Everything you need to know before going global

There are plenty of examples of internationalization gone wrong. Want to avoid these pitfalls? We have a few tips

By Ronny Shani

What do Adidas, Barilla, Google, Hotels.com, Hyundai, Microsoft, Ryanair, Uniqlo, and have in common? These major global brands are guilty of being annoyingly sloppy: They all make premature assumptions about their online visitors and redirect them to localized versions of the website based on an oversimplified geo-location forwarding rule.

There are plenty of examples of internationalization gone wrong. After all, every person browsing the web probably has their pet peeves. Some could argue that websites automatically changing language is inconvenient; others might consider missing translation unfortunate at most; more than a few would agree that incorrect currency conversion or irrelevant measurements are worthy of blacklisting a site.

So how can you ensure that your worldwide audience is happy? Well, as the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium, an international community that develops open standards for the web) suggested back in 2005, “ideally, internationalization occurs as a fundamental step in the design and development process, rather than as an afterthought that can often involve awkward and expensive re-engineering.”

Indeed, an internationalization project has multiple components, requiring close cross-functional collaboration:

  • Technical team: Infrastructure, backend, frontend
  • Data
  • Marketing
  • Content strategy and copywriting
  • UX/UI (visual design)
  • Legal/Compliance
    • Business development

After supporting several portfolio companies on their global expansion journey, we’ve gathered valuable insights and learnings, which led us to develop a checklist that covers every aspect of the product and tech strategy: From servers and top-level domain to ERP and supply chain to content and frontend to payments, legal compliance, and logistics.

Internationalization vs. localization

A quick note before we dive in: Internationalization (i18n) is sometimes confused with localization (l10n), but there’s a subtle difference between these terms.

While i18n refers to designing and developing a product or service so it can be adjusted to a specific language and market without additional engineering, l10n means practically adapting it to a region’s language and culture. In other words, internationalization is the preparation for localization.

UX designer krisztina.szerovay maps the steps in her lovely sketch.

Now, let’s dig into three key topics:

Be the master of your domain

One of our portfolio companies has been entangled in a court case over a domain name whose owner demands ever-higher compensation for their virtual asset.

What’s the lesson? Secure any relevant country code top-level domains (ccTLD; for example, .de for Germany, .lu for Luxemburg, .si for Slovenia, or .ve for Venezuela) ahead of time.

Coding aspects: Numbers, dates, and currencies

In a 2-part tutorial about localization, HiredScore’s R&D Director @dennisnerush focuses on the intricacies of displaying prices in local currency:

  • Should you use int, double, or decimal types?
  • How do you format currencies?
  • What’s the best way to calculate discounts and update exchange rates?

Check it out to learn about the alternatives.

Other elements that you should consider in this context include dates and time zones (when handling delivery and shipping), dimensions (think the metric system units compared to those used in the imperial system), as well as calculating local taxes.

Design aspects: Adaptive and inclusive

When approaching design decisions, it’s crucial to think about the visual manifestation of cultural differences and accommodate for diversity.
Here are a few examples:

  • Writing systems – will you operate in a market where the writing is from right to left? Does the font support Cyrillic, Chinese, and other relevant languages besides Latin?
  • Word length – how many characters should the button display?
  • Visual assets – images, emojis, icons, and other graphic elements convey meaning; be careful not to convey the wrong one.

Other things to consider are information density, terminology, placeholder text and avatars, and even devices and network connectivity. Here are a few recommended reads on these topics:

  • Software localization platform Phrase highlights several cultural differences that influence usability and design decisions regarding user flows, colors, page layouts, forms, and interactions logic.
  • UX expert Jenny Shen also compiled a set of cross-cultural design guidelines based on the fascinating insights she and her team gained while working with international online businesses.
  • Finally, Spotify’s localization experts share real-world dos and don’ts based on their experience working with “all product functions: UX researchers during the Understand It phase, product designers during the Think It phase, and engineers.”

Internationalization checklist

A key advantage of working with an operational VC like Project A is having access to the knowledge we’ve accumulated over more than a decade of supporting dozens of startups in our portfolio.

Our recommendations include 15 high-level categories detailing over 45 sub-tasks. Following is an overview demonstrating parts of this comprehensive list of tech-related steps companies building e-commerce sites should take before launching a global business:

Technical setupERP setupContent adaptation
TranslationsData handlingData migration
TrackingProduct dataCheckout workflow
CurrencyPayment integrationLegal compliance
LogisticsProject managementCertifications