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Empathy is Key to Globalization Success: An Interview with John Yunker

John Yunker

John Yunker co-founded Byte Level Research in 2000. Over the years he has worked with a wide range of Fortune 500 companies and most recently worked as a senior program manager at Microsoft. He has also written a number of landmark reports, including The Web Globalization Report Card.


John recently launched Byte Level Books, a new press dedicated to publishing books on translation and globalization. Passionate about animal rights, John is also the author of The Tourist Trail. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter!

CSOFT was fortunate to recently sit down with John Yunker to get his perspective on web globalization. In our interview with John, he shares what he believes are some of the biggest challenges in web globalization, how social networking has played a supporting role in the crowdsourcing revolution, and some tips for succeeding in going global.

You were one of the first to study the web on a global level. How has this field of study developed over the years?

John: Seven years ago, I could count on one hand the number of web sites that supported 30 or more languages. Today, there are more than 70 web sites that support 30 or more languages. We’ve quickly moved away from a period in time when you needed to convince companies why they needed to make their web sites global. Now the focus is on how to go global most effectively.

Anything surprising or unexpected?

John: I was surprised by how quickly social platforms have been embraced around the world—from Indonesia to Turkey to Brazil. Who would have imagined two years ago that Facebook would play a role in supporting such a revolution?

The success that Facebook has had with translation crowdsourcing has also been exciting to watch. Thousands of people invested their time and language expertise to improve Facebook’s user interface… and for free! Having said this, Facebook is now giving executives at other companies hope that they too can tap the power of the crowd. I’m just not sure how many companies will be as successful as Facebook.

What remains as one of the biggest challenges for web globalization?

John: Helping executives look beyond translation. Translation is just the tip of the globalization iceberg, yet most executives view translation as the only work item required to go global. So there is a great deal of education involved, which is going to keep me busy for many years. But this is where I enjoy focusing my energy most—on helping companies develop web sites and software applications that feel fully localized to users.

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You’ve done quite a bit of analyzing and consulting. What is a web globalization best practice that you wish more companies would take advantage of?

John: Improve their global gateways. I wrote a book about this (The Art of the Global Gateway) because it’s such an important element of successful web sites and applications. There are companies out that that could improve traffic to their local web sites by 5% to 20% by simply making a few tweaks to their global navigation—tweaks that may only take a day or two of work.

It’s a minor tragedy if a company invests so much in developing a local web site but local users cannot find it.

In your Savvy Client’s Guide to Translation Services, you encourage companies to engage in internationalization upstream in the product development cycle. Do you see signs that this is being adopted by companies worldwide?

John: Absolutely. I’ve participated in several “global summits” in which I spend a day or two training web and development teams on how to plan and develop “world ready” software and web sites. As companies support more languages and markets, they see the value of internationalization. Not only does internationalization streamline the globalization process, it also ensures that products completely sidestep some of the more common pitfalls, such as text expansion, truncation, and untranslated text.

Where do you think the localization industry as a whole can improve in the services offered to clients?

John: Vendors need to do a better job of showing clients the value they offer. Too many vendors have commoditized their services, focusing on cost per word and making vague promises about quality. I’m not saying cost per word is going away anytime soon, particularly with clients that are comfortable with this model. What I am suggesting is that there are new clients entering this field who would welcome services that stretch far beyond translation and are more open to different business models.

You recently released the Web Globalization Report Card for 2011 and noted that Facebook knocked Google off the top spot. How did Facebook earn this spot?

John: From a multilingual perspective, Facebook has been quite innovative over the past year. For example, Facebook’s Social Plugins initiative has been enormously successful, with more than a quarter million web sites now supporting plugins, such as the “Like” button. But what many have not noticed is that these plugins are also multilingual by default. What this means is if I insert a “Like” button on my home page, the language of this button changes based on the user’s language preference (assuming the user is logged in to Facebook).

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Also, multilingual Facebook users can now update their profiles to display all the languages they speak. While it’s likely that this move was designed to increase advertising revenues, it opens the door to features and content unique to multilingual users. And I like seeing companies give users the ability to identify themselves by more than one language.

Facebook is far from perfect, though. I’ve been critical of elements of its global gateway strategy and the lack of localization investment in some markets (such as Japan and Russia), but it’s hard not to be impressed by Facebook’s global evolution—from two languages to 70 in under two years.

What is the number one piece of advice you would give to a company looking to raise their spot on the list or to become a better global site?

John: Our company’s slogan is Think Outside the Country. I’d like to see everyone, from time to time, spend a moment imagining what life is like for web users who may not speak one of the world’s major languages. For example, I recommend trying to navigate through web sites in languages you don’t speak, ideally your own corporate web site.

If you can empathize with your visitors from around the world, you’ll quickly see how you can improve multilingual navigation, where you can improve depth and breadth of translation, and perhaps the local content itself. Empathy is one of the most important qualities of a successful global executive and for a successful global company.

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