Material Design and the Technical Communicator

layering (2)Material Design, Google’s design language for Android applications, has permeated both native apps like Gmail and YouTube as well as third party Android apps. Since its introduction in June of 2014, technical communicators and UX designers have explored new ways to incorporate the principles of Material Design in their workflows and products.

Material Design relies on three key principles:

  1. Material as a metaphor

The interface provides visual cues grounded in surfaces and edges that resemble those found in reality. These cues convey how objects move and exist in the visual space and react in relation to each other. For example, cards have edges and shadows, much like cards in the real world, to indicate that they are distinct from each other.

  1. Bold, graphic, and intentional elements

The elements on the screen, such as the text, space, colors, and images, convey the hierarchy, meaning, and focus of each element and provide guidance to the user. For example, the opacity of the text in the app can convey how important its information is compared to the other text on the screen and focus the user’s attention.

  1. Motion to provide meaning

All action takes place in a single environment that uses motion to transform the design and layout of the screen for different functions. For example, a settings panel can slide out from the side of the screen to provide access to settings without the app switching to a new screen.

The good news is that these principles seek to make apps more intuitive and uniform, so technical communicators won’t have to spend a lot of time teaching users how to navigate apps. The bad news is that technical communicators need to spend a lot more time testing the nonverbal cues, such as the icons, textures, and images, and verbal cues, in their app.

In most cases, tooltips and taglines are enough to teach users how to use a simple app. However, the rise of touchscreen devices has eliminated traditional tooltips, and taglines aren’t always appropriate or aesthetically pleasing. In these cases, elements like screen overlays and cards can provide instructional content in a style that matches the Material Design aesthetic. For example, you may want to provide a short series of cards as a slideshow that describes what’s new when you release a substantial update. Or, you may want to provide a tooltip overlay to describe the most important elements on the screen when users start your app for the first time.

Material Design values flexibility, so users should be free to input information without encountering too many errors. However, when an error does occur, the app should handle the error in the following way:

  1. Communicate what occurred.
  2. Provide steps to resolve the error.
  3. Preserve information already input by the user.

With the exception of the third step, this form of error handling doesn’t differ too much from the error messages patterns_errors_userinput2guidelines proposed by Microsoft. In fact, most of the
recommendations for good technical writing, such as brevity and clarity, still apply in Material Design. The only difference is the delivery method. Instead of writing a static user guide, technical writers can now incorporate their information directly into the app. For example, in the figure to the right, the red text communicates why the information entered is incorrect and how to fix it without requiring the user to refer to a separate document or leave the screen.

Mobile devices are pushing technical writers into new and exciting roles. Understanding the principles of Material Design and the iOS Human Interface Guidelines will allow technical communicators to comfortably shift from providing background documentation to providing information at a glance.

What’s the big deal with XML?

XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is one of those initialisms that remains in the background of the tech industry. It pops up in almost every major office software suite (did you ever wonder what the x stands for in .docx?). It shows up all the websites that use XHTML (about 34% of the websites out there) and each RSS feed that you read. And, if you know any technical writers, they probably won’t shut up about DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture).

So, what makes XML so special? Well, the answer depends on who you are and how you use XML. Writers like XML because it gives them full control of their text. Developers like XML because they can easily repurpose content. And, designers like it because they can apply stylistic changes on the fly. But, before we explain these benefits in too much detail, we should probably explain what XML is.

What is XML?

XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language. Like HTML, XML is a markup language. Markup is the information that tells a computer how to read content, such as text. For example, this website uses HTML markup (actually, a combination of HTML, CSS, PHP, and Markdown) to tell your web browser where to display text, what font to use, and when to display a word in bold. Without some sort of markup, it would be almost impossible for your computer to properly display content in web browsers, desktop publishing programs, or even applications like games.

Unlike HTML, XML focuses on what the data is rather than how the data looks. That is, the markup in XML tells the computer the content type, and a separate style sheet tells the computer how to display the content. In HTML, the markup only tells the computer how to display the content. So, if you want to change the font in all of the headings on your HTML webpage, you have to change each one individually. In XML, you can simply change the entry that specifies the heading font in the style sheet.

Another notable difference is that XML doesn’t use predefined tags (tags are units of markup). HTML markup is the same everywhere. So, if you use an <h1> tag in HTML, an HTML reader automatically knows that it is a top-level heading. In XML, a style sheet is needed to define the tag, but you can also name the tag anything you want. For example, you could name it <section_heading>, <page_heading>, or even <the_only_heading_you_will_ever_need>. This is what puts the eXtensible in eXtensible Markup Language (XML), and you can create as many tags as you want – which means that you can make your content as nuanced or lightweight as you need.

So, why is XML so great?

Extensibility

XML emerged as a response to the inflexibility and inefficiency of HTML. The standard on which XML is based, SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), was deemed too complex, so XML was made to simplify it. XML ditches the unnecessary elements of SGML while still retaining the key principles that the markup needs to describe the content. By abandoning predetermined tags and unnecessary elements and allowing content creators the flexibility to create their own tags, XML offers a lightweight and flexible solution for transporting information, especially text.

Extensibility also makes XML easier to use and maintain than other markup languages. Authors can intuitively name tags based on their functions. Consider the following example.

< ?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?> 


  
    Dear Mr. Hughes,
  
  
    I so enjoyed your last film and do hope that you make another.
  

Based on the names used in the tags, you can infer the basic structure of the document and the type of content that each tag contains. Furthermore, you or a new employee could return to this document several years down the road and still figure out what the tags mean.

Strictness

XML is also far stricter than HTML. The rigid syntax required by XML results in smaller, faster, and lighter browsers. For example, XML is stricter than HTML in the following cases:

  • Case sensitivity: HTML is not case sensitive, while XML is.
    A <Paragraph> tag is not the same as a <paragraph> tag.

  • End tags: HTML lets you get away with not closing elements, while XML doesn’t.
    A <p> tag won’t work without the corresponding end tag (</p>).

  • Quotation marks: HTML lets you use value delimiters without quotation marks, while XML doesn’t.
    <object width=100> won’t work, but <object width=”100”> will.

  • Nesting: HTML lets you overlap elements, while XML doesn’t.
    <b><i>Cattle</b></i> won’t work, but <b><i>Cattle</i></b>.

In the past, some Internet browsers devoted up to 50% of their code to correct the mistakes or inconsistencies in HTML content. By imposing a more rigid set of rules, browsers and other programs that process text (often called parsers) no longer need to account for mistakes in the markup. Paying a little more attention when writing is a small price to pay for better overall performance.

In addition to being strict about syntax, XML can also include rules about the structure of your documents. For example, if you were creating an employee database, you could create an <employee> element that must contain <first_name> and <last_name> elements. Doing so ensures that the required information is included and that all unnecessary information, such as an employee number, is excluded.

Easy Data Exchange

Although extensibility and simplicity added to its early success, XML’s greatest claim to fame is that it allows authors to easily publish the same content to different media. Because XML concentrates only on the content type, the content remains independent of the medium. So, authors can write and edit a document in XML and publish it to a website, user’s manual, and helpdesk script. This facet of the XML is often touted as single-source – multi-target. In fact, content reuse has catapulted DITA, an XML standard maintained by OASIS Technical Committee, to the forefront of the technical writing world.

Furthermore, XML relies on free open standards, such as the XML 1.0 Specification, so it avoids the bulk, complexity, and inaccessibility of propriety data formats, such as those used in the older versions of desktop publishing applications like Word. XML content and markup is stored as text that authors can configure directly. Even when using an XML editor, such as FrameMaker, authors can still output the XML text to make changes or transfer the content to another format.

Conclusion

So, back to the question at hand: What makes XML so special? Well, it’s right there in the name: extensibility. Writers and developers are constantly finding new ways to use XML to accomplish their goals in a variety of media formats, and XML supports the freedom they need to do it. That, coupled with its ability to be intuitive and strict in both code and structure and easily distributed to multiple channels means that XML will continue to be a staple of the IT community for years to come.

Tame Wild Writers with a Style Guide

A writer’s room without a style guide is like the wild west: cowboys making their own rules, lawlessness and grammatical errors, and gunfights at the OK corral. Alright, the last one might be a bit of a stretch, but the other points still stand. This article discusses how to bring law and order to your writer’s room through a codified manual of style. This process might not be easy, and you may have a few showdowns at high noon, but in the end you’ll end up with a functional community of writers all working towards the same goal.

Finding Support

The most essential, and perhaps hardest, part of writing a style guide is receiving support from your company. Of course, your company would love a style guide to flash to clients and keep their writers in line, but they’re not likely to schedule time that could be spent doing billable work making a style guide. So, the first step in creating a style guide is convincing your managers of its worth. Thankfully, style guides offer a number of benefits that appeal to budget-conscious managers.

First, style guides save your team time in the long run. Style guides allow writers to concentrate on the content without being distracted by having to look up documentation and grammar conventions. Furthermore, they don’t need to be extensively briefed on matters of style when taking over a project from another writer. Finally, style guides cut down on debates between writers (at least the ones concerning grammar and punctuation), which saves everyone a lot of time and a little bit of tension in the office.

Second, style guides develop a brand that your company can leverage. Many companies, including Latis Global Communications, employ multiple writers at any given time. Often, there’s no guarantee that we can assign all of the projects from as client to a single writer, so the style used for a user’s guide may not match the one used for the accompanying administration manual. In fact, even the titling conventions may differ! A comprehensive style guide, well implemented, ensures that the style and voice of the writing remains consistent throughout all of a company’s projects.

Getting Started

After you’ve convinced your boss that a style guide is a valuable tool, you face another sizable challenge: the writer’s room. Writers – whether technical or not – hold fast to their views, especially with matters of grammar and punctuation. My first time implementing a style guide, I decided no harm could come from a simple open forum among the writers to start things off. Of course, the forum quickly dissolved into a generational battle about issues such as contractions in manuals and ending sentences with prepositions, so this was not the smartest option.

Instead, you should appoint someone to act as a style sheriff. The style sheriff is responsible for writing and maintaining the style guide as well as settling disputes regarding style issues. The style sheriff should have an eye for details and a genuine interest in matters of style. Look for the writer with the most well-worn copy of Struck and White. It also helps if the sheriff is appointed by someone in charge, such as a division head or team manager, in order to avoid some of the disputes that are bound to arise with one writer dictating matters of style to the others.

As their first action, the style sheriff should choose a base style guide to inform their decisions. The most popular style guides for the IT market are the IBM Style Guide: Conventions for Writers and Editors and the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications. The former advocates a tone similar to that used in academic writing, while the latter promotes a more conversational tone. Either style guide is acceptable. However, these style guides should only inform stylistic decisions. The lengths of these style guides (389 pages and 464 pages, respectively) make them difficult to memorize for new writers. 20-30 pages is a better length for an internal style guide because new writers can easily digest it in a night and master it in a week.

Depending on your industry, you may want to consider authoring a glossary in conjunction with the style guide. The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications contains a substantial glossary of user-facing technical terms. However, you may want to use a more technical glossary, such as the IEEE Standard Glossary of Software Engineering Terminology, or even a controlled language glossary, such as glossary found in the Aerospace and Defense Simplified Technical English standard. Whichever you choose, you should treat the glossary in much the same manner as the base style guide. That is, you should incorporate entries from the base glossary into an internal glossary that contains only those entries relevant to your company in order to enhance the usability of the glossary. Tips on how to create a glossary will be covered in a future blog entry.

Lists and Meetings

After selecting a base style guide, you can start considering what to include in your internal style guide. Include too many topics, and users won’t be able to effectively memorize the style guide. Include too few topics, and users won’t be able to find the answers they need.

A good strategy when first developing your style guide is to list all of the topics covered in the base style guide. Then, armed with this list, review three or four recent projects and check off any style topics that match aspects of the project. For example, if the projects contain tables, then, naturally, you should check off the topics related to tables in your list. Finally, create a new list that includes only the checked off topics.

Distribute this list among the writers at your company, and then organize a meeting at which the writers can propose new topics. You should also allow the writers to vote on grammar and style issues that may be particularly contentious, such as ending sentences with prepositions and the use of Oxford commas. At the conclusion of the meeting (or series of meetings) you should know the topics that your style guide will contain as well as your company’s stance on most style issues.

Writing the Style Guide

After determining what your style guide will cover, you can finally start the fun part: Making decisions about grammar and punctuation. If that doesn’t sound like fun, then you may want to step down as style sheriff or risk a showdown when you can’t justify not using the Oxford comma.

Each entry in an internal style guide should state a specific rule, outline some of the exceptions to that rule, and then provide an example highlighting the rule. As in the following:

Compound Nouns

Avoid using more than three nouns when creating compound nouns. Use prepositions to clarify noun clusters.

Examples

(O) Maintenance procedure for the operator area

(X) Operator area maintenance procedure

The style guide should abide by the same formatting and style that it recommends. This allows writers to infer answers to style questions while reading, which saves time when looking up multiple issues. Furthermore, your style guide should be just as readable as any other document that you produce. So, it needs an appropriate amount of white space, pages that readers can scan easily, and an intuitive structure. Finally, formatting your style guide in this way ensures that all of your company’s internal documents, such as standard operating procedures and employee handbooks, have a consistent style and appearance.

In addition, you should author your style guide using the software most often used by your company. For example, if your company uses Microsoft Word, then you shouldn’t author your style guide in Pages. Furthermore, you shouldn’t author your style guide using a tool or markup language that is unfamiliar to members of your team. For example, if your team regularly authors documents in XML, then it wouldn’t make sense to author your style guide in Markup.

Distributing the Style Guide

After writing the style guide, determine whether your writing team would benefit most from a physical copy of the style guide, an electronic copy of the style guide, or both. If publishing the style guide electronically, select a format that uses a program openly available to your writers, such as PDF. If publishing hard copies of the style guide, consider distributing the guides in small binders so that the information can be easily updated without incurring too many additional costs.

You should then distribute the style guide in conjunction with a kickoff meeting involving all of the writers and other personnel that will use the style guide. This meeting should instruct the personnel how to effectively apply the style guide to their writing and the scope to which it applies. For example, you should specify whether the style guide applies to all documents and written correspondences or only those that the customer will see. You should also specify who will update the style guide and how personnel will be notified of such updates.

Conclusion

A good style guide can help you bring law and order to an unruly community of writers. However, implementing a style guide requires tenacity, strength, and the support of your company. It also helps if you’re organized and have a plan of action. I’ve armed you with the plan, so it’s time for you to strap on that sheriff’s badge and set the town straight.

Global Audience Analysis – A Unified Approach

From the outside, technical writing seems to only focus on the how – how to install an application on your computer, how to clean your new appliance and replace its components, how to use an API to let an app retrieve data – but, like journalists, technical writers also have to worry about the five Ws: who, what, where, when, and why. However, unlike reporters, the five Ws of technical writing are Who am I writing for?, What do they already know?, Where will they see this information?, When will this information be used?, and Why is this information important?

Answering these questions has become more difficult than ever. Audiences often include people from around the world with varying education levels, differing cultural values and sensitivities, and diverse usage environments. For these reasons, technical writers and UX designers must expand their research methods to include audiences from around the world. They must then use profiling techniques to approach their writing with these audiences in mind. This post introduces a holistic approach to research that combines top-down, bottom-up, and audience profiling to ensure that you and your writing team have all of the information required to reach your audience at your fingertips.

Top-down research

A good starting point for analyzing your audience is to use existing internal sources, such as your company’s marketing and sales teams, the analytics for your company site, and community forums for existing products. These resources help you identify the type of people that you’ll be writing for and the information that they’ll be interested in.

Your first stop should be the sales and marketing teams. These teams can provide a wide range of high-level information. Your sales team can provide ample information about existing clients and users, such as statistics on current users. In addition to this, the marketing team amasses large amounts of market research about the target demographic, that is, the users, of your product or service. These teams may even produce internal case studies detailing specific examples of customers using your product.

Your sales and marketing teams should be able to provide the following general information about your audience:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Education level
  • Monthly and annual income
  • Occupation/profession
  • Marital status
  • Nationality
  • Social class
  • Population size
  • Region

This demographic information offers a tremendous amount of insight into your audience. However, it only addresses the first two Ws: Who am I writing for? and What do they already know? This information is invaluable, but addressing the other three Ws requires bottom-up analysis in the form of focus groups, surveys, and support system reviews.

Bottom-up research

Your top-down research provides you with a general idea of who will be using your documentation. However, a bottom-up analysis – that is, an analysis that includes information gathered directly from your audience – is necessary to establish where your audience will see the information, when they will seek out this information, and why they sought this information in the first place. In most cases, a bottom-up analysis takes the form of focus group interviews, user surveys, and reviews of support system information or a combination of these three tactics.

Focus group interviews can provide deep insight into how and why your audience uses your product or service. However, they are also the most expensive method of finding out about your audience. Often, a good idea is to piggyback on a focus group convened by the sales or marketing teams in your company, as your audience will also be their target demographic.

Your focus group should include people that fit the demographic profile identified in your top-level analysis. When you’re writing for a global audience, this means that you may need to conduct multiple focus group sessions in various countries. This can be a costly, but beneficial, exercise, especially when entering a new market abroad. However, if the cost is too great, then you should strive to assemble a multicultural focus group within your own country.

Focus groups can help you gain more insight into the following:

  • Where users use documentation
  • What motivates your users to use your documentation
  • Why users use (or don’t use) your documentation

User surveys are another method of finding out about your audience. Although not as costly as focus group interviews, user surveys still require a certain amount of upfront investment in their creation and a lot of work to tease out relevant results from the mountain of data that you accumulate. Furthermore, user surveys tend to add a filter to your audience – that is, only a certain portion of your demographic is likely to fill out a survey.

The value of surveys, however, is that they are relatively inexpensive to administer compared to focus groups and allow you to compile answers to targeted questions comparatively quickly. The survey method you use largely depends on how established your company is in the target region. If you already have existing customers or clients in the target region, then they may be willing to fill out a short survey. If your products have generated some interest in the region, then adding a call to action that directs visitors to your website may be the way to go. Finally, if your brand is new to the region, then you may want to consider hiring a market research company to make sure that your survey reaches your target demographic.

Users surveys can help you answer the following:

  • Where users use the product or documentation
  • When users use the product or documentation
  • Who do the users trust for information

Finally, support systems, such as Zendesk, or even sales sites that feature reviews, such as Amazon, allow you to gain some insight into how your audience uses your product and the aspects of your product that they find most troublesome. Like user surveys, support system research requires a substantial investment in labor and only the portion of your audience predisposed to making comments will do so. Nevertheless, a support system review offers the quickest way to receive direct input from users regarding the success or failure of your documentation.

Because the content focuses on the problems users encounter, support system reviews offer only a limited window through which to get to know your audience. But, as a technical writer, you strive to minimize these problems, so support systems provide excellent insight into when and where your audience requires information as well as the features that they need the most information about. Although valuable, this information is insufficient to create an audience profile, so a support system review should be supplemented by one of the other methods of bottom-up analysis.

Audience Profiles

The information gathered from your top-down and bottom-up analysis is invaluable, but you undoubtedly have mountains of it. Staring at spreadsheets full of demographic information, survey responses, and customer complaints quickly gets boring. To combat this, writers use audience profiles to put a real face on their audience.

Audience profiles, sometimes referred to as reader profiles, compile your top-down and bottom-up research into digestible descriptions of audience members. These profiles usually take the form of a narrative, but a CV-inspired style is also popular. Less popular, but still effective, is the collage-style audience profile.

Narrative profiles leverage what you already do well – write – to describe an audience members in a manner similar to that found in narrative prose. Many writers perform similar exercises when coming up for characters for fiction. Narrative profiles often contain greater detail and provide a more natural way to read than the CV or collage models. However, narrative profiles are also more difficult to scan, so you may find yourself rereading the same description over and over to confirm details as you write. For this reason, narrative profiles often include a photograph of the fictional audience members procured from a stock image site.

CV-style profiles allow you to easily locate important information at the expense of readability. These profiles consist of bullet points grouped under various headings, such as work experience, family life, and hobbies and interests. Like narrative profiles, CV-style profiles often include a picture so that the writer can identify with the face of the audience. The bullet points allow you to quickly scan the page for relevant information when writing. However, because the information is segmented in bullet points, it may be more difficult to paint a portrait of the audience member in your mind’s eye when reading the profile.

Collage-style profiles have fallen out of favor in professional writing, perhaps because they make your cubicle resemble a teenager’s bedroom, but they can still be as effective as the other profile methods. A collage profile usually consists of pictures of the fictional audience member and items related to their profession, interests, hobbies, and family. For example, a profile of an audience member may include pictures of schematic drawings, the Indiana Colts playing football, wakeboarding, and young children. These images may be supplemented by quotes from the audience member, such as “Why can’t they just print the instructions on the damned thing.” Collage profiles offer writers a refreshing break from reading and writing but require the writer to recall the motivation for including a picture or quote when writing it and require substantial explanation when handing off the project to another writer.

Conclusion

Whichever profile style you decide on, you’ll probably want to create at least one profile for each target country so that, as you write, you can ask yourself “Would Pornchai from Thailand find this easy to read?” or “Would Samadhi from Sri Lanka look for this information here?” In short, you can try to approach your writing through the eyes of your audience. Doing so will greatly increase the effectiveness of your writing and add a necessary direction to your voice. But remember, a good profile requires the right kind of research, so the top-down and bottom-up research steps are incredibly important. Performing all of the tasks described in this post with the end goal in mind will ensure that your text is accessible to your entire audience.

 

 

Five Ways to Prepare your Software for Localization

Today’s tech market encompasses far more than just North America and Europe. Emerging economies in South America, Asia, and Africa have changed the landscape of both software development and sales, and consumers now expect and demand products and services tailored to their linguistic and cultural needs. Failure to meet these needs harms the competitiveness of your product and, in many cases, allows other companies to clone your product and reap the customers you deserve.

Proper localization helps your product fulfill these needs. However, localization involves more than just hiring a good translation company – it involves thorough planning throughout the development cycle of your product, careful consideration of design elements, and a concerted effort from the entire development team. The following five tips will help you keep your localization efforts on track and ensure that the process is as painless as possible.

Start early

Start preparing to localize your product as soon as you identify its core features and target markets. Even if you haven’t clearly identified where you plan to release the product, it’s still a good idea to ensure that the development and design teams consider localization when creating the user interface. For example, text in other languages may be up to 50% longer or shorter when translated, so elements such as text boxes, dialog windows, and menus should be sized to accommodate both the longest and shortest strings in this spectrum.

Leaving the localization process until the last minute may also lengthen your development time and localization costs. Whether you’re using an agile or waterfall workflow, a good localization partner can work with your schedule to provide incremental support for text translation and localization. In fact, involving a localization company early in the development process often improves the end result because the company has time to get to know your team and understand your product. In addition, many localization companies charge a premium – sometimes even double the cost – for quick turnaround times and same day service. So, if you wait until your product is finished before beginning the localization process, then your project may come in past the deadline and over budget.

Develop your own style

After all the time invested into developing the focus and feel of your product, there’s no reason that the text in your software shouldn’t also convey these attributes. Issues such as inconsistent capitalization or syntax can be distracting to users and may even cause them to misunderstand the content. To achieve a uniform style throughout your software, you need to outline the rules governing things like capitalization and syntax choice in a style guide.

Luckily, many of the rules outlined in a style guide can be applied to multiple languages. Some languages may render certain rules moot, for example, languages such as Korean, Japanese, and Chinese do not require capitalization guidelines. When you initially consult a localization provider, confirm that they have the resources necessary to create style guides for all of your target languages.

In addition to text, designers must also consider the icons and images to ensure cultural sensitivity and relevance. For example, some user may not be comfortable with excessive flesh or be familiar with the mailboxes used in North America. This comes with a slight caveat. Accepted icons such as the hamburger icon and save icon have achieved cross-cultural relevance, so these and other similar icons may be used.

Format and isolate text

You should ensure that all text strings use Unicode character encoding. Unicode allows the easiest transfer into languages that don’t use Roman characters, and it handles most of the world’s writing systems. Implementing Unicode after writing the code is a difficult and time consuming task, so it’s a good idea to establish this in your programming best practices before you write the first line of code. In the rare instance that the product cannot support Unicode, then you may need to find a work around using DBCS enabling, bi-directional (BiDi) enabling, code page switching, or text tagging.

In addition to using Unicode encoding, you should also isolate all target text strings from the source code of the project. Programmers should place all target strings in resource files, message files, or a private database. However, these resource files should not include any strings that will not be localized. Any strings that do not require localization should remain as string constants in the source code. Isolating the localization strings in this way ensures that all text is localized according to your company’s style guidelines and allows your software to transition between languages more easily.

Minimize formatting issues

When creating your software, you should consider the range of formatting issues that may arise due to differences in the conventions used for information such as addresses, currency, dates, and telephone numbers. To improve usability, the input fields in which users enter this kind of information need to accommodate various input lengths and characters. For example, postal codes in Canada are a mixture of six letters and numbers, whereas those in the United States use only five numbers. Thus, an input field in a product intended for both countries must either accommodate the relevant lengths and character types in its validity check or separate input fields must be provided. Implementing such changes after releasing the software requires extra investment in development and bug testing and may require resources, such as the original programmer, that are no longer available.

Developers must also consider formatting when writing routines. Some countries, such as Japan, use district and block divisions in addresses rather than street numbers. In software released in such countries, any routine that parses addresses for storage in a database or printing on shipping labels must be able to process such addresses. Failure to do so may result in extra costs from shipping goods to incorrect addresses or customers who are unhappy due to receiving late shipments.

Reuse help content

Help content, whether in the form of tooltips, API documentation, or an old fashion manual, is integral to make your product easy to use and ensure early adopters are satisfied with their experience. However, help content can also quickly consume your localization budget if improperly managed. Most localization vendors charge by the word, so localizing complex sentences and redundant information costs far more than the information may be worth. Keep help content simple and short to get the most return on your localization investment.

In addition, most localization companies charge only for the first time a string is translated. So, whenever possible, developers should strive to recycle strings in order to increase information availability without increasing localization costs. For example, the sentence that introduces a feature in the manual can be used as the tooltip that appears when a user hovers over the icon for that feature, and the section from the manual can be reused in the web help. In essence, this allows you to provide help content in three places for the price of one without adversely affecting the information conveyed by the help content.

Implementing these five simple guidelines during the development of your software vastly decreases the timeframe and cost of localizing your software. Starting early and incorporating these guidelines also ensures that you deliver the best possible product to every target market. For more information about preparing your software for localization, consult the Microsoft Developer Network or your localization provider.

Game Spotlight: Spirit Sweeper – The Minesweeper-based RPG for Mobile!

comingsoon_spiritsweeper

For most people, Minesweeper, recalls images of the mid-90s.  The game was arguably the hardest of the prepackaged Windows games that helped so many bored office workers pass slow afternoons behind cubical walls. It might not be anybody’s most favorite game, but it does have a certain nostalgia.

That nostalgia is what Seoul-based developer Wispsoft is banking on in their upcoming minesweeper-inspired mobile game, Spirit Sweeper. And they’re hoping that nostalgia will encourage people to support the game on Kickstarter.

SpiritSweeper_Wispsoft

Taking place in a fantasy world of golems, witches, and knights, players can unlock and choose from eight different characters to conquer their friends and battle internet strangers for sweeper supremacy. But rather than attempting to avoid mines, the objective of Spirit Sweeper is to go head-to-head against other players and be the first to discover 10 spirit stones. Like minesweeper, each number revealed indicates how many stones are near that tile.

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Wispsoft has set a modest goal of reaching $5,000 in crowdfunding which will contribute to finishing the last leg of development as well as develop an additional story mode. Fans of the classic minesweeper will find themselves with a great new update to the game and lovers of casual titles like Candy-Crush and Bejeweled will find themselves right at home.

Check out the Kickstarter page and contribute!

 

Steam Updates Storefront: Is Discovery the Key for Mobile?

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Steam’s slogan for its new update says it all: A Smarter Storefront. Personalized Just For You.

The update introduces a “smarter” homepage that recommends games based on past purchases, what you’ve been playing, and friends’ recommendations. While this type of personalized targeting has been widely popular with music and video platforms like Netflix and iTunes, the game industry has been slow to follow suit. Steam’s new update may be the push we need towards better discovery tools in a saturated content industry. 

In the past nine months alone, over 1,300 new titles have been added to Steam, which brought the total catalog to over 3,700 games. For indie devs with little to no money to spend on advertising, getting page traffic was difficult to say the least. By far the most interesting feature of the new update is the ability to follow “curators”. Curators can be any individual or organization with an opinion on games and wants to share them. Steam’s curator pages now offer a place to organize these recommendations and following a curator will also send their recommendations to your homepage. To become a curator, you need to create a group, or already be an officer or moderator in a group.

 

After less than a week, the update has been having a big impact as one Gamezone article notes:

Developers have been very open about how the update has affected them, taking to both their blogs and Twitter accounts to reveal the changes they’ve seen on their Steam Store Pages. Andrew Spearin, the Creative Director at New World Interactive took to his blog to reveal the affects of Steam’s Discovery Update on Insurgency (a tactical FPS). Spearin cited how much trafficInsurgency‘s Steam Store Page received prior to the update and post update, here are the numbers:

  • Sunday: 5,800 (pre-update)
  • Monday: 21,500 (post update)
  • Tuesday: 83,284 (post update)

While he did admit that the game was recommended by prominent figures (and Curators) in the gaming world, the spike in people visiting the store page is obvious. If you’re wondering just how visible Insurgency has become on Steam due to the update, the figure is “370% over night.” Spearin is not the only one discussing the potential that Steam’s update has allowed for indie devs.

Curating on mobile

If 3,700 games to sift through seems like a lot, consider that the Google Play Store now has 1,500,000 live apps. Even if only 1% of that were high quality games worth playing, that would still be a whopping 15,000 titles to sort through. With more apps added every day, discovery on both Andriod and iOS is becoming difficult for studios on shoestring budgets. So could a curator model much like Steam introduced be the answer? Korea has been experimenting with that very idea for a while now.

Afreeca TV is a popular video streaming service, though it is not well known outside of Korea. Given that live streaming popular online games like League of Legends and Starcraft are by far the most popular streams on the platform, it made sense when Afreeca TV dipped their feet into the mobile gaming pool last year with the introduction of the Gamecenter.

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Broadcasting Jockeys, known by the unfortunate acronym BJs, create “clans” where they can live stream their favorite mobile games, and even play with their fans. Their audience can reward them by buying “chocolate”, a premium currency on the platform that can be exchanged for items in the store, and even real cash. Users, in turn, earn chocolate by downloading games, making in-app purchases, and participating in the platform in other ways.

So far the platform is quite small and experimental, with just 178,000 Gamecenter subscribers, but engagement levels are high with the average user playing 5.5 games on the platform.

Is this the next move for Google and Apple?

With such great results for video and music services, and impressive possibilities being explored by Steam, could this be the future for mobile gaming as well?  This would work particularly well in Korea where word of mouth from trend-setting power-bloggers is a powerful marketing channel. Do you think this would work on a scale as big as Google Play and Apple? Leave a comment below and tell us what you think!

Korea Guide: Apple vs. Google Play

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Previously we took a look at the T Store and how it houses the largest number of apps in Korea. We also briefly talked about how the three carriers of SKT, LG U + and KT Olleh used to be the gatekeepers when it came to deciding what games would be featured in their stores. The emergence of the Apple App Store and Google Play Store changed this, creating a new open market where developers could bypass the the gatekeepers.

 

Out of all the platforms and store discussed so far, The Apple App Store and Google Play Store are most likely the most familiar to western developers. This already offers an advantage as the submission process and guidelines for each store are largely the same as their western counterparts. Despite the familiarity of each app store, the mobile game environment in Korea is different than in west and understanding how each store operates in this environment is essential.

 

Apple vs. The Samsung Factor

 

To anyone with an even casual knowledge of mobile devices, it should come as no surprise that Samsung devices reign supreme in Korea. 92% of all mobile phone sales in Korea belonged to the Samsung brand with their market share accounting for 63%. LG comes in second place with 22% leaving Pantech Co. with 7%.

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This leaves Apple in last place with a 6% market share. This has contributed to a smaller Apple presence in Korea, where iPhone release dates are staggered, coming out months after their release in other countries (the first iPhone released in 2009, years after its initial release in the US)  and a lack of official Apple Retail Stores in Korea, with only smaller authorized stores selling Apple products.

 

Apple has had a long, tremulous relationship with both Korea and Google. While there was some speculation that due to stricter regulatory procedures with electromagnetic compatibility and emission levels, many cite Samsung’s presence for being the reason that Apple has trouble in Korea. South Korean regulators stalled the release of the iPhone in Korea long after its release in nearly every other country worldwide. The same regulators held a ban on games being sold on the Korean App Store, blocking them from being distributed until 2011 and requiring a developer’s full name and personal information in 2013.

 

It is entirely possible that Apple sees Korea as less of a priority than other countries due to its smaller user base and strong competition from a country that is a bastion for Android-first development.  When compared to nearby Japan where Apple has a 17% market share, putting it in second place behind  local brand Sony, this makes even more sense.

 

All these factors combined have led to a significantly different app store in Korea compared to the one most developers are familiar with. The number of downloads for games is significantly less than with Google Play and even lesser when compared to the previously mentioned T Store and mobile messaging platforms Kakao and Line. According to the App Annie statistics for September 23rd,  the top ten grossing games on the Apple App Store, seven of the games were for Kakao while two other title was published by publishers Com2Us and Machine Zone Inc. and the highest grossing title being Clash of Clans.

 

While you have exceptions like Kakao whose rule states that publishers must develop for both Android and iOS software, the game market features more non-Korean developed titles than Google Play with publishers like EA and Gameloft being featured in the top 50, where on Google Play, a majority of western developed titles don’t even break the top 100.

Google Play: Home of the Indies

 

The Google Play Store has experienced slow and steady growth since its initial release. It experienced a 6.3% growth of revenue in 2012 that has since continued to remain steady. Throughout its existence, while never reaching the large number of downloads that Kakao achieved, it has remained a dedicated store for apps and games and also allowing smaller developers the chance to have their games published. Google, like Apple has also had difficult time in Korea. Trying to establish its web services has been a losing battle against Naver and while its Google Play store enjoyed a period of success along with the Apple App Store, it has recently begun pushing for game distribution without platforms like Kakao and Line.

 

Google in Korea is divided into four groups: Google Cloud, Google Play, Google Indie and Google Developer Relations Department. Despite being different from one another, all four groups are available to game developers wanting to use their services. Of these four services, the most commonly used service by developers when publishing games is Google Play.

 

Like the Apple App Store, Google Play hosts a selection of games and apps, including games for Kakao. Looking at the App Annie statistics reveals another selection of the ten highest grossing games on Google Play are titles for Kakao, with the highest grossing being a Kakao game, bumping Clash of Clans to the number 2 spot.

 

Despite hosting games from Kakao and Line, Google Play has recently begun making attempts to surpass both of them by contacting individual publishers in Korea and offering them incentives to directly develop and launch through Google Play. This can allow both major and smaller developers the chance to create both localized and foreign versions of games simultaneously.

 

Google Play has a role of a gateway, taking 30% of the total cost of game to publish through its platform, even if the game is meant for another platform. With both Line and Kakao attempting to create their own networks and mobile SNS services attempting to build their own game platforms, this holds the potential to upset the distribution channel of mobile games. While the current environment has most games being downloaded through Google Play, Kakao and Line’s decision to move away from Google means a extreme drop in Google’s profits.

 

While the decision to pursue game companies and developers may seem ineffective in the current Korean market, the opportunities it can provide to developers is increasingly attractive for newcomers in the market. By making this decision, it can be appealing to developers outside of Korea where separate mobile gaming channels outside of Kakao are not yet established. In theory, Google working with publishers to create both local and Korean versions of games at the development stage would allow developers to have a much easier time entering the Korean market.

Buff Knight, a Korean Indie supported by Google.

Buff Knight, a Korean Indie supported by Google.

One example of this is Google Indie, which in early 2014 was able to help smaller developer and indie studios publish and launch their games through their services. According to a report by the Korea Herald, this was considered a shocking blow to major publishers, showing that Google was willing and invested to helping smaller studios find the same level of success as their larger counterparts. By doing this Google has sent a clear message to the Korean market that indie titles are important and that the key to finding success doesn’t always belong to the major publishers and platforms.

 

Publishing for Each Store: What You Already Know

 

Apple and Google opened the door for a more open game market in Korea, giving a level platform for anyone who wished to make a game. Along with having the same submission and publishing procedures as their western stores, this made it easier for developers wanting to break into the Korean market, using a system they were already familiar with. Once Kakao entered the scene, this once again changed the industry. shifting away success from stores to messaging platforms.

 

For western developers, both Apple and Google Play still offer benefits to those not familiar with Korean platforms and the process required to publish on them. While few games ever achieve the level of success Kakao titles do, they are moderate successes in their own right and allow smaller publishers to have their chance to have their games published against the major publishers within the industry.

No Kakao? No Problem: The Pros and Cons of Korea’s Alternative Game Platforms

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Whenever someone asks me about the Korean market,  the question of Kakao is usually top of their list. But what many don’t know is that the Korean mobile market is more than just Kakao. There are a number of great platforms for releasing your games, each with their own pros and cons. We put together an overview of the top three alternative gaming platforms in Korea. Check it out and share with your friends!

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#GamerGate: What about Asia?

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Just when you think the flames of #GamerGate might be dying down, something fans them once again. Two days ago, The Escapists #GamerGate forums were brought down under a DDOS attack. If you don’t know what #GamerGate is, this Vox.com article puts it succinctly:

 

Like all hashtags, #GamerGate has come to mean about 500 different things to thousands of different people. But at its heart, it’s about two topics:

1) The treatment of women in gaming: The start of the story (which is actually the latest permutation of a long-evolving firestorm) came in late August after indie game developer Zoe Quinn and critic Anita Sarkeesian were both horribly, horribly harassed online. The same harassment was later lobbed at award-winning games journalist Jenn Frank and fellow writer Mattie Brice. Both Frank and Brice say they will no longer write about games. The FBI is looking into harassment of game developers.

2) Ethics in games journalism: Some argue that the focus on harassment distracts from the real issue, which is that indie game developers and the online gaming press have gotten too cozy. There’s also a substantial, vocal movement that believes the generally left-leaning online gaming press focuses too much on feminism and the role of women in the industry, to the detriment of coverage of games. (One of the sites mentioned in this debate is Vox’s sister site, Polygon.)

The #GamerGate issue has largely been focused in the US and Western markets and hasn’t really affected the Asian scene. In terms of journalist ethics, the enitre media industry runs differently in much of Asia and is held to different standards and understandings than in the west. And though the issue of women and video games in Asia is mentioned, the arguments are soft-spoken and often fly in the face of what most PC individuals would consider acceptable.

For example, the Vietnamese game company VTC recently hired women to wear “3kg” signs drawn on their chests in a marketing campaign. Games in Asia picked up the story:

Given gaming’s already negative reputation in Vietnam, this is just another move that suggests publishers have no shame when they are trying to market their games. Many other game sites in Vietnam also need this kind of content to pull in more traffic. Quan Nguyen, CEO of Game4v, said that content like this can easily pull in one million views in one night. On the other hand, a good review video would get only a thousand. Most of these sites survive on advertising, which means they need more traffic to make more money. In other words, breasts are keeping these sites alive.

There is also the fact that at nearly every major Asian game conference the issue of “booth babes”, girls that model in cosplay or scantly clad outfits for major brands, is brought to light. This is perhaps most prevalent at Chinese game shows.

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But issues of gender and gaming go beyond the models in Asia. Earlier this year the South Korean based International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) stirred up controversy over gender-equality when they announced that the Hearthstone competition would be male only. 

A Male Dominated Space?


At the heart of this argument is an oft cited statistic that women now make up 52% of “gamers.”  While that might be true, as pointed out in the video above, that number undoubtedly coincides with the bloom of mobile gaming. Mobile is arguably a more casual platform very unlike the console and PC titles that have defined the “gamer” moniker for so long. Hardcore games like League of Legends and Halo still cater to a predominantly male audience, and its likely that this pattern will continue.

And that’s ok.

If core games don’t appeal to the majority of a particular gender, that doesn’t mean the industry should change them so that they do (and given how well they are selling, its doubtful they will). But that doesn’t mean that gamers need to take a hard-line, hate mongering stance against their female critics.

 

That seems to be the status quo as far as Korea and the rest of North East Asia are concerned. Women are neither rejected from participating (think ToSsGirl, the famous professional Starcraft player), nor does the industry accommodate anything that resembles Western feminist ideals.

 

Tell us what you think

Although by Western standards the Asian game scene has a long way to go, it has so far functioned without much loud criticism. In fact most critics of gaming in Asia come from the concerned parents who are more worried about their children becoming addicted to games than they are about female representations of sexuality.

Is this an acceptable model as long as everyone is quiet and happy? Leave a comment and tell us what you think about #GamerGate and the Asian game industry.