If you have ambitions of conquering the international markets in the next year, five years or decade, there are two terms you need to know: internationalization and localization

Most fast-paced SaaS businesses won’t think too much about global expansion until they’ve succeeded in their domestic market. After all, there’s always a million and one things to focus on.

Why invest time and money building something before you need it, right?

However, it’s important to get to grips with internationalization and localization as soon as possible.

Without them, your software won’t be prepared for an international audience and your business will struggle to succeed outside the domestic market – regardless of how much you invest in your product and marketing. 

What is internationalization?

Internationalization is the process of designing and developing your software to make it compatible with multiple languages.

It means your product will be able to easily support text that’s specific to different international markets. 

The term “internationalization” is commonly shortened to i18n – the 18 stands for the number of letters between the first letter (i) and last letter (n).

In its simplest form, i18n involves moving all of the static pieces of text from the codebase, into a dictionary file, and using a reference or “key” to point to the correct entry in the dictionary.

The next time the application displays some text, it looks up the key in the dictionary for the requested language and retrieves the content.

In this manner, you can add new dictionary files for new languages, or modify existing ones and the code itself stays the same.

The process is the same if you want to add one new language or one hundred.

In addition to text, formatting for dates and numbers (monetary amounts, phone numbers, etc) should also be taken into account in the internationalization process.

On the design side of things, layout aspects include allowing room in your user interface for copy to expand, contract or switch sides depending on the language that’s being displayed:

  • Translated text can take up more room or less depending on the language, which could leave your design looking crowded or sparse
  • Western users naturally spend more time looking at the left-hand side of the page, but users that speak languages like Arabic, Hebrew or Urdu read right to left and will be naturally drawn towards the right

The i18n process is often done retrospectively. However, to minimize the amount of code that needs updating, it’s best practice to do it as soon as possible in the development cycle.

i18n gives you a head start when you’re expanding overseas. By providing the scope to easily update content and add entire new languages you can scale quickly and with minimum impact on your development team.

What is localization?

The purpose of localization (or l10n) is to make sure your product looks and feelslocal” to international users.

Whether your user is in London, Dubai or Beijing, the goal of l10n is to make the user experience feel as smooth and familiar as it does to American users.

An important part of localizing your product is translating it into the native language of your target markets.

However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that l10n and translation are the same thing.

Translation simply converts words from one language to another, localization digs deeper into context and culture.

If you’re serious about building a global SaaS business, l10n is crucial. Without fully understanding the local nuances, your product could confuse or – worse – offend the countries you’re trying to target.

So what’s included in localization?

The key elements of l10n include:

  • Language, tone of voice, and vocabulary
  • Content that suits local sensitivities and consumption habits
  • Design and layout that adapts to translated text
  • Local formats, currencies, units of measure, dates, phone numbers and addresses 
  • Local regulations and legal requirements

If you plan on building a robust presence in a particular market, you will also need to understand current cultural issues, since symbols, colors or graphics can carry negative connotations. 

Is localization worth the investment?

Investing in localization should be seen as an opportunity to drive revenue, rather than an expense.

But the extensiveness of the l10n process can make or break your product internationally.

Take the example of WhatsApp, the popular US-based messaging service, which tried to localize and launch in Germany. Its website had been fully translated into German – with one key exception. 

Although WhatsApp had translated the link to its Terms of Use into German, the Terms itself remained in English. The company lost a lawsuit when a court ruled that customers shouldn’t have to face a complex set of rules in a foreign language.

Building an international SaaS business is going to require financial commitment: from initial market research to localization and ongoing updates. But the opportunities far outweigh the risks. 

A properly localized product provides a gateway for SaaS businesses to connect with international users and thrive in fast-growing markets around the world.