Things To Consider When Designing A Localized App

Did you know that the innocent thumbs up gesture in the United States is actually interpreted in a very different way in Thailand? A local from Thailand would probably view an American that gave a thumbs up as offensive or childish. The gesture is even worse in Arabic countries.

What does this have to do with designing apps? Well, designers have to think about these things when creating apps for different countries. Building and designing an app with a great user experience is already difficult especially if the app is designed to meet specific business objectives with the ultimate goal of enhancing an entire process. Imagine building an app for a different country. A project like this becomes even harder than you think and goes beyond just changing the language in an app. There are a host of challenges that come from designing a localized app for various countries. If you aren’t familiar with the country’s business practices, idioms, and way of life, creating a localized app can be a very difficult task. What are some things that designers should consider when creating a localized app?

Color Theory Variant

An important thing that designers need to keep in mind when creating localized apps is what colors mean in various countries. People in different countries don’t always view the same colors in the same way. When you ask someone in Asia what the color of money is, he or she will probably respond with the appropriate word for red. However, if you were in the United States, an American’s response to the same question would be green. When someone dies, the color black is used in the West while the color white is used in the East. In addition, the Chinese view yellow as the color of royalty. In America, purple is usually the color that resembles royalty while it symbolizes death or mourning in Brazil. It’s interesting to compare these differences as many of the colors mentioned earlier are complementary or opposite colors on the color wheel.

Character Length and Legibility

In various countries, designers need to take into consideration the different character lengths for menu and navigation items in an app. For instance, German words generally tend to be 40% longer than the average English word while something in Chinese can be said in two characters. When considering character lengths for menus and navigation items, English is a convenient starting place because it is in the middle in length. Another thing to note for designers that are creating an app in Chinese: the language is much larger than others in terms of its x-height. For navigation items in Chinese, designers will need to consider the tiny character length, but will also have to increase the point size for legibility since the larger characters will need extra space. Also, the Chinese really love crowded screens and hate white space so if you’re designing an app for that country, people will expect you to cram a bunch of stuff on the screen.

Besides character length, another thing app designers should consider is the way words are written. For example, Hebrew and Arabic words are read right to left while English words are the exact opposite. An app’s navigation needs to be flexible to accommodate all these variances. Also, Chinese characters can be read well vertically, but English words will look strange if written vertically instead of horizontally. Another thing that is different about Chinese words is that it has a very limited number of typefaces. As one can see, each language has its own peculiarities.

The Way People Live and Interact Is Different

Designers should also consider the way people live and how they interact with apps. Consumer apps must take into account that the Chinese population can’t access traditional American social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. Websites like Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have all been blocked in China so make sure that you aren’t trying to use any of these services to have people sign up for an app. In China, one of the most popular sites is the microblogging site, Weibo, which is basically a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook. It’s not just China though - countries like Turkey also block social networks and there is much more censorship there than in the United States.

If you’re trying to launch an app in another country, remember to consider any government regulations. All major brands have to conform to laws of the countries they are doing business in. In China, people have to register every website with the government and then get a serial number for it. If you don’t have a serial number, your website will get blocked. For apps, you need to register it with the government in order to submit it to the app store. If not, your app will never be able to gain a foothold in the country.

In addition, remember that things are different in varying countries such as connectivity. If your app relies on a high speed connection, it will be difficult to use in developing countries. Also, each country has its own rules in what a company can and cannot communicate. This will have a big effect on not just the content of an app, but also how it is marketed.

Cultural nuances need to be considered in the design of a mobile app. When designing an app, ask questions like: How does the user buy things? How do they expect to discover something? How are products and services launched? In China, people never buy anything unless someone famous uses it first as they tend to not be early adopters. If you want to launch something like a new restaurant in China, you better make sure that the store is full first. Very few people will want to eat at a new restaurant that is empty. Remember to adjust concepts and the user flow to match cultural patterns when designing a localized app.

Success Stories

With all the apps that have launched, there are several success stories of well-designed apps that can be found in other countries. One example is WeChat, the largest standalone messaging app by monthly active users developed by Tencent in China. WeChat has various features including voice chat, group chat, audio and video calls, a sticker gallery, friend radar, group chat QR code, and more. One major thing that sets WeChat apart from other messaging services is its online-payment functions. According to Forbes, banks can “serve their customers directly while saving money by communicating through WeChat messages instead of SMS.” Users can also pay for taxis and make in-app purchases on WeChat using the Tenpay platform.

Another well-designed app is the mobile app for Zara, a clothing and accessories retailer. The company’s initial app for the iPhone was lackluster and had many complaints, but its latest apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android are very well done. The Zara app allows users to browse the latest fashion, find new arrivals, locate the nearest store, and basically shop on the go. In addition, users can use the scan tool to take a picture or type in the product barcode to see if it is in stock. For the iPad app, users can send instant messages to friends, share photos, and even use video chat to make the shopping experience more social. The apps help Zara extend the physical shopping experience into the virtual world.


In order to create successful localized apps, designers and researchers need to have real insights into the user behavior. For example, e-commerce is a growing part of China and is expected to reach 10% of all retail in China by the end of 2014. If you’re designing an app for Chinese consumers, you’ll need to understand this and how e-commerce took off before offline retail development. Also, you will need local people with the right skills to guide you through the technical language in any country in order to translate content for an app. With all the considerations above and additional research, you will be well on your way to creating a localized app that is designed with the user in mind.

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