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Overt and covert factors in L10n

Localisation of a product is often wrongly seen as equivalent to translation, which takes place towards the end of the development process. Regrettably, at this stage, it is too late to make any major changes to the underlying metaphor of the design, which may be completely alien and illegible to the target culture.

Website customisation for a target culture has to take into account many elements of the design at various levels. This would traditionally include: information architecture, theme and navigation, graphics, photographs, text translations, search engines, audio and video.

Alvin Yeo introduced a division of culture-dependent elements into overt and covert factors which need to be considered during the software/website localisation process. ‘The overt factors are tangible, straight forward and publicly observable elements. (…) Covert factors deal with the elements that are intangible and depend on culture or “special knowledge”‘ (1996).

• date, calendars, weekends
• day turnovers
• time
• telephone number and address formats
• character sets
• collating order sequence
• reading and writing direction
• punctuation
• translation
• units of measures and currency

• graphics/ visuals
• colours
• sound
• functionality
• metaphors and mental models

The accuracy of the covert elements has proven often decisive for product acceptance in the target culture, as presented by various studies for instance by Russo and Boor (1993), Zahedi, Van Pelt and Song (2001), Evers & Day (1997).

Unsurprisingly, it is the covert factors which cause a lot of problems for designers, as by definition they tend to be more elusive and difficult to identify even by people native to the target culture. It is however the covert factors that allow the design to reach the highest level of localisation: cultural customisation.


Evers, V. & Day, D. (1997) Role of culture in interface acceptance. Proceedings, 6th IFIP Conference on Human Computer Interaction. (July 14- 18) Sydney, Australia.

Russo, P., & Boor, S. (1993). How fluent is your interface? Designing for international users. Proceedings INTERCHI ’93 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: INTERACT ’93 and CHI’93. Amsterdam, 24-29 April (pp. 342-347). ACM Press.

Yeo A. (1996). Cultural user interfaces: a silver lining in cultural diversity, ACM SIGCHI Bulletin, v.28 n.3, p.4-7

Yeo A. (2001). Global-Software Development Lifecycle: An Exploratory Study. CHI2001. Volume No. 3, Issue No. 1

Zahedi, F., Van Pelt, W. and Song, J. (2001). A conceptual framework for international web design. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication. 44, (2), p.83-103.

3 Responses to “Overt and covert factors in L10n”

  1. karen Says:


    Interesting post. I would love to come back and read more. Oh! By the way did you check http://www.translationartwork.com , these have a real good concept. Will come back again to read more.

  2. Pro Translations Says:

    I agree, good info.

  3. Diana Railton Says:

    Extremely interesting – and good to read an article that has solid academic back-up. Thank you.

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