Localization and Mobile

TED Android app localized in English and Arabic

In the current mobile age, localization1 doesn’t dominate discussions like it did 10 years ago. There are a few factors that I believe have contributed to this:

  1. Many websites have avoided localization with the availability of free translation tools such as Google Translate.
  2. Mobile use cases tend to be more focused and icon based, not language based.
  3. English continues to serve as the lingua franca for technology and games.
  4. Mobile software, like most software nowadays, is cheaper and faster to create and distribute, making language-specific apps more ubiquitous. Instead of one app ruling the world, there are market-specific apps that cater to the needs of local audiences.

However, the need is still real when it comes to communicating clearly to the vast majority of the world’s population. The TED organization is a great example of this need. The TED charter is to spread ideas regarding Technology, Education, and Design to as large an audience as possible. Because of this focus on dissemination of ideas, they have paid close attention to localization of their English-language videos through subtitles. They coordinate hundreds of volunteers to provide subtitles in more than 100 languages for many of their videos. And yes, the stories are true: you can even view a video with Klingon subtitles.

TED Talk video with Klingon subtitles

As the world’s screen preference continues to shift from desktop to mobile, the TED apps serve as primary distribution tools for their content, especially in developing countries where mobile is often the only internet access available. The Mercury developed TED Android app is a great example of how localization can be effective in reaching these global audiences. Recent analytics show that the TED Android app has been downloaded over five million times with over 50% retention. As one might expect, the largest number of installs has been in the United States.  But the US represents only 25% of the total. South Korea comes in second, followed by the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Canada, Japan, Australia, India, China and Germany. The diversity of these top 10 countries is significant, with four of them using non-universal character sets and only four having English as their official language. Beyond the top 10, there are more than 214 additional countries or independent states where the app is used, representing virtually the entire Internet-connected world.

A large part of what is driving usage outside of English-speaking areas is that, in addition to providing subtitles for their videos, the TED app itself is localized in 22 languages. To understand the actual diversity of their audience, it is instructive to look beyond the countries and instead to the actual app languages chosen by the users. English is the leader, but represents only 29% of the video views. Second is Chinese (Simplified) at 23%, with the rest of the top 10 being Korean, Chinese (Traditional), Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese (Brazilian), German, and French.

Even more interesting is the new user language trend. Among new users in 2014, English comes in third behind Chinese (Simplified) and Korean, showcasing the fact that much of the user growth is coming from countries outside of the traditional Western audience.

App localization can be difficult if not considered at the beginning of the design process. Dynamic app language requires unique character sets, different content libraries for features, titles, buttons and other text, and perhaps the hardest of all – design for right-to-left (RTL) writing. Predominantly represented by Arabic and Hebrew languages, RTL requires careful design of every screen so that both left-to-right and right-to-left languages work well.

TED Android app right-to-left language example

Another design feature that makes the TED app easy to use by a diverse audience is the localized video tab. Since not all content may be available in the app language chosen, once a language is selected, a third tab is available that shows only the videos available with titles, descriptions, and subtitles in the selected language. This not only reduces user confusion, but also makes discovery within that chosen language much easier.

If you are considering an international audience, the data from the Android TED app demonstrates that if you want to communicate content to a global audience, localization is vital to your long-term success.


1   I’m using the term localization for both internationalization, structuring software for other locales, and localization, providing the translations for each locale.