English is one of the most common second languages in the world, with its estimated one billion speakers equating to 14% of the world’s population. However, if you are developing an app and think this means you can avoid having it translated into other languages, you might want to think again.

The reality is that only 6% of people on the planet speak English as their first language, while 22% will own a smartphone by the end of 2014. The ten countries with the highest smartphone sales in 2014 are China, India, the US, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Japan, Mexico, Germany, France and the UK. These simple statistics paint a clear picture of the need to localize and translate all apps for the global market.

Take the following scenario: wanting to improve its relationship with the end customer, a pharma company creates two apps. The one for the customer offers online help, easy daily monitoring of a condition and collection of data associated with it. The other app, for sales reps, is designed to help them present information and choices to HCPs. The English-language apps are launched across Europe but, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, there is little interest. Why?

The answer is simple: the apps aren’t personal, and that’s what mobile health is all about. It’s about being accessible to customers at the touch of a button, 24 hours a day, and making their life easier. The key to providing a personal service is being able to communicate with the customer in his native language.

If you are going to be involved in your customer’s daily life, you want the product to be easy to use and to fit seamlessly into his or her daily routine. For example, some apps monitor type and intensity of pain in order to give an indication of disease progress. Can you imagine waking up at 3 a.m. in excruciating pain and then trying to navigate through different pain assessments in a foreign language?

Health is a very personal issue and it is crucial that the information patients share with their doctors is accurate. Collecting information with an English-language app but discussing it in Spanish is far from ideal; misusing words with subtle differences in meaning could result in an incorrect or even harmful clinical decision, not to mention poor patient compliance.

If you really want your app to be successful on a global scale, you need to localize it and speak the language of the local market. This is where transcreation comes in – it’s what defines you as a “local” rather than as just a “tourist.”

“Transcreation” combines “translation” and “creation” to provide tailored copy for a target market; in contrast with literal translation, transcreation takes into account local culture, tone and vocabulary. In the UK, “sick” means “vomit,” whereas in countries including the US and New Zealand it simply means “unwell.”

In order to create a global app, you need to ensure that the original version has been internationalized, which makes it easy to localize for a given market. Internationalization is a design principle which aims to produce software applications that can readily be adapted to other languages and regions without costly engineering changes. Internationalization has a few key characteristics, including using Unicode to make sure all characters are displayed correctly, options for formatting time and date according to local style and making sure that the correct currencies and measurement units are used.

In terms of translation, internationalization requires an app to be flexible enough to allow for discrepancies in word length, which can differ between languages by as much as 40%. There are also differences in character sizes (e.g., Latin characters require less space than Chinese ones). App creators should also pay close attention to layout, as this will be mirrored when working with languages such as Hebrew and Arabic that read right to left.

Of course, countries that primarily speak a single language still have regional differences, so pharma brands that don’t want to seem like a tourist might want to take this into consideration. The British mental image of a vacationing American’s “fanny pack” might be just as awkward as an American host’s interpretation of a traveling Brit’s “bum bag.” App creators should always use translators who are based in the country where the company is launching its app. Language changes quickly and it is vital for transcreation that writers are immersed in their local culture.

Finally, there are an estimated 50.5 million expats in the world, so it is increasingly important to avoid assuming a user’s location from his language and vice versa. Expats are a prime example of people whose mother tongue differs from the native language of the country in which they work. An English native speaker in Italy, for example, would probably want an app in English but with Italian localization options.

The more flexible a pharma company is when designing its health app, the more effectively the app will fulfill its huge global potential. The key to success lies in effective internationalization and localization. To deliver a personal app that makes a customer feel connected and supported, transcreation is an essential task.  

Joanna Laurson-Doube, PhD, is group account director at Mother Tongue Life, the medical arm of transcreation agency Mother Tongue Writers