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The Foursquare Japan Lesson: Lightweight Localization

Even if you can't afford to localize right away, don't get in the way of your Japanese and Chinese users

I'm currently in Tokyo on business. As I travel around the city I've been spot checking Foursquare's coverage. To my surprise, coverage is excellent. Most popular eateries and nightspots have already been added. Many already have mayors. Foursquare specials abound.

Interestingly, Foursquare's UI has not been localized to Japanese. There is no Foursquare office in Japan and no substantial marketing efforts have been made. You might think that would significantly limit adoption but it hasn't. Tokyo is one of the most checked-in cities in the world. Some of the factors that are likely in play:

  • The UI is so simple that normal English proficiency in Japan (i.e. what you learn in school) is sufficient to operate the app.
  • Unlike early versions of Twitter, Foursquare handles multibyte character encodings correctly. This means you can add locations, descriptions and tips in languages such as Japanese and Chinese. I've often ranted on this subject: UTF-8 or Death! Twitter still doesn't fully support Japanese. The fact hash tags don't work in Japanese or Chinese shows a lack of basic understanding on the part of whoever wrote the parser.
  • Most access to social apps in Japan happens on phones. The mobile social experiment was happening in Japan a decade before Foursquare and Gowalla.
  • APIs and docs have been translated into Japanese. This invigorates the local developer community.

There is a lesson to be learned from all of this. Even if you don't have the budget to fully localize your app to locales like Japan and China, it pays to make sure you don't hinder motivated potential users from participating. We've observed Chinese users on Japanese web apps a number of times because they can happily add their Chinese UGC (user generated content.) Globalize your app even if you can't localize it. Use UTF8 for your character encoding everywhere. This will allow Japanese and Chinese users with a modicum of English to use your app and it will make it easier when you decide to enter the market with full force.


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Comment by Daniel Leuck on November 27, 2010 at 9:08pm
They display the time based on the phone's timezone.
Comment by J. David Beutel on November 27, 2010 at 12:03pm
I've never used those apps. How do they display time? Is it all relative, e.g., 4 hours ago? Or, is the timezone oriented to the checkin location, or to where you are now (e.g., if you look at an location in the US while you're in Japan)?
Comment by Daniel Leuck on November 24, 2010 at 11:31pm
Scott Murphy: In my opinion, Mixi never seems to be a leader in implementing features but rather a follower. Their execution always tends to mediocre and I think they could do better given that they have the resources to bring in top talent in Japan.
I agree. Mixi had a chance to preempt Twitter as the premier micro-blogging platform in Japan and they blew it.
Comment by Scott Murphy on November 24, 2010 at 11:18pm
Mixi (and I think Gree) have already joined the "checkin" bandwagon. Mixi released their checkin service back in September and the main difference between foursquare is that they have cross-mobile support.

Here is a snapshot of their interface.

http://mixi.co.jp/press/2010/0906/3701

Nothing nice, probably html based but the fact that they go beyond iPhone increases their market reach.

In my opinion, Mixi never seems to be a leader in implementing features but rather a follower. Their execution always tends to mediocre and I think they could do better given that they have the resources to bring in top talent in Japan.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on November 24, 2010 at 9:26pm
Excellent. I hope its a TechHui post. We've been missing our editor :-)
Comment by Alex Salkever on November 24, 2010 at 4:23pm
Fascinating. Dan, I'm going to craft a post about this.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on November 24, 2010 at 3:48pm
In some cases, yes! We've seen the same phenomenon with some Japanese sites and Taiwanese users.
Comment by Brian on November 24, 2010 at 3:07pm
So.. "if you build it [properly], they will come"

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