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I18n in Software Design, Architecture and Implementation
Andrea Vine,
copyright © Sun Microsystems, Inc 


Sun Software Product Internationalization Taxonomy
copyright © Sun Microsystems, Inc 

Globalisation in Software Design



  1. If the feature will be translated for a locale with a right-to-left reading order, its layout should be examined by literally looking at the user interface in the mirror.
  2. Word order can change from one language to another. Have I assured that no GUI element embedded within a text string?
  3. Did the product group looked carefully at the internationalization of a third party technology it is needed to get a feature running?
  4. Are Human figures, body parts, and especially hands avoided at all costs? The only acceptable human figure is a stick figure with no clothes, no hands with fingers, and no hair.
  5. Hands - don't even try. There's not a hand position around which isn't offensive somewhere. And there is no hand position with universal meaning. Really.
  6. Are graphics avoided which contain words, represent puns on English words, or doing pictorial representations of English words?
  7. Did you make sure that a single icon is not used for multiple meanings?
  8. Text chosen for the UI should reflect an international English product. Avoid jargon, slang, Americanisms, cutesy phraseology, and humor.

Guide Lines

GUI Layout

When dialogs are translated from English into other languages, the length of the components containing text can increase more than 30%. The components that are affected by translation include buttons, menus, tables, labels, and text fields. If the window is already wide, expansion can cause it to exceed the width of the screen. The height of textual components can also increase when they are translated into Asian languages, since Asian characters can be unreadable at a Latin height. In the following example, the components on the original version of a dialog were laid out side-by-side. The dialog would have become much wider after translation.

This dialog had components side-by-side.
(AdminSuite 3.0 dialog courtesy of Karen Stanley.)

The dialog was redesigned by stacking the components vertically. Now, there is space to the right of the components for expanded text.
(AdminSuite 3.0 dialog courtesy of Karen Stanley.)

Dialogs should be designed to resize gracefully when text expands, so the localized user interface is attractive and readable. GUI objects should be cushioned amidst ample horizontal and vertical space. This way, they can expand into the blank space when translated, hence reducing the possibility of the entire dialog box growing.

If the total length of a row of GUI objects on a dialog is longer than 60% of the width of the dialog, or if the total height of a column of GUI objects is taller than 80% of the dialog, the layout will probably need to change.

The number of menus on the menu bar should be limited, so that the bar does not wrap to a second line when translated.

When layout managers are available for the platform, they should be used in laying out dialog boxes. This way, when the components are translated, the whole window can expand automatically if necessary.

Layouts should be tested with a text expansion utility. The utility should test horizontal expansion by appending a certain number of extra characters to textual components. If a resulting expanded text string is too long for the window, the layout will need to be fixed. The utility should also test vertical expansion by increasing the height of all textual components by a specific amount. If the results make the dialog unreasonably tall, the layout will need to be fixed.

Reading Order

In English, people read from left to right and from top to bottom. Some languages have different reading orders, such as Hebrew and Arabic, where the reading order is right to left. The following guidelines will make your GUIs easier to use across locales with varying reading orders.

If the application will be translated into a language with a right-to-left reading order, the layout of the GUI objects will need to be reversed. For instance, vertical scrollbars will need to move from the right to the left of the window, and labels will need to be placed to the right rather than to the left of their associated GUI objects. On some systems, this happens automatically; this automatic shift should be verified. Also, the tab traversal order should make sense in a right-to-left locale.

If the application will be translated for a locale with a right-to-left reading order, its layout should be examined by literally looking at the user interface in the mirror.

Word Order

Word order can change from one language to another. A GUI that embeds a component in a text string, such as in the following example, will need to be laid out again when translated into French. This is because in French, most adjectives come after the noun they describe instead of before it.

The French translation has an incorrect word order.
(graphic courtesy of the Java Look and Feel Design Guidelines)

To anticipate variations in word order, use a layout like the following in the original version of the product.

Now, the GUI object is not embedded within a text string, and the word order is correct in both French and English.
(graphic courtesy of the Java Look and Feel Design Guidelines)

Interaction with other products

This is an area, which has not been emphasized in the past, but is becoming important to the success of many products. Software products within a company can be dependent on each other and on external products. If one of the pieces is not internationalized properly, it can prevent the internationalization of the entire ensemble.

Design requirements should address the needs of dependent products. If an application server cannot process application data in the Simplified Chinese charset EUC-CN, then chances are all the applications running on the server will not be able to accept EUC-CN data. Core level products need to be especially sensitive to this. Products such as directories, user management, Web servers, etc., need to be fully internationalized with well-defined interfaces and APIs sooner than higher-level products, such as trading software.

Be especially careful about choosing a third-party component or product to include functionality. More often than not, third party products are not internationalized, and this can block internationalization in the including product. If the code rights are purchased, then the product group is often saddled with retrofitting i18n into someone else's code. Worse, sometimes the design itself is flawed, rendering the product useless to your company. Any time a third party product is evaluated for use or purchase, the product group should look very carefully at its internationalization.

International requirements

Some internationalization does not involve the processing of international data at all. Different markets have different requirements; this is why companies divide their sales areas into separate regions. Customers in other parts of the world use products for other purposes than those in the US. They approach products differently, and they may have requirements that are not included in a US specification. It is important when gathering requirements for a product that international customers, sales personnel, and marketers are consulted.

Some clear examples come from the auto industry. In England, people use their headlights to signal other drivers for various courtesies, usually letting someone else into traffic or giving someone else right-of-way. They need a function to flash their headlights even when they aren't switched on. The controls in a car made for the US wouldn't work, particularly in cars that have retracting headlights. The Acura/Honda Integra, which has retracting headlights, has a switch in England models that lifts up the headlights, flashes them once, and retracts them again. Another example of international requirements for cars comes from India. Cars there are required to emit a noise when reversing, much like trucks and electric cars in the US. Note that these requirements have nothing to do with the local language or data; instead they are to facilitate the local way of conducting business.

Graphical images

Graphical images are expensive to create, and are almost as expensive to modify. English product is usually sold all over the world. Taking these two premises into account, product graphics should be universally acceptable if at all possible.

Here are some basic guidelines for creating universally acceptable graphics:

Human figures, body parts, and especially hands should be avoided at all costs!

The problem with human figures is manifold: is it female or male, what is it wearing, what color is its skin and hair, what position is the body in, what is the figure doing? Obviously in some cultures, certain types of dress are inappropriate, whereas they are standard in other cultures. People of one sex may not be allowed to perform certain tasks in some cultures, but in others they are the primary performers of these tasks. In different parts of the world, people identify with different skin and hair color on the figures. The only acceptable human figure is a stick figure with no clothes, no hands with fingers, and no hair.

With body parts, the difficulty lies not only in which body part is being represented, but what position it is in, where it is cut off, and how it is cut off.

Hands - don't even try. There's not a hand position around which isn't offensive somewhere. And there is no hand position with universal meaning. Really. Don't forget.

No animals should be used to represent anything other than the actual animal.

Consider this graphic:

OK for the USA, maybe, but not ideal for India!

And this one:

Is this a pet? Is it a farm animal? Is it food? Depends on where you are.

Animals are powerful symbols in many cultures, and there is no universal animal symbol template. Bottom line; don't use them unless you're representing the actual animal.

Puns on English words, pictorial representations of English words, and graphics containing words are not universal.

Representing an English word with a picture of something that shares the same word but has a different meaning does not translate. For example, in one product there was an icon for representing staging. The icon was a picture of a theater stage. While this works in English, it doesn't work in other languages.

Is this a home? How about this?

Is either one of them related to a home page on the Web?

Another more common example is using a picture of a musical note to represent a message note. Again, this makes no sense to people who do not speak English.

Text in graphics can be a real nightmare. If the product is to be localized, then the graphics have to be altered at great expense. Simply use some sort of image, and keep the text separate. Use numeric callouts and place the descriptions in text above or below the graphic. If there is no way around putting the text in the graphic, follow all these guidelines:

  1. Make sure there is plenty of expansion room for the text portion of the graphic. Translations into alphabetic languages can more than double in width, and ideographic languages tend to expand vertically.

  2. Allow the font size to change. If a small font is needed in order to make the text fit, then the graphic needs to be redesigned, since it will not be translatable.

  3. Separate the text from the graphic in layers, at least for sourcing purposes. Save the graphic without text as a sort of blank, and provide that to the localization team.

Some objects are culture-specific, so verify that a particular object used in a graphic is universally understood.

Take a look at this graphic:

What is it? Where is it used? Who has one that looks like this? The red flag is up - what does that mean? In real life? Online?

The answers are that this is a US rural mailbox. People who have this sort of mailbox do not need to mail their outgoing letters in an official post box. Instead, the postal carrier will pick up outgoing mail for them, as well as delivering the incoming mail. If someone has outgoing mail, they raise the red flag. The postal carrier will lower it after picking up the outgoing letters. But online, the raised red flag is used to indicate that there is newly delivered mail in the mailbox. So not only has a location-specific symbol been used, but also it has been used incorrectly.

This is a perfect example of an assumption that everyone in the world would understand that a picture of a US rural/suburban mailbox is a mailbox. The difficulty is finding a single object that would universally illustrate a mailbox. In this case, the shape of the mailbox cannot be meaningful - mailboxes around the world come in all shapes and sizes. Instead focus on the purpose of the mailbox, as a place to receive mail. Make the box simple, and put an obvious letter or stack of letters in it. A basic letter image is universally understood, so work from there.

Some objects would be found offensive to certain cultures - take this graphic for example:

While in some cultures alcohol indicates a celebration, in others it is against religious beliefs to consume alcohol. People from the cultures prohibiting alcohol might view the above image as sinful or degenerate, not usually the impression that products mean to portray. It's best to find another type of image to portray the meaning (unless the product is, in fact, wine!)

Make sure that a single icon is not used for multiple meanings.

While this sounds like an obvious statement, it is violated all the time. The most common example is this: . In a single product, it is used to indicate a link to help information, and a query that requires a response. In fact, it's been known to occur in a style guide with those two meanings. And while the context makes the icon understood, needing a context to understand the icon defeats the purpose of using an icon at all.


Color means different things in different cultures. What does putting this text in red mean? Does it mean, "this statement is especially important"? Does it mean that the statement is meant as a caution or warning? Is it just calling out the statement as being special? Maybe it signifies that the statement is especially positive and good? The answer is, depends on the person reading it.

In some countries, red is a celebratory color, conveying a positive meaning. In Korea, if a person's name appears in red, it means they are deceased. White is usually associated with goodness and purity in US culture, but elsewhere means death. In addition, the distinctions between colors varies with the culture; the line between what is blue and what is green changes quite a bit between the US and Japan.

This is not to say that colors are not useful; they are. But remember that color alone cannot convey meaning; this is not just for i18n, but also for accessibility, since colorblind people will not be able to see the distinctions. It is best to use a consistent color scheme throughout a product, or better yet, throughout a line of products. Users will grow accustomed to the color scheme, e.g. red for errors, yellow for warnings, green for success.


Text chosen for the UI should reflect an international English product. Avoid jargon, slang, Americanisms, cutesy phraseology, and humor. Humor does not translate well. Truly. Ha ha. Get it?

Samples and scenarios should be chosen carefully. For example, one product used a spy as a character in the tutorial, and Swedish customers found this very offensive. The best approach would be to talk to people from different cultures. Take advantage of the diversity of people in the office, as well as the field marketing and sales people.


Some sounds are culture specific. While the game show buzzer sound for incorrect answers is well known to people in the US, it is simply an unpleasant cacophonous noise with no meaning to those in other countries. In Japan, making a mistake on your computer can be personally embarrassing; broadcasting that mistake to your coworkers via a buzz or beep may cause shame. This does not boost product sales.

The best approach to including non-speech sounds is probably to make a variety of sounds and allow the user to select. There should always be an option to turn sound off. All sounds should be localizable+


Video is often used for product demonstrations and marketing purposes. Since it is expensive to localize video, the voiceover is often the only part that changes for each geographic market. Different cultures have different ideas of what is appropriate as far as movement, degree of eye contact, and clothing are concerned. The non-textual aspects of internationalization that apply to graphical user interfaces are present and even intensified in video format. Also, video formats can differ from one country to another.

A marketing professional with experience marketing products internationally should be engaged to review the video before it is released outside of the United States.



Layout design must accommodate not only the fixed elements on the screen, but also the variable ones.

Fixed elements

For localizability, fixed elements must be arranged such that text can expand without requiring a great deal of rework. Alphabetic (e.g. Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew) languages tend to expand horizontally, sometimes more than double the size of the English text. Chinese character based (e.g. Japanese, Chinese, and in this case, Korean) languages often expand vertically, since the characters are taller than Latin characters. Font sizes may need to be larger for other character sets. Allow for text expansion in all UI elements, including:

  • field labels
  • field separators
  • titles
  • user/error message areas
  • buttons
  • checkboxes
  • radio buttons
  • drop down lists
  • table cells
  • text in images*

*of course, there should be little to no text in images...

All elements must be not only translatable, but expandable and movable as well. It's not always possible to create a button length that makes visual sense in all languages. Consider for example the English word edit, which when translated into German becomes bearbeiten. For some screens, having a button large enough to accommodate bearbeiten would not work well for edit. Bear in mind, too, that other languages do not abbreviate as extensively as English, so abbreviation is not always a workaround. Some input method editors add an additional status line to the bottom of a window, so keep this in mind when choosing a window size.

The order of elements may need to change, especially in sorted lists. If the product has a list of radio button choices in alphabetical order, that order will likely change in a translated version. The tab order should also change to match the visual order.

Order should be a consideration in the UI design. If it's not necessary, it's easier to avoid forcing a particular order. One of the more difficult designs is indexing by letter of the alphabet. This is quite a common design, but for products being localized, it is not always easy to translate into non-alphabetic languages. If it appears after examining other possibilities that the index-by-letter design truly makes the most sense, check with the localization team before forging ahead with the design implementation.

Sentence order will change with different languages; so do not include a particular sentence order as part of the design. Not only does the order change, but the phrase breaks change as well, so simply allowing reordering may not be enough for a translation to look correct. For example, it's tempting to construct a calendar entry edit screen to have:

However, most languages would have to rearrange the fields, and some (in this case, the am/pm) are superfluous and need to be removed.

Keyboard shortcuts may also need to be manipulatable. If the reason for choosing a particular keyboard sequence is due to the keys' close proximity, then this may need to change for different keyboard layouts. For shortcuts using a mnemonic letter, these will change with translations.

Variable elements or user input fields

Fixed elements are not the only portions of the UI that change order or expand with use in other languages. User input areas also need more space for the data they input. The key difference here is that making the elements flexible for localization is not enough! English product is often sold all over the world, and the UI included with English product must accommodate input data from all over the world.

The most obvious design area is to make sure input areas are large enough to handle longer input text. This is a fairly straightforward requirement. Consider the Turkish Lira example, currently over TRL 1,500,000 to USD 1.00 - imagine the expansion needed in a currency field.

Another expansion consideration is the rendering of input text - the text area needs to be not only long enough for more and/or longer words, but also tall enough for larger fonts.

More complex than expansion is the consideration of universal data input field structure. For example, if a product allows the user to enter a date in a short format, how should the input area look?

The problem with forcing a date format is that it isn't universal. Even dates themselves aren't universal, although it isn't unusual for products to limit their capacity to the Gregorian calendar. But the mm/dd/yy format so common in the US is not used anywhere else, and is very confusing. It is better to allow a user in a known locale to enter a date format commonly used in that locale. If there is no way to know the locale, then the only acceptable universal date format is yyyy-mm-dd. The separator may be changed to a dot, or possibly a slash / but the rest of the fields must be in the specified order. So the date input field might look like:

Another possible solution to the format issue is to provide users with a choice of formats, for example in a preferences area. This way you can display the chosen format next to the field, and know exactly how to parse the input date format from the user.

Of course, there is the story of the Japanese emperor date. One product allowed for modification of the emperor name in the date field, trying to make the product as flexible as possible. The Japanese were offended, because that implied that the emperor would die. The moral of this story: universal design is a tricky business.

Other field types that should be considered very carefully are names, addresses, company information, currency, measurement, numeric values, and any other formatted data. Data formats are usually locale and/or culture specific. Once again, English product is sold all over the world, so just making the arrangement localizable is not enough. If the interface must be customized in order for the product to function properly, then create several locale profiles that can be loaded based on the user's locale. Or, less optimally, make it easily user customizable, and inform the customer that they are expected to customize the product for the locale.

One more very important consideration in layout design is orientation. Consider what will happen in your interface layout for a right-to-left language. If there are controls, they may need to switch sides. Titles, tables, table cells, and similar elements will need to be right aligned. Text on one side of an image will need to move to the other side. Some of these changes may need to be dynamic, basing the orientation of the layout on the locale or data language. One trick to help visualize what a design might look like in a right-to-left layout is to view that design in a mirror. Orientation is often so imbedded in a design that suddenly having to accommodate a right-to-left language requires a major code revision. Thinking about it ahead of time will allow you to serve more customers with less effort.

Command Line Interface (CLI)

The definition of CLI used here is something that a user can type on a shell command line.

  • The command itself is not usually localizable, nor are fixed parameters.

  • The data provided as arguments to commands and parameters may be in another charset, locale format, or other localized structure. Be prepared for all argument data.

  • Output of the command must be localizable. For example, even fixed data from the UNIX ps command has column headings. Output text needs to be transformed (converted) into the native charset of the command window. Fortunately, this does not usually apply to batch commands.

If the command parses output from another command, be aware that this output may be localized. Don't rely on English string literals which are not fixed names. Or force the locale to be en_US or C for the execution of that command, for example:

> env LC_ALL=fr date

vendredi, 6 octobre 2000, 18:24:02 PDT

> env LC_ALL=de date

Freitag, 6. Oktober 2000, 18:26:24 Uhr PDT

> env LC_ALL=it date

venerd?, 6 ottobre 2000, 18:27:23 PDT

Note: This locale change only works for the command that follows it. The system and shell environment variables remain unchanged.I18n in Software Design, Architecture and Implementation

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