How to choose the best translation management system

How to choose the best translation management system for your team and company

You work at a company that’s going global. It’s fast-growing, agile, and relies on continuous deployment to some degree. Your colleagues understand the notion of localization, but they still treat it as an afterthought. There aren’t clearly defined processes and tools. Instead, lots of manual work. Scattered files. It’s a pain and it distracts them from their core work. 

As a project/product manager, you know there is a better way and you’re in a position to advocate for and invest in a TMS – the key to driving localization performance at scale. 

Here’s what we’ll cover in this post to help you evaluate, demo, and choose the best translation management system for your team and company:

In short, we’ll break down the main areas to consider without confusing you with lots of details about features. For now, let’s take a step back to get a holistic view of a TMS. If you’re familiar with that part already, feel free to jump straight to the next section. 

I) What is a translation management system and how does it work?

Broadly speaking, a translation management system (TMS) is software designed to support management of the localization and translation process. It helps to organize the localization workflow, track the progress of translation projects, and reduce manual tasks via automation. 

Initially, translation software was primarily built for linguists. The shift to TMS puts more control in the hands of managers, while providing a fluid and flexible solution for team collaboration across departments.

Nowadays, there are various capable, specialized TMS on the market. While each is best-suited to a specific use case, they generally include three main components:

  • Computer-assisted translation tools (CAT)
  • Workflow automation tools
  • Project/team management and reporting

If you would like to better understand the main features a modern TMS should have in each of the above categories, take a look at this post

Now, let’s look at why some businesses resist adopting a TMS before diving into the main areas to consider.

II) Why some businesses resist adopting a translation management system (TMS)

1. Budget constraints 

Stakeholders are often shocked by the costs of localization. While a TMS needs to be factored into your budget, there are other costs (e.g., translation costs) that will make up the lion’s share of your budget. 

Also, costs will heavily depend on the complexity of your projects and other technical aspects. For example, if you have content in many different systems, the process is likely to require some human involvement. 

Note: We’ll talk more about the budgeting and technical considerations you should keep in mind in the section covering business considerations.

2. Resistance to change

Often, internal processes become frozen despite the fact that they are inefficient and create more problems in the long term:

“What I’ve repeatedly seen in large organizations are small teams relying on their Excel-based process and who are reluctant to adopt new technology,”

says Tomas Franc, Solutions Architect at Lokalise, who has over 20 years of experience working at one of the largest LSPs.

Some businesses manage fine without a TMS – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But here’s the thing: it will break eventually. And it likely is broken if you factor in the opportunity costs of not having a better system. Also, your old system is likely a scalability blocker that will cause a host of problems further down the road. 

3. Lack of time

New systems require time to learn. You might be thinking you don’t have the time to implement a TMS, learn how to use it, and then get all your stakeholders on the same page. Plus, you’re probably anxious just thinking about all the data you’d have to migrate from your spreadsheets. 

But the TMS is what will free up your time in the long run. Having a clear understanding of the onboarding process will help you know what to expect – and what support is available to you as you ramp up. Some TMS tools have dedicated customer support and customer success managers to help you set up the TMS and train your team. 

4. Fear of new tools

Most TMS tools have different tiers depending on the size of your business and the features you’ll need. The packages are designed to help you start small and scale with your business as it grows. At Lokalise, scaling with our customers is something we’ve prioritized from day one.

But don’t take our word for it. Here’s what Ed Cooper, Head of Mobile at Revolut, says:

”Lokalise has a great UI and API documentation and the fact that the pricing would allow us to scale from a small startup to a larger startup were the key things for us.” 

Making decisions that require drastic changes, like building out new workflows, isn’t easy. There might be resistance from your stakeholders who are used to doing things a certain way. But the alternative of sticking to the status quo shouldn’t be an option. The opportunity cost related to not switching or keeping your processes and technologies up to date is too high. 

III) Business considerations when choosing a translation management system: impact, speed, quality, budget 

The key considerations that go into choosing a TMS fall into two broader categories: technical and business. 

Let’s start by looking at the most important factors on the business side. 

1. How will this impact our stakeholders, company, and customers?

Where changing processes is hard in the short term and your team might not want to change, the results of building new processes can be game changing in the long run. When implemented, a TMS almost always results in higher team productivity, more effective collaboration, and faster time to market.

1.1. Understanding localization stakeholder needs

While localization workflows are rarely a one-size-fits-all approach, there are several stakeholders that should make up every localization team. Typically localization involves four primary groups of stakeholders:

1. Software developers and designers: Tech teams are natural partners for localization. They think and plan in terms of systems and scale. This is great news for people working in localization. 

2. Product and project managers: As a product or project manager, you want to be focused on product development, improving localization quality, and getting localized products to market faster – not spending time on manual tasks and maintaining a broken system. 

3. Copywriters, marketers, and translators: Marketing teams need efficient cross-team collaboration without idle waiting time, fast translation turnaround times to meet launch dates, and the ability to scale without jeopardizing quality. 

4. QA specialists and reviewers: Aside from a solid localization kit (style guide, standards, etc.), QA people need to have a system that allows for clear, streamlined processes that align different teams in the right order. 

For companies that are in the chaotic process of going global, it can be hard for teams to learn each other’s distinct areas quickly. Also, introducing new tooling will create friction and require company change.

So, taking time to understand your team’s needs will allow you to minimize friction, get buy-in, and implement a solution that empowers everyone. 

1.2. Aligning your translation management system (TMS) with business goals

Imagine implementing a TMS as a bicycle. When you change gear, there’s a moment where you’re spinning really fast and nothing’s happening… and then the gear catches and you start to go faster.

For most companies, implementing a TMS is like that moment – you spin a little out of control, and then the gear switches and you start to accelerate.

Every TMS has its own set of features and is designed for a specific purpose. For example, Lokalise is built for agile teams that want to seamlessly integrate localization into their continuous product development workflow. Another TMS might be better for translating documents, ebooks, etc. 

It’s crucial to align the choice of TMS with your business goals and the product you are localizing. Ask yourself: 

  • Does it enable us to improve translation quality?
  • Is it helping us accelerate product release cycles?
  • Can we automate some parts of the translation process?
  • Will it help us increase productivity?
  • Will we be able to reduce our localization costs?

2. How will this increase speed and accelerate localized product features with every release cycle? 

How common is this scenario? You’re launching a new feature and your stakeholders are saying: “we are still waiting for translations”…  “which is the latest wireframe?” and in the end, you decide to just launch in English.

Working in localization, you’ve likely heard some variation of the above. You may have experienced the frustration of not being able to match localization with the pace of agile development. 

In the words of one localization manager, the goal is never just to localize. The goal should be to impact a specific business metric. So, what are the best localization metrics?

  • Budget
  • Project KPIs like the number of keys/words
  • Time to market
  • ROI

While ROI consists of hard-to-quantify factors, the TMS you choose should have built-in analytics and reporting, allowing you to stay on top of performance and see the direct impact of localization efforts. Here’s what the project dashboard looks like in Lokalise:

Project dashboard to track localization KPIs

And if your goal is speed, you should be able to see a significant impact on time to market after implementing the TMS. Take an example from the product manager at Withings, who championed a new localization flow and increased localized feature rollout by 90%.  

3. How will this improve translation quality and the content for our end user? 

Quality is a hot topic in localization. But when you think of the word quality, what does it mean?

You might say “it works or it’s effective.” Someone else might say it’s “well built.” Another might say quality = perfect. You get the point. The truth is, quality means meeting requirements. To achieve quality, you need to go through several steps:

  1. Set the requirements (you may have different requirements for different types of content, different quality measurements, etc.)
  2. Prepare the assets (you need to ensure source text consistency, have a glossary and style guide, product materials, and provide visual context)
  3. Choose technology that will help you meet the set requirements
  4. Select vendors and external partners (e.g., freelance translators, LSPs, etc.)
  5. Create efficient workflows 
  6. Track progress

One thing is clear: you want quality, which means you need the systems to ensure it.

The tricky part is that localization is complex. There are a ton of different ways to approach this topic. Some companies like to develop extremely detailed localization quality assurance (LQA) processes in order to try to track, measure, and “enforce” quality.

The best chance you have of increasing quality is by fixing it at the source. Your TMS should help you do precisely that.

So, what should you look for?

Your TMS needs to have built-in QA checks, features that ensure visual context, and integrations with the design tools you already use (e.g., Figma, Sketch, Adobe XD).  

That will allow you to build a design-led localization workflow and perform pre-production QA while helping your linguists move faster with visual context.

4. How much of an investment do we want to make?

Budgetary conversations are often what bring about friction regarding localization. Stakeholders are sometimes shocked by the costs of localization because they lack context on the complexity that localization entails. 

If your current process isn’t scalable or automation-friendly, what happens is that you see this manifest in terms of inflated costs and delivery lead times. The most important thing to think about here is creating more transparency around “good” costs, those associated with driving business results, and “bad” costs that you can eliminate or decrease.

Remember, if you have to stop a developer to fix a bug, or send a design back for adjustments because the translated text breaks the design – you’re automatically losing money.

Bottom line: more manual steps = higher localization costs. Make sure you account for that. 

IV) Technical considerations when choosing a translation management system: formats, systems, integrations, automations, continuous deployment

The next five items that localization process owners need to consider when reviewing, evaluating, and choosing a TMS are the technical fundamentals. Without getting down to brass tacks, it will be difficult to streamline your localization workflow, especially when you add more languages. 

Bearing that in mind, you want to choose a TMS that fits into your tech stack, existing workflows, and current technical reality so you can make localization projects unfold easily. 

Here are the main things you should consider:

1. What format(s) is the content in?

Choose a TMS that supports various file formats

Often, the ways content is being created originally are not yet scalable or are not flexible enough to meet the demands of a global business.

Most companies skip a crucial step that allows their content to be localized fairly easily and quickly – storing strings in resource files as opposed to having them live in your codebase. A prerequisite for a streamlined localization workflow is making it easy for developers to externalize their strings by using the right file formats such as JSON, YAML, ARB, XLIFF, Android Resources, or Apple Strings.

Ask yourself: where does your content live? Do you have a single source of truth or is content stored in many systems? Do those systems support import/export functionalities for various file formats?

At the bare minimum, the TMS you choose should support multiple different file formats (Lokalise supports all the formats shown in the visual above) and sync with all the major code repositories. 

If you’re going to include multiple types of file format, and you have your content in many systems, it’s crucial to understand whether the chosen system will require heavy human lifting or be a natural fit into your workflow and existing tech stack. 

2. In which systems is the content created, stored, and published?

A localization process owner needs to know the answer to each of these separate questions, because often these are three completely separate systems. 

In an ideal world, the content will live in a content management system (CMS) with existing APIs or connectors to a company’s TMS. 

However, it really depends on what type of content it is, where it’s coming from, and how it gets published.

It’s fairly common for companies to have multiple systems for managing content. Often, the TMS is one of the only places that is truly “central” companywide where all of this content gets stored, in multiple languages, along with the English equivalent.

3. Are the systems connected?

As we just covered above, it’s ideal for the various systems to be integrated or at least connected in some form. This helps to maximize automation while minimizing manual, human work (like copying and pasting). 

This scalability issue is a major focus for localization teams, because a human process that isn’t a hassle in just one language can quickly become a major time investment, blocker, and obstacle to speed, not to mention the human costs when you try to scale it into multiple languages.  

Historically, localization teams were forced to build their own internal tools and connectors for systems because out-of-the-box integrations don’t always exist for a specific use case. 

While we’ve already covered ground here, we can’t stress this enough: ensure the TMS you use has integrations with your existing tech stack and a robust API

4. How often is content updated?

Can’t you just update content once, deliver it and leave it at that? The short answer is likely no. But take a moment to think about how often digital/web-based content at your company changes. 

How content gets localized in the long term is important because this is where systems, integrations, and your updating cadence will require using the right TMS to make a continuous localization workflow possible. 

5. What processes can we automate? 

If you think about scalability in the context of localization, it’s clear that you want a replicable process that you can apply to all new languages. It shouldn’t be surprising that building an automated workflow is a key part of optimizing your localization process.

Because localization is a team sport, the more people you require to manually handle different steps, the more it will cost. In light of this, here are some examples of what your TMS should help you automate:

1. Transfer of files between systems (e.g., two-way integrations that sync with code repositories, CMS, and design tools)

2. Conversion of files to different formats

3. Version control to quickly detect file updates

4. Pre-translation using machine translation

5. KPI tracking and report generation

The above is by no means a comprehensive list of the automation capabilities your TMS should provide, but in general, you should seek to find a tool that will help you automate as much as possible to minimize human work and ensure optimal processes.

V) Key steps for choosing a TMS that will help accelerate and scale your localization process

To summarize, the best TMS is the one that will fit nicely into your existing tech stack, use case, be liked by your stakeholders, and enable you to scale.

For these reasons, you have a number of important factors to consider, both on the business and technical sides, to solve for scale and company priorities. Just like your language partners, your TMS vendor should be a true partner that helps you along your localization journey. It’s a key part of any strategic localization initiative. Finally, based on years of helping customers be successful, here’s our 3-step advice for picking a TMS and implementing it right away. 

1. Figure out exactly what you need a TMS for

Understanding exactly what you need a TMS for will help you find the one that is best for your company and stakeholders. If you’re localizing ebooks or marketing materials, you’ll need something different than if you’re primarily localizing a mobile app or web app interface. 

At Lokalise, the first things we ask companies that are evaluating our tool are:

What digital assets are you localizing? Where does the content live? What are the file formats? 

We want to ensure that our solution is the best for them and will solve their challenges. For example, if a company wants to localize a mobile app or web app and set up a continuous localization workflow that syncs with their code repo, CMS, and design tools – Lokalise is a great fit. 

2. Involve your product team in the decision

Whenever we speak to developers, designers, and product owners, they’ll typically tell us their #1 objective is: “accelerating our product release from code to delivery with localization.”

When we speak with project managers, the goal is usually building a seamless, automated localization process so that every stakeholder on the team can work at their peak levels.

The bottom line is: Different stakeholders have different needs and goals. Involve your team in the decision and have them on the demo call so you’re all on the same page. 

3. Train the team on what the translation management system does and how you’ll use it together

Training the team on what the TMS can do is essential, so that your team can use it to its full potential. To draw on the analogy used earlier: if you’re not deciding on how you’re going to use it as a team, you aren’t setting yourself up to cycle together at the same pace and increase the speed at which your entire team is moving.

If everybody uses the same system differently, it’s hard to collaborate and build out a smooth localization workflow. Take some time to build processes and create guidelines with your vendor and you’ll have increased your chances for success. If you follow these 3 steps, you’ll immediately be ahead of 90% of companies that come to us, as they all seem to skip at least one of them.

What can you do next?

Want more guidance? Our team is here to help. Feel free to drop us a line in our live chat (it’s in the lower right corner) – no pressure.

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