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FAQs for Writing Documentation for International Users


Novatek helps manufacturers prepare for product launches by ensuring that all user audiences have the appropriate and accurate knowledge needed to use, service, or sell the equipment/device. In their quest to learn the best practices for success, manufacturers from small to large frequently ask similar questions.

Today's blog focuses on writing for international audiences. In previous blogs, we've discussed attributes of good technical documentation, but what additional considerations should be made when the audience does not speak English as a first language? 

Based on 25 years' experience, here are Novatek's most frequently asked questions and answers for writing for international users.

FAQs for Writing Documentation for International Users

1. When should we start preparing for international user documentation?

All audiences, including international users, should be considered during the documentation planning phase. During this phase, decisions on objectives, strategies, and schedule are made based on critical elements including the audience.

Where is the audience located?
Does the audience speak a first language other than English?
What reading level is the audience?
How will the audience access our documentation?
Does the audience have access to broadband internet?
What level of computer literacy is the audience?

The answers to these questions can greatly impact the strategy for creating and delivering the documentation. For example, if the audience does not speak English as a first language, technical writers may decide to rely on images instead of translating text. However, if the audience does not have access to broadband internet, a large file of images may take too long to load. Considering international users early in the planning phase prevents documentation usability failures as well as, costly rework and postponed schedules. 

2. My company hasn’t decided if we will translate our documentation or distribute the English version internationally. How should we prepare?

The goal of technical writing is to deliver technically accurate information that is linguistically and organizationally clear to the audience. To meet this goal for an international audience, this requires utilizing a simple sentence structure, unambiguous vocabulary, neutral, culturally sensitive language, and consistent terminology – practices known as localization. 

Translation can improve clarity for another language and culture, yet it requires time and investment. If your company has not committed to translation by the documentation drafting phase, develop your documentation using localization writing techniques so your English document is clear and easy to understand by international audiences with English as second language and is ready for translation, if needed. If translation is desired, a localized document will reduce cost and minimize loss of meaning due to simplicity and consistency.

3. What do we need to change in our documentation for international users?

When writing for international users adjustments need to be made for language, style, and format to ensure proper understanding and readability. Users who speak English as a second language will be most familiar with text book English. They may not understand nuances or nouns and verbs used colloquially. Therefore, you’ll want to edit your documentation for the following:

  • Use the most common dictionary spelling of words

  • Do not use nouns as verbs

  • Avoid using the “ing” construct since this does not exist in other languages
    I.e.) Use “Load the software” vs. “Loading the software”
  • Avoid culturally specific reference or metaphors
    I.e.) American sport references, such as “Getting in the zone” or “hitting a home run”

You’ll also want to ensure the content is localized for culture to avoid misinterpretation

  • Numeric date formats can be misinterpreted due to the variety, such as: MM/DD/YY, DD/MM/YY, YYYY/MM/DD. Therefore, spell out the month and include 4 digits for the year.
    I.e.) April 10, 2015

  • Although Americans use the English system of measurement, 95% of the world's population live in countries using the metric system. Since the metric system is the most widely used, use modern metric units for weights and measures

  • Avoid graphics or references that can be misinterpreted or perceived as culturally insensitive

Lastly, keep in mind that broadband internet may not be available across the globe. To adapt your formatting for slower internet speeds:

  • Compress images and graphics to reduce file size

  • Use standard and commonly used font


Interested in a comprehensive list of localization writing techniques?

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Writing for International Audiences 

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Topics: technical writing services, Frequently Asked Questions, medical device launch