User research to adjust to regional needs

When communicating with audiences around the world, the text in your software or service user interface is important. You’ll need to translate.

Translation is just one step. Delivering software in multiple languages takes more than that. Products and services need to be adjusted to regional expectations.

Even things you may assume are universal concepts—such as names or money—may need to be adapted. User research can uncover those regional differences. Here’s a quick look at:

  • names, specifically middle initials
  • money, in the form of bank loans

What’s your middle initial?

Imagine completing a form that asks for your initials—the first letters of each of your middle names. This assumes you have a middle name—which not everyone does. If you have a middle name, your initial would be its first letter.

A text box labelled: "Middle name or initials"
A text box labelled “middle name or initials”.

Now imagine you’re from a culture where your name isn’t written in letters, but in strokes and characters.

Some basic stroke orders of Chinese characters.
Basic strokes of Chinese characters.

Not everyone is familiar with the concept of initials. This sign, at a registration desk for overseas students, explains in Chinese how to identify one’s initials:

A sign that explains what ''initials'' are
A sign that explains what initials are.

If your app asks for “middle name or initial”, translating the label may not suffice. For some regions, you may need to explain the concept.

This is just one aspect of names that are difficult to localise. There are many other regional differences, including the order of “first” and “last” names, and the number of characters in a name. On data-entry forms, this affects design choices: how do you label the text boxes and how many characters will you let people type in those boxes?

A user researcher can discover the expectations of your target user groups.

Fast money or slow money?

I worked on a banking project that built a fast money-lending app for use in the bank’s Spanish, Portuguese, and German markets. Our research found that culture affects what customers are willing to do to borrow money fast.

The app asks 8 questions—the amount to borrow, name, ID, address, housing status, employment status, bank account details, and consent for checking credit and financial history. If all’s well, the app approves a loan of up to €35,000 and pays it into your account in 20 minutes. It does this entirely online and without any paper documents.

A sample of two €200 bills.
Part of a possible €35,000 loan?

Applicants don’t have to be a customer of the lending bank, and don’t have to produce documents to prove their assets and salary. Instead, they must consent to let the bank’s computer look through a half-year of their bank transactions provided securely by their own bank. From among these transactions, the lending bank’s algorithm identifies the applicant’s salary, rent or mortgage payments, and average bank balance.

That last bit again: If you let a machine look through your recent private bank records, you could have a €35,000 loan to spend, in 20 minutes. That’s fast access to cash.

Unlike in Portugal and Spain, our research in Germany showed a huge concern over privacy. In one qualitative interview, a German participant exclaimed: “You might as well post my bank statements on the subway walls for everyone to see!”

The German app had to be localised—changed to suit local attitudes. So, the German version of the app:

  • has added reassuring text to underline that the bank respects privacy,
  • lists every individual piece of information the bank might keep until the loan is repaid.

After the first release, and building on the user research, the German version of the app was modified further, to:

  • let people start a loan application online,
  • arrange a visit their local branch with their paperwork.

In Germany, the localised, in-person loan request takes a few days to complete, compared to the fully digital journey of 20 minutes.

Clearly, in some regions, privacy beats convenience. User research helped us identify the need to localise—to provide customers with slower access to bank loans.