Developing quality software for a global market, and the resources that go along with it, requires more than simply converting some menus into different languages. The products that best serve their users embrace inclusive language, making them easier to understand and use, while also giving everyone the feeling that the app was developed for them — and not just quickly translated from English.
Inclusive language creates a better overall user experience, and makes products approachable to a wider audience. That, coupled with empathy, transforms localization from just translating text into an opportunity to create a first class experience for everyone. It also reduces support requests from unclear menus and dialogs, increases customer satisfaction and loyalty, and is a positive boost for your company’s image.
What is Inclusive Language
Inclusive language, whether you’re writing a blog post, email message, support documentation, or the menus and dialogs in an app, makes the content more approachable, friendly, and understandable for your target audience. It’s also a mindset where you’re continually questioning if your word choices are excluding or alienating part of your audience.
The concept extends beyond usability, too. Inclusive language helps foster a native first feel for each user’s language and locale, and should be part of the localization process for products available in multiple regions. Localization, or l10n, involves translating text in software and other products for a specific locale. It also includes converting other elements such as images, videos, and colors so they’re appropriate for the target culture.
There is No Average User
Star Trek’s Mr. Spock once shared a Vulcan proverb that states, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” In the world of localization, that’s like saying, “The needs of all of our users are more important than our original target audience.” Unfortunately, from there it’s an easy jump to identifying the “average user” as the majority, and focusing on that single persona. Instead of latching on to that average user, however, the proverb actually means that inclusion in language and localization matters for every target audience instead of one persona.
Focusing on an average user is also a trap that can create a bias sending developers down a path away from inclusivity and empathy. Gender pronouns are an easy example: While he/she looks like an inclusive term, it excludes trans and nonbinary people. “You” is much more personal, and “they” or “them” avoids assuming someone’s gender. Also, referring to your audience as “people,” or “you” is more inclusive and personal than “user.”
“See below,” as another example, presumes no users have vision issues or disabilities. A specific reference, like “section 2,” is more descriptive and can also be much more useful for people who rely on screen readers.
Elements in Inclusive Language
Inclusive language is clear, understandable, and accessible. Successfully reaching that goal involves several elements: Identifying your audience, research, clear language, reviewing your work, and empathy.
- Identify the Target Audience You need to know who your audience is before writing, or translating, for other languages. “People who speak English,” for example, isn’t a clear target audience. English in the US uses different spellings than the UK, some terms are different (like elevator versus lift, flashlight versus torch), currencies aren’t the same, and some measurements are different, too. “English-native speakers in the UK” is a much more specific target audience.
- Research Understanding your target audience’s culture, along with the language and dialects they speak, makes it possible to craft content that’s understandable and appropriate for the locale. If gender neutral terms are an option in a target language, for example, your research should reveal that.
- Clear and Specific Language Wording that accurately delivers your message is easier to understand. Telling a user to click a Name field when they’re using a smartphone, for instance, is less clear than telling them to tap. Also, “user” is a more specific term that identifies a role, along with manager or admin. Use those terms when it’s appropriate to differentiate specific roles. Avoid abbreviations unless they’re defined when they’re first used.
- Review Reviewing content helps find errors and unclear language. An effective review process includes multiple people, and increases the likelihood of finding problems before the product or update ships. Reviewing also includes testing. Assuming wording is correct because it’s readable doesn’t necessarily imply that its intent is understandable for users.
- Empathy The ability to identify and understand your target audience’s needs, and then accommodate them, requires empathy. It also makes it much easier to anticipate their needs and potential pain points before shipping, where it’s easier and more cost effective to address. You can learn more about the importance of empathy in Lingoport’s Inclusion and Empathy in Software Development post.
Inclusivity is an Ongoing Process
Inclusivity and inclusive language, just like localization, is an ongoing process. Focusing on the needs of users in every locale you support is important during the initial development phase, and as updates roll out, too. Software updates and new feature releases have an impact on usability, and can potentially introduce localization-related bugs. Identifying and addressing those issues before rolling out a new public release presents your product in a more positive and professional way. No company wants the reputation of shipping bug-filled software updates.
Beyond catching bugs and other issues before shipping, an inclusive language goal as part of your ongoing development and localization process creates a mindset of always looking for ways to make the product better for all users. That, in turn, could push a product from being simply usable to best in class.
Inclusion and Empathy in Software Development
APA Inclusive Language Guidelines
Inclusive language and localization is more than translating from one language to another. It’s also about creating an experience that’s native-first for everyone, regardless of language or culture. Crafting content with inclusivity in mind helps make software, documentation, and other related content more understandable and approachable for users in every language you support.