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A quick dive into improving the user experience for translated websites and documentation

I’ve been the NLS (National Language Support) program manager for IBM Developer (formerly developerWorks) since 2000 and when we initially set up our Japanese and Chinese sites. For 20 years I’ve trialed and errored my way to success, and in the process stumbled over and resolved a slew of translation issues. Most top ten lists contain similar recommendations: start NLS work early, encode in unicode, leave space in your design for language expansion, and so on. But there are other issues that are more subtle and less likely to hit the top 10 list for localization. Think of them as the top 11-20 best practices. A bit lower on the list, but in my experience, just as problematic.

  1. Translate an experience, not just a web page. Ask yourself (and follow) how the user navigates to and through your site, how they complete the Calls to Action, and how you nurture the ongoing relationship with existing users. In addition to your website or documentation page, you’re likely to have emails, social media and/or a registration page that might be part of a broader outreach campaign. Ideally these touch-points are also in native language, though I’ve found bandwidth and resource restrictions often make reaching the ideal unattainable.

  2. Recognize that you are more than likely building language sites, rather than country sites. Traffic data from our language sites shows that even for those sites heavily used within a single geo, for example Japanese, a portion of the traffic comes from outside Japan. Regardless of language, your potential user base is worldwide. Allow users to self-select the language of their choice rather than making assumptions based on IP address or known country of origin.

  3. Localization is more than words. Effective localization addresses language syntax, date and time formatting, currency units, punctuation, use of graphics, pointers or embeds from banned sites (such as youtube in China), even the structure of personal names, just to name a few concerns. Partner with someone living within the target geo who understands the current vernacular, culture, and perspective of that audience.

  4. Avoid “veneer” or surface translation. Translating social media tiles or emails that then link to an English page for details serves no real purpose and can frustrate your audience. If you are limited in resources, translate to a content depth that gives the user value and a chance at completing your CTA, or don’t translate at all.

  5. If content is a translation, prominently display a link back to the original English. There will be questions regarding translations and users need a reference back to the original English to review the source. One downfall of showing language based on browser setting is that there is not a quick link back to the original English to clear up any confusion when it arises. And, it will arise.

  6. Call out links that result in a change in language. I consider this basic web etiquette. Imagine the frustration of waiting for a page to render, only to find it is in a language you cannot consume. Alert users to a change in language by appending “(in English)” on anchor text or by leaving the anchor text in the language of the target content.

  7. Be aware that readers of translations will contact authors in native language. Let authors know their content is being translated, especially if you surface their contact information. We ran into a situation several years ago where our English-speaking authors assumed the emails they were receiving in native languages were spam. We found out over time that some of these emails were actually from users reading the translations who assumed the author could converse in the language of the content. We felt there were two logical solutions: suppress the author contact information altogether in translations or clarify language proficiency(ies) in the author bio. We opted to suppress the emails altogether.

  8. Initial translation is the easy part, managing translations is complicated. Focus on how you will ensure translations remain consistent with the original English. This might be via auto-generated alerts to language teams whenever the original English files are updated, or it might be a simple script that compares the “last updated” dates to find those translations that may be out of date. I will write a separate post in the future on the ways we have tried to maintain consistency between original and translations. Suffice to say, it is fraught with danger and intrigue.

  9. You need a language lead familiar with the current vernacular. A web site is used to build relationships. You need someone on staff who is fluent in the local language and culture to manage and nurture those relationships. Do not allow language sites to sit idle or be managed by centralized individuals using machine translation. The lead responds to feedback, comments, inquiries received in native language, helps with translations, QAs new designs, and identifies unique localization requirements. This person becomes the face of your site to that language audience.

  10. Effective social sharing depends on demographics. Build a social media plan that considers the demographics of your target audience. Recognize that platforms come and go in popularity, and build a social media promotion plan that responds to the rise and fall of platforms. At IBM Developer we include Weibo and WeChat because our audience residing in China is blocked from using the North American heavy hitters like Facebook and Twitter. LinkedIn is key for our Indian audience. Keep apprised of where your target audience is, and go to them. There are some great resources and studies available to stay up to date with the most popular platforms by region, language, or age.

If you’re going to go through language efforts to translate existing content for another audience, the details matter. Your willingness to go the extra effort, find the right tools and make sure the overall content experience is a good one for your international audience is crucial. So please consider these above tips as Should Dos rather than Might Dos. The success of your international outreach program may readily depend on these important details which greatly improve the user experience.