Designing for the World: An Introduction to Localization
Have you ever found yourself in an airport where you couldn’t read the signs? How about when you used a product that missed the mark in its choice of vocabulary or cultural references? While we can’t expect every single daily encounter to be tailored to our individual needs, it sure makes a difference when they feel relevant to us. Localization creates belonging — and this feeling is hyper-important when it comes to creating Spotify experiences. In this blog post, our in-house localization experts show you the basics of their field, give insights into how localization works at Spotify, and offer pointers for your own design considerations.
At Spotify, one of our core design principles is relevance. Relevance is all about reflecting you as an individual: Spotify is made for you — we want it to feel personalized — and a key aspect of the app feeling personal is that it’s adapted for where you’re located, your culture, and the language you prefer for your experience.
Spotify is available in 195 countries and 65 different languages (and counting!), and the localization team’s goal is to ensure that the Spotify experience is relevant for our listeners all over the world. So, how do we go about making Spotify relevant for everyone who uses our app? It’s through a process called localization. In this post, we’ll walk you through what localization is and how it works at Spotify, how it informs design and the user experience, and we’ll finish with some actionable tips on how you can best design with global users in mind.
What is localization?
Localization can be defined in a number of ways, but at Spotify we think about it as the process of adapting our product and content so it feels local to each listener. This requires getting to know our listeners, and gaining a strong understanding of local cultures, user behaviors, and market nuances.
The process of localizing a product also includes internationalization, which ensures the product can adapt to new cultures at scale. Internationalization is the process of designing and creating software so that it can be adapted to various languages and countries without engineering changes. For example, establishing proper date, time, and currency formats. If you saw the date 9/12/22, would you read this as September 12 or December 9? Without internationalization frameworks, the user experience can become quite confusing.
Internationalized software is then adapted, or localized, for a specific region or language by translating text and adding locale-specific components.
Localization does not just mean translation. This is a common misconception. Translation is one component of how a localized experience is created, but it’s not the main function of Spotify’s Localization team.
How localization informs design and UX
Localization is a highly inclusive discipline. The localization team at Spotify advocates for our listeners across the world, and our primary concern is supporting the user experience of our non-English speaking audience. It’s our job to ensure the Spotify experience is meeting their needs functionally, culturally, and linguistically. To accomplish this, we work closely with all product functions at Spotify to make sure we’re not just thinking from an English-first, Western-centric creation framework. We may work with UX researchers during the Understand It phase, product designers during the Think It phase, and engineers during the Build It phase.
UX writers (also known as content designers) write intentionally, and the same level of intentionality goes into the creation of translated copy. We use our knowledge of how languages function and vary to help create localizable, scalable, and globally-relevant designs. We do this during copy creation (by considering style, formatting, and tone of voice), in design (by considering how flexible our designs need to be to accommodate translations of different lengths, or different scripts), and by thinking outside of our own culture or identity about how a concept might be interpreted by someone else.
During the translation process, Romance languages such as Spanish can expand by approximately 25%, which means that a button with sufficient space for an English word may no longer accommodate its Spanish counterpart. This can be especially problematic on smaller devices, like when using the Spotify app on phones. Rather than shortening the translations to fit the available space, we collaborate with designers to make sure their design is flexible enough to accommodate longer translations. Some languages expand up to 40%!
The localization team also works with our UX writing team to ensure we’re using the right tone of voice in different markets. We’ve learned that our listeners in Japan prefer a more educational and direct tone of voice, while our Indian audience tends to prefer more playful and humorous tones.
We also work with our product design team to understand how visual elements can be interpreted differently in other parts of the world. In our recently launched Diwali hub, we found that our Indian audience preferred lighter design themes so we changed our designs, which were originally darker, to better celebrate the Festival of Lights.
So, how can you start creating for global users and keep their needs in mind?
Designing for localization requires intentional thinking. There is a learning curve! However, the more you flex this muscle and the more feedback you get, the easier it is to know it when you see it.
In the same way one would work with other product functions to gather input and feedback for other design considerations, the localization team provides that same level of input and support. We work with linguists to make sure that writing and design choices will scale globally, and can perform design checks, localizability analyses and provide general feedback on writing and designs, to help designers while they are learning the fundamentals.
Here are some key things to remember when designing with global audiences at the forefront:
Creating exclusively left-to-right designs and experiences. Not all languages go from left to right. In fact, some of our key languages on Spotify, like Arabic and Hebrew, are read from right to left. This can affect the overall layout of the design, because on-screen text needs to be able to look good starting from either side of the screen.
String concatenation. This is what it’s called when two parts of a complete sentence are split up. Different languages have different grammar structures, and so the translators need to see the whole sentence together in order to make everything make sense.
Assuming that the name of a new feature or product will translate easily. The localization team works closely with UX writing, product owners, and our translators to help determine what the best name for something may be. This is a very involved process that ensures names work locally, and also make sense for our global brand.
Using English as a blueprint for localization. Just because a format or dynamic pattern works in English, it doesn’t mean it will work in other languages. For example, when Spotify was working on creating notifications for new songs and albums, we were thinking about having one dynamic pattern: “[Artist name] released a new [song/album].” However, we had to re-work the structure of the notification pattern because in many languages, “song” and “album” have a gender, and we had to consider the gender of the artist. So, what this meant was that other words in the notification would change according to the gender of the word or artist. One notification pattern couldn’t cover it all in this situation.
Thinking there is only one language per country. When products are launched first in the US only, the localization team will translate into Spanish, given the significant number of listeners using the app in Spanish.
It’s important to find the most appropriate place to break words. In this example, the word Jahresrückblick (“Wrapped” in German) is not broken in the most appropriate way (Jahresrück-blick). This was later amended for future editions.
The design on the right accommodates proper name ordering in all languages whereas the design on the left would force the name to always come first, which is not the correct order in all languages.
We can’t always avoid everything, which is why the next step is to Plan.
Learn what to look for and make those decisions ahead of time, which will allow for better localizability. Planning often requires research, design reviews, and feedback from the localization team.
Some common things to look out for are time, date, and number formats; idioms, slang, and wordplay; emojis, abbreviations, and anything culture- or country-specific like people, places, traditions, or holidays.
Brief the localization team ahead of time, ideally when the design and writing ideation starts — even before UX research is conducted. Localization can help inform your product mocks for international research.
Involve the localization team in your early iterations and ideations, and ask if you ever have questions or doubts. This enables smoother collaboration and means you and your team don’t get married to an idea that, when it comes time to execute, is completely non-localizable. This makes everyone the saddest.
Ready to take your products global? Just remember…
You are going to develop an instinct. There’s not a finite list of examples, nor is there an exact science. Eventually, you’ll know it when you see it.
It’s not just about changing the copy. Don’t default to a copy change. The words in our products were chosen with intention and just because they’re posing a localization challenge, it doesn’t mean the solution is to change them.
It’s a balance. Localizability is a new input to the many considerations you balance in design: tech feasibility, tone of voice, etc. Like everything else, this should remain balanced.
Product Localization Manager
Mercedes leads the product localization team at Spotify. A big fan of all things language, culture, and travel, she lives in Brooklyn with her dog.
Faith supports the Spotify Design community by editing, writing, and curating stories on the blog. When she's not adding to her long list of favorite words, Faith leads yoga classes and sound baths around London.