15 multilingual user interface design tips for global companies

July 28, 2022
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As a user interface (UI) designer for a global company, you probably know that a multilingual user interface is essential for reaching your customers all over the world.
At its core, a multilingual UI is all about increasing access. It's about making sure that people who speak different languages can still use and benefit from your product.
But it's also about showing respect to your users by speaking to their different cultures and nuances. It's a way of demonstrating that your company is committed to their needs.
In this article, we'll introduce some tips for designing a successful multilingual UI…

1. Keep it simple

As with so many things product design, it's important to keep things simple in your user interface.
The more complex your UI, the higher the likelihood that your localization process will be complex. For example, a complex UI could be one that relies on an intricate series of steps to complete an action, with button labels changing each step. A simpler version could be to combine these into a single block of text.

2. Use clear, concise terms

The best multilingual UIs are those that use clear, concise terms. This makes them easy for the user to understand them and streamlines the translation process.
You also need to consider the length of your text. This means paying attention to whitespace. Translations often use more space than the English source text.

3. Pick a suitable design strategy

You'll probably need to pick the right design strategy for your multilingual UI early in your design process.
  1. Language selection — This is where the user chooses the language they want to use.
  2. Language detection — This is where your system automatically detects the user's language.
You can (and often should) also use a combination of these strategies.

4. Avoid ambiguity

Avoid using terms or concepts that can be interpreted in different ways. This also includes avoiding ambiguity when the context of the UI changes (such as "Does the term on a button make sense in the new context?").
It's important to make sure your interface is easy to scan and navigate, so users can easily find the information they are looking for.

5. Take care with iconography and visuals

Icons and visuals are a great way to communicate across cultures… but only if the iconography is understood in the same way in your target market.
Some icons don't translate in the same way. For example, some emojis have different meanings depending on which country the user comes from.

6. Design for concatenation

Concatenation is when you combine multiple strings in your UI. Designers often use it to improve readability and ease of use, but it can become a headache with localization.
For example, "text1": "You will be logged out in", "units": "seconds."
To handle this, translators will likely either have to write a poor sentence in an attempt to force their language to follow this word order, or the resulting ‘parts’ will not match the English. In Chinese for example the first string will be “In” and the second string will be “seconds you be logged out”. The Translation Memory will be wrong and this then carries all sorts of risks.
A good rule of thumb when designing your UI is to avoid concatenation wherever possible. If you have to use it, try to simplify the grammar and place the variable at the start or the end, rather than embed it in the sentence.
For example:
  • Don't use: "You have {msgCount} unread emails"
  • Use: "Unread emails: {msgCount}"

7. Select the right translation provider

It's important to find a translation provider that can help you through the challenges and peculiarities of creating a multilingual user interface.
Many translation providers only handle the text translations and expect to receive content in spreadsheet files that you have to re-integrate manually. However, this is inefficient. The right provider will streamline your entire translation process.

8. Design for different screen sizes

In many parts of the world, mobile phones and tablets are the primary device that your customers use daily. This means that your UI needs to work smoothly on smaller screens.
When translating your UI for multiple languages, it's important to have a localization process that accounts for this need.
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9. Consider internationalization from the start

You'll make your life much easier if you consider internationalization and localization from the very start of your design process.
This means designing your UI from the beginning in such a way that makes it easy to translate and adapt for different markets. For example, you might use flexible layouts that can be easily changed for different languages.

10. Focus on the technology and process

People often make the mistake of thinking of translation as a purely linguistic step at the end of software development.
In reality, your development process and technology components will have a huge impact on how easy it is to create a multilingual user interface. This is one reason it's important to work with a translation provider that understands software development.

11. Test your UI with users

Testing and quality assurance (QA) is a vital stage of any software product. With a multilingual UI, it's especially important to test the software with users from your international markets.
Testing with real users will help you identify aspects of the UI that might not work as well in the different cultures and languages.

12. Be aware of cultural differences

What is appropriate and accepted in one culture may not be acceptable elsewhere. For example, in some cultures, formal language is expected but would sound impersonal in others.
For UI design, it's also important to recognize that different cultures use color, symbols, and even buying processes differently.

13. Avoid jargon and idioms

With translation, it's almost always a good idea to avoid jargon and idioms. These are ambiguous terms that are hard to translate effectively into other languages.
Translated idioms can also make your UI elements confusing and difficult to read. It's much more effective to use simplified language with a clear meaning.

14. Use images and videos wisely

Images, videos, and other multimedia elements are often necessary to make your software product look good. But be careful when you are creating them.
Companies rarely realize how much work goes into localizing the media elements of a software product. Often, simple changes to the source media content can make the process quicker, cheaper, and less hassle to translate.

15. Consider tone and style

It's important to consider the level of formality and style that you want to project with your software product. For example, do you want to be seen as friendly and approachable, or more professional and reserved?
In some ways, translating a UI can be more like translating brand-voice consistent marketing content than, say, formal documentation content. Thus, it can require a more specialized translation process.
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Finally, Keep your interface up to date

When you are designing a multilingual UI, it's important to think about how you will keep the translations up to date.
Our clients often update their software products on a monthly or weekly basis. To achieve this, you need a localization process that makes such ongoing changes easy.
At its core, a multilingual user interface is about increasing access. It's about making sure that people who speak different languages can still use and enjoy your software product. It's also about demonstrating that your company is committed to serving people in that market.
What will you do to make your software product more accessible to your company's international users?