5 ways to create a global app with a local feel

by Niki Forecast, Senior Product Designer at what3words

what3words has an incredibly international user base. This year, people in 193 countries have been using our app for everything from planning meetups with friends to finding their airbnbs, easier car navigation, smoother deliveries and a faster emergency response.

But making an app available to an international audience successfully is not easy. There are hurdles to overcome in every region. It can be expensive and a never ending rabbit hole. In this article I’ll guide your through the approach we’ve taken to localisation at what3words and some important insights we’ve learnt along the way — transferable to any app with global ambition.

1. Localise your system

However, to create a system that people want to use, it needs to feel natural and intuitive to them. Which means it has to be available in their native tongues. So, we set out to make what3words available in as many languages as possible. We currently have 36 what3words languages, with nine more scheduled for release by the end of this year.

While we developed what3words for each of these different languages, we learnt several important insights that may help teams embarking on a similar process. This brings us onto Insight #2…

2. Every language has its quirks

The problem with very long words

So, German words can be very long. To the extent that some 3 word addresses would not fit in our address field. Because of this, we had to update the app to detect the length of a 3 word address, then adjust the font size accordingly.

This solution created another challenge. We came across some 3 word addresses so long that the resulting tiny font-size caused accessibility issues. Although these addresses are less likely to be used — we’ve assigned longer words to more remote locations — we’re experimenting with solutions.

Spelling variations

In many languages you can have multiple spellings of the same word. For example in German, you can spell schöne with an umlaut (ö), you can spell it ‘oe’ instead of the umlaut, or you can ignore the umlaut completely. All of these are completely valid, well used spellings of the same word. Our system therefore needs to be able to detect that these are the same word, and autocorrect it to one chosen spelling.

Right-to-left alignment matters

To make our app intuitive for right-to-left aligning languages like Arabic, we created a mirrored version of the entire app interface.

Good etiquette

There would be little point making 3 word addresses available in 36 different languages if the rest of the what3words interface wasn’t also translated. Luckily, we don’t have that much copy within the app so this isn’t too difficult. However, even this small amount of copy uncovered some quirks.

For example in English, we say ‘Welcome back Niki’ — pretty normal. However, in Korean, you simply would not address someone by their first name in this context.

To address this, we updated the language strings used to form this message, so instead the order of text translates as ‘Forecast Niki, welcome back’. This might seem like a small detail, but if a Korean opened an app and read ‘Welcome back Niki’, they would instantly know it was made by a company that doesn’t understand their culture.

Attention to detail is everything.

3. Regional challenges

Cost of data

However even at this smaller size, the 65MB (average) size of our app still reduces the accessibility to what3words, which is why over the next few months we’ll be optimising and improving our mapsite to reduce the reliance on users downloading our app. Although a website version may not be able to provide as optimal an experience as a native app; it could increase access to core features.

GPS accuracy

4. The best localisation is a local integration

Therefore it’s important to consider the user experience from a holistic level, and consider how your product fits into the lives of your users. Although you may not have control over the design and implementation, local integration can improve your product’s accessibility and get more people using your product.

5. Diversity is key

This knowledge base is invaluable when it comes to understanding local cultural sensitivities, marketing trends, or, crucially, whether or not the app actually works in a region. Many issues we’ve come across could not be recreated or diagnosed from an office in London — we need local knowledge.

As we’ve seen, localising an app can be an expensive process as well as a bit of a rabbit hole. Some challenges, you’ll be able to foresee, while others you’ll only come across once people start using your app in their region.

Rising to each of these challenges is an opportunity to improve your product and can make for an incredibly rewarding experience. It’s amazing to be receiving positive feedback from people using the what3words app all around the world, and a significant step in our journey towards becoming a global addressing standard.

Interested in joining our mission? We’re a group of talented people from all over the world on an unprecedented journey and we’re hiring for a variety of positions. Check out our jobs page here.

what3words is the simplest way to talk about location. It has divided the world into 3m x 3m squares, each with a unique 3 word address.

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