

According to a recent post on the company's blog, the popular fitness app wanted to offer "region-by region" localization so that the various audio cues it offered runners could be tailored to U.S. cities. In its hometown of Boston, for example, Runkeeper would be pronounced "Runkeepah."

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The maker of the avatar app Face My Phone, Glue Applications, used TraductoPro for localization.

Astute users probably noticed the Runkeeper announcement was posted on April Fool's Day, but to most developers, the business opportunities provided by localizing an app's content to a specific country or language is no joke. According to a report released last fall from BI Intelligence, localization can lead to more than 100 percent increases in downloads and 25 percent increases in revenue. That's undoubtedly why so many firms are jumping into the business of streamlining the process of localization, which may scare off indie developers who worry about cost and resource constraints.

"Developers need to think about being in every market possible, because they have no idea where your app will take off," said Jules Ngambo, founder of New York-based Traducto, which offers app localization tools. "There are those who just don't think about it until the last minute, until they get to the point where they have a great app and then need to monetize it."

Localization normally involves extracting "strings" from their code which must be translated. Then they need to submit their apps through iTunes Connect (if they're working in iOS) and repeat this process for each new language or region they support. TraductoPro 1.2 allows them to upload metadata, keywords, app store subscriptions and other information once and then order translations on an as-needed basis, then export the results automatically to iTunes.

"The pain point varies immensely. There are some customers with just a few hundred strings. For the first time localizer, it could involve hours of reading the documentation to do it manually," Ngambo  said. "Then you need to run some kind of script to extract strings from your code. Before you even do that, you need to have made them localizable by wrapping it with a localization macro. The majority of people who don't think about it end up with hundreds of strings, sometimes thousands, and what do you do at that point?"

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Localization as pre-emptive move
Just as website developers have had to learn about search engine optimization (SEO) to ensure their content is indexed by Google, app developers are beginning to recognize the concept of "app store optimization" (ASO), said Michael Kriz, founder and president of New York-based localization agency Acclaro. As the app stores get more crowded, it is vital that developers think of how localization can be a pre-emptive move against competitors.

"If you really think you're onto something, and if you don't produce it for other markets, somebody else will," Kriz said. "If someone's eating my lunch, I'd rather it be me. If there's a concept that's successful, it will get filled."

That said, ASO also will resemble SEO in that there can be vast differences in the quality of third-party localization services. Kriz warned developers against those that look for a pennies-per-word scenario.

"It comes down to effort. Good translation is very much like good writing, which I think people oftentimes overlook," he said. "You can subscribe to a service and submit strings... In some cases that's okay. Some developers just want an approximation... But when you're talking about a handful of words in an app store title and description, you want to invest more than 15-20 cents per word."

Identify priorities
Devs should look to their current download stats to discover which markets are their top priorities, suggested Robert Lo Bue, founder of Applingua. You can identify which countries are already showing demand for your app, then appease those users by providing quality localizations.

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Lo Bue

"Each and every app is different and there isn't one rule for all. However, if you're looking to localize a v1.0, then no one would call you a fool for choosing the big markets: simplified Chinese, Japanese, Korean, German," he said. "I always recommend waiting before localizing. In my experience of most development cycles, a lot of last minute changes go into a v1.0 and no one wants to be waiting for localization updates pre-deadline. Additionally, you often learn a lot about how your users interact with an app post-release, which allows you to tweak your base language before getting it localized."

If you are localizing a v1.0, try and lock strings at least a week before release and give deadlines enough breathing space for this process to be completed without too much of a rush, Lo Bue suggested.

"Think about localization even before you are thinking about localizing. Many SDKs now offer quite a lot of technologies and APIs to make localization very easy down the road," he said. "iOS localization gets easier with every release of Xcode, which is fantastic. Just utilize good developer practice at all times and you will be okay."

Your top 3 app localization questions, answered

How do you decide what markets are the top priorities for localization?
"It is best to determine the addressable market size for your product in each potential region and review how many direct competitors are currently in that space and what market share they have. Ideally, you want to be where there is enough opportunity to outweigh the cost of localizing for that region, unless it is a purely a bigger strategic move," said Matthew Wardenaar, mobile product manager at Tagged.

Siqi Chen, CEO of Heyday, suggested that developers also need to be prepared for the unexpected. "We decided it was important to have a global launch in the App Store for press reasons and pretty much localized in all the top 10 popular languages other than Arabic which required UI changes," he said.  "This worked out well as some very unexpected locales ended up being our strongest countries [like] Russia [and] South Korea."

When/how do you know an app is ready for localization? At launch or after you see how it performs at home?
"We suggest getting the app reviewed by a linguist who is well-versed in the language. User testing in each market before a full launch will help take care of issues that can arise from 'literal' translations," says Hetal Pandya, co-founder of EasilyDo.

Wardenaar suggests developers try to figure out if they have truly achieved "product-market fit," which he defines as a situation where 40 percent of users would say they would be very disappointed without your product or service. "Typically, mobile apps should be built from the beginning with localization in mind," he said, with expandable and dynamic buttons/fields to help support more characters, and possibly the use of iconography over text.

3. Is there anything specific to keep in mind during development to make the process less challenging later on?
Use Auto Layout and Base Localization when developing for the iOS crowd, advised Ausra Meskauskaite of Pixelmator.

"You'll have only strings to localize and you won't have to worry about localizing images," Meskauskaite said. "Also, it makes working with localizations service a really swift process. We used to work with GUI apps for localizations and manual XIB editing. It slowed the app development painfully." Using NSFormatter to present numbers and percents in a user interface, meanwhile, will help to avoid differences when presenting numbers in each localization.