Today, global drug and device companies are moving aggressively toward computer-based training. Driven by an increased need to rapidly provide consistent training across an international audience, this trend is accelerating in light of reduced travel and training budgets brought on by the current recession.

The challenge for many companies is how to prepare training materials that were created for a particular culture or country for their international team members. The first step in the process is called “internationalization.”

Internationalization is the practice of creating content that is locale independent. Content that has not been internationalized can take twice as long and cost twice as much to localize as internationalized content.

The process of internationalization creates a core of content that is not biased towards any particular language or market.

The best time to internationalize is during development and before localization has started. The main benefits of this approach are:

  • errors are found early in the process
  • errors are more easily fixed by the people familiar with the content
  • the internationalization effort costs less and takes less time
  • the localization effort will cost less and take less time

Issues for internationalization

First and foremost, always allow room for the text to expand – not all ideas take up the same space in different languages.
Where possible, avoid placing text in graphics. Most localizable graphics consist of text on a structured background. To localize graphic text, the localizer must access the textual part of the graphic.

Localizable graphics should be in a package that supports “layering” so that the text portion of the graphic is on a separate layer and is easily accessible for localization.

If there is no alternative to embedding text in files:

  • provide a well-documented, layered source file with details of the fonts and colors used, and
  • leave room for text expansion – otherwise words may be truncated.

Symbols and other design elements

As part of the course design, avoid culture-dependent symbols that might not be clear to an international audience. A classic example would be an American mailbox with a little flag to indicate that there is new mail.This symbol is often used to indicate email but people outside of North America will not necessarily recognize the mailbox. A better symbol would be an envelope, which is universally understood.

Symbols may have different meanings in different cultures. If there are any doubts regarding the hidden meaning of a symbol, use words instead.

As a general rule, the following should be avoided in any graphics used:

  • shapes that are tied to culture, such as stop signs, sports equipment, mailboxes
  • hand gestures or body parts
  • religious or astrological symbols like stars or crosses
  • graphics with multiple meanings, such as using a pillar to indicate a column

Sort order

Characters are not sorted the same way in all languages. In Swedish, for example, some extended characters (for example, å) are sorted after the letter z.

This is more the case in languages that do not use the Western alphabet. In many Asian cultures, characters are composed of brushstrokes; characters are sorted by the brush stroke order.

After localization, the first letter of the word might change, which will change its position in the sort order list.

It is necessary to either find a way to automatically sort the items, or to ensure that the translators can change the sort order of the list while they are localizing the code. It is difficult to sort automatically, and it is best to allow the translators to sort the list.

Items that change

The following list provides some of the items that must be changed during internationalization:

  • calendar system: Gregorian (western), Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew
  • date formats: dd/mm/yyyy versus mm/dd/yyyy
  • time formats: a.m./p.m. versus. 24-hour clock
  • currency formats and other financial data: taxes, shipping charges
  • number formats: decimal separator, thousands separator
  • font names and sizes

For easier localization of fonts, consider building pages using Cascading Style Sheets so that translators can change the fonts for all pages in one place.

Other issues for consideration include:

  • address formats: postal codes, states, number of address lines required, etc.
  • name formats: salutation, order of given name versus surname, titles, degrees
  • telephone number formats: number of digits, country and area codes
  • units of measure: Imperial versus Metric
  • paper sizes: letter/legal versus A3/A4
  • meaning of colors in different cultures
  • order of first and last names

In this age of globalization and geographically disparate staff, many companies are looking to online, computer-based programs to provide their multilingual, multicultural personnel with the requisite training. With the proper forethought and internationalization, global training programs become a cost-effective tool for quickly and consistently training global teams.