Coding for the world, part 1: Why should I care about localization?

With the internet came the freedom to connect with anyone anywhere at any time of the day; all you need is an internet-enabled device. Nowadays we take it for granted and don’t think much about it while searching online encyclopedias, checking the latest trends, or just quickly reaching out to a friend while standing in a queue to pay for our groceries. Just stop and think of it for a minute or two (or more). Most of these apps are used worldwide by many different people across countries, regions, and cultures—and you possibly helped them to use them! You as a developer help to shape how an app is perceived, how it can be used and how it can be marketed. Working for a company that reaches out to customers and users worldwide means a great deal of responsibility to get the products right for everyone around the globe.

If a product is developed with only one country in mind and the rest of the world is an afterthought, there is trouble ahead! Think of simple things like a country or language list that is sorted alphabetically in English. What happens to it when it is translated? Will it be sorted anew or just use the original sorting? For example, Austria is Oostenrijk in Dutch and German is Allemand in French; the English sorting would not work any longer. How about time formats? AM and PM are commonly used in the US, but are they used and understood worldwide? With thousands of languages spoken around the world, there are many differences to think of when it comes to developing an application that is dynamic and flexible to fulfill the “one fits most” slogan. There is a reason why the marketers deviated from “one fits all”, because one just cannot suit everyone in the entire world. It is just not possible. However, a product can be designed and developed to fit most.

Currently, Docusign offers users the ability to sign documents in over 40 localized languages. Now think of the grammar of your native language and of all the rules including the order of words in a sentence; those rules can be slightly or even vastly different in other languages. I hope your head is not spinning just yet! This is not the beginning of a language course. With this miniseries about localization, I would like to give you the sensibility for other languages while coding in yet another language, your programming language.

Keeping in mind not just different languages but also coping with different cultural concepts can be mind-boggling. Do we address customers around the world on a first-name basis? Are postal address formats the same? Do colors have the same meaning for everyone? And is a particular icon perceived the same by different cultures?

To circle back to the initial question, “Why should I care about localization?”: You as a developer are a very important piece of the process to launch a product in other countries. Without your understanding of the importance of localization, it can be a struggle to prepare products for other cultures. Implementing best practices and routines prior to coding is key to making it a whole lot easier for you and the parties involved in creating global products. 

Even if the products of your company are not globally available yet, this can change soon. Who are we to know what the future may bring, right? Entering new local markets to reach new potential customers can lead to more visibility and revenue—who wants to resist that in the long run? Just think of how complex existing code and the product itself can get. If internationalization is an afterthought, we are talking about time, money, and nerves (and perhaps some extra gray hair)!

See you in part 2, when I talk about Keeping it together—or is separation a thing?. Until then, sunny greetings from the linguist that you can trust!

Note: Thanks to Carlos Barbero-Cortés of Docusign for consultation and feedback.

Additional resources

Bettina Becker
Bettina Becker
Sr. Language Manager
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