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Product Internationalization: Opportunities and Challenges for Global Organizations

Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 when it was merely a 13-person team, had just 30 million users and zero revenue. Today, Bloomberg Intelligence pegs the valuation of the photo-sharing app at more than $100 billion with a fast-growing user base and snowballing ad revenue that shows an eye-popping growth trajectory in just six years.

People can say that Facebook got lucky, but industry insiders and pundits highlight that this astonishing success is due to the international acceptability of Instagram – one of the major reasons why Facebook wanted it. Instagram’s global success story was far from accidental. In fact, its founders planned it from the start with their “global first” approach. Their vision was to internationalize the app from its very early days to boost its global discoverability and usability. Today, more than a billion people use it to share photos and videos with their friends, family, followers, and customers.

Salesforce, a business-to-business product, is another shining example of how internationalization helped boost global adoption and enabled Salesforce to build a $10 billion empire from a SaaS based CRM product in less than two decades.

These two diverse scenarios strongly establish the fact that digital products, despite their place of origin, need to adapt to the local flavors to ensure a better cultural fit. The absence obviously can lead to users feeling the frustration of using products not attuned to their sensibilities. The result of which could be—complete abandonment or a half-hearted adoption.

With success stories like Instagram, Google, Salesforce, SAP and WhatsApp, internationalization has quickly gained the recognition of being a critical pivot in a global product strategy.

So, what is Internationalization?

Ensuring that your product is designed and developed to support the targeted audience while bypassing the barriers of geographies and languages is internationalization and the process of adapting the internationalized software to the audience’s specific country or languages is localization.

In simpler words, Internationalization (i18n) is the readiness for localization.

Figure 1: Internationalization Process

It not only adds robustness to a product but also increase its chances of being a success. Here is a rundown of the major motivators for your organization to go for internationalization;

Business Impact

  • Expansion to new geographies
  • Client base enlargement while minimizing associated risks
  • Improved user experience and customer delight
  • Increased profitability

Technological Impact

  • Reduced time and cost for localization
  • Single, internationalized source code for all product versions
  • Easy maintenance
  • Enhanced quality and code architecture
  • Reduced cost of ownership of multiple product versions
  • Adherence to international standards
  • Reduced implementation cycle
  • Rapid product adoption

Additionally, internationalization helps companies to protect and increase their market share while fending off competition. The benefits of internationalization are many and our experience tells us that a successful internationalization implementation is a summation of multiple small details taken care of from the beginning. Some practical examples include:

  • Staying clear of specific cultural conventions
  • No dependence on a specific language/character set encoding in your product code
  • Eliminating the use of hard-coded text
  • Careful use of text expansion
  • Taking care of the sentence Structure Variations
  • Being aware of dates and time in different cultures
  • Minimal use of concatenated text strings
  • Careful use of in-line variables
  • Third-party tool compatibility check
  • Check for Unicode support for a global text display
  • Support to right-to-left and double-byte languages (e.g., Arabic, Japanese)

Regardless of these benefits, companies prefer to delay its inclusion in their product roadmaps and sometimes even wait endlessly thus favoring a reactive course rather than a proactive approach. This reactive approach takes an urgency when they start seeing cracks in their product’s user base.

Our experience highlights two major set of challenges against internationalization.

Business Challenges

While planning for an internationalization strategy, some major business challenges that we see as critical are:

  • Making your product appealing to the local audience
  • Managing localized content and delivering the right message through our platforms like the website, social media, product manuals, UI/UX, etc.
  • Supporting local currency and shipping (if required)
  • Accounting for local rules and regulations
  • Streamlining global and regional ownership of the product, invoicing and technical infrastructure
  • Providing customer support in the native language

Technology Challenges

Technology challenges can be subdivided into two:

a. Design Challenges

Application of internationalization in your product faces its sternest test from the engineering and product teams and it begins with your product design philosophy. Some features that are critical during this phase are:

  • Internationalization of the drop-down data, field labels, analytics (Reports and Dashboards/Charts, and E-mails)
  • Self-service (on a SaaS platform)
  • Treatment of concatenated strings
  • Text within graphics
  • Database ability to support local languages

b. Quality Assurance Challenges

Another set of technology challenge is from quality assurance perspective. Some major quality assurance challenges that teams might have to face are:

  • An inadequate familiarity with other languages
  • Selection of QA tools
  • Treatment of special symbols like ?, |, ~], [, -^.
  • Defining testing scope for a global product
  • Testing based on local culture and awareness
  • Database compatibility after localization

Navigating theses challenges decides the journey of your product’s success on the global stage because internationalization significantly affects the ease of localization.

Retrofitting a product, that is linguistically and culturally centered for a local market, globally is an uphill task and very time-consuming than designing a product with the intent of presenting it globally.

Ideally, this should be a vital step in the design and development process, rather than as an afterthought that can often involve awkward and expensive re-engineering that can in-turn lead to client dissatisfaction and an increase in customer churn.

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