Examining the ripple effect of tech debt on internationalization, and how to prevent it

by Adrienne Lumb
3 Minute Read

Tech debt — a trade-off of short term gains from shipping quick software fixes in place of better, longer-term solutions — is a common and often unavoidable practice for development teams. Accumulating tech debt provides the ability to resolve problems affecting user experience and software performance quickly.

However, as with any debt, there can be unfavorable consequences. Time is borrowed. The promised repayment of a more in-depth technical discovery of the original issue is often sidelined as new priorities arise. New projects and problems pop up. A backlog grows of issues only temporarily resolved.

Interest accrues.

If neglected too long — problems trickle downstream, gaining momentum. Product, development, support, and marketing teams feel the impact of unresolved software issues. And at the bottom of this stream are content and localization teams, acquiring debt from the source.

This common scenario equates to localization debt, which happens when internationalization is overlooked or misunderstood in the software design process.

How differences in organizational workflows affect localization debt

The cadence of development cycles has increased rapidly over the past decade. Organizations began moving away from a waterfall approach in favor of agile work methods, approaching projects in sprints. Productivity and development speed has increased dramatically.

At the same time, global expansion has become a priority for many enterprise businesses, requiring the formation of localization and translation teams. And translating has traditionally been a slow process. Without the aid of machine translation, translators and editors complete their work by hand, which requires a significant amount of lead time and coordination.

So when development increases exponentially, and the translation process remains mostly the same, the localization experience breaks. By the time localization teams have translated strings to accommodate a particular software experience, new releases have been deployed, and the translations may not work contextually.

Prevent debt by developing software for internationalization

One way companies can decrease the amount of localization debt accrued is by considering — and prioritizing — internationalization during the software design process. Writing code with internationalization considerations in the initial stages, as opposed to after-the-fact, sets localization teams up for success as they can work with a flexible user interface (UI). 

Companies can generally follow a two-step process to internationalize software well.

1. Prioritize strings, and structure

Identify text strings that are critical to localizing your product effectively. Store them separate from your code, in a text format appropriate for your development platform. You don’t want translation strings interfering with your code.

2. Design your UI for localization

Many design elements are essential in optimizing desktop, web, or mobile app experiences for localization. These are a few to consider:

  • Character sizing — Character length, width, and line height are important factors in designing a globally flexible UI, particularly so for mobile devices that have minimal screen space. German words tend to be longer than English — one long word might be the equivalent of an entire phrase or multiple words in English. There’s only so much text space a button can accommodate, and wrapping long words onto another line may not be an option.
  • Graphical elements — Colors, icons, and images have different meanings across cultures in user prompts, and invoke different emotional responses. Depending on the culture, red can symbolize passion, joy, religion, danger, or good luck. White represents peace across Europe and America, while it represents death in many Asian cultures.
  • Directional flow — Languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi read right to left. Some strings might require inserting a foreign word that reads left to right, creating a directionally oppositional experience. Software that is fully ready for localization into these languages should be able to display and accept text regardless of its orientation.

Coordinating with localization leaders

Involving localization leaders early in product planning, and continuing to consult their expertise during development cycles is critical to a successful international business strategy.

The further upstream your teams can plan, the better. An even-keeled production pace can result in a smoother go-to-market process, better products for end users, and less localization debt.

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