ULG's Language Services Blog

Expand to New Markets with Design Thinking

With global disruptions in supply chains and production and general economic uncertainty, growing out and not up is a very attractive option for businesses. Offering an existing product or service to new regions and audiences through localization helps companies to grow their customer base and profits safely and sustainably.

Although localization is a powerful growth strategy, it is not simple. For example, in 2018, Coca-Cola made an embarrassing marketing localization blunder by translating a common New Zealand phrase to Māori without consulting Māori speakers. New Zealanders were greeted by vending machines touting “Hello, Death!” instead of the intended “Hello, Mate!” The campaign went viral, but not in the way Coca-Cola envisioned.

Localization strategies need cultural relevance and careful planning to reach target audiences and avoid taboos. You can make your localization plan succeed with the help of design thinking and language solution partners.

Benefits of Design Thinking

Unlike traditional problem-solving models, design thinking welcomes trial and error. Small failures are a given on the way to a robust solution. Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process for solving complicated problems. Instead of rigidly defining a problem based on assumptions and then coming up with a single solution, design thinking emphasizes observation and first-hand accounts to understand a problem from the intended user’s end. The final solution emerges only after developing models, testing, and redesigning, all with user involvement.

Design thinking includes five stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. The culmination of these stages is implementation, where the refined concept, product, or service is scaled-up and deployed. Table 1 shows design thinking in action with the example of Mobisol, a German solar-panel company looking to localize to rural Tanzania.

Table 1. Design thinking stages with Mobisol examples



Real-World Localization Example (Mobisol)


Understand a community’s wants, needs, and challenges through direct observation and interactions.

Traveled to rural Tanzania and observed the community.


Define the problem. Hold loosely to this definition.

Realized people needed a way to communicate, get information, and improve community status in addition to lighting their homes.


Brainstorm solutions. Wait to eliminate seemingly impossible ideas.

Dreamt up various solutions for tailoring solar panels to the new market.


Develop actionable solutions.

Created a mobile solar panel, complete with installation and maintenance instructions.


Observe how the prototype functions in the real world.

Noticed people weren’t using the solar panel because they were afraid of damaging it during installation.


At this point, Mobisol’s product failed to solve the energy needs of rural Tanzanians; people weren’t using it. If Mobisol were using a traditional problem-solving model, they might have counted the project as a loss and moved on. However, because Mobisol had invested in understanding the culture and defining the problem, they could build and test a new prototype instead of starting over. Also, they didn’t lose a significant financial investment because they tested the prototype before scaling up.

Mobisol went back to the solution stage and came up with the idea of a local training program. They developed training modules for community members to become certified solar panel installation and maintenance technicians. After testing their new solution, they found that people started using their solar panels.

Understanding Target Culture

As we saw in the Mobisol example, understanding the target culture is central to design thinking and needs to be central to localization strategies. A great example of tailoring services to cultural preferences is localization in Brazil. According to Hofstede Insights, Brazil’s national culture tends toward collectivism (loyalty to a group, such as extended family) and indulgence (optimism, prioritizing leisure time). Localization strategies that recognize the importance of extended family and enjoying life tend to succeed in Brazil.

But how can companies learn about cultural preferences and national identity? Design thinking encourages interacting directly with your target culture through in-person research. Simply attempting to think empathetically (based solely on assumptions) is not enough.

Partnering with organizations like United Language Group (ULG) helps companies connect with community leaders to understand their target culture better. ULG also employs cultural experts who can help refine your localization strategy to ensure it aligns with cultural preferences and that subtleties, such as sarcasm and idioms, keep their meaning.

Staying Relevant and Competitive

Design thinking’s fluid problem-solving approach helps companies adapt and stay relevant to the target population. The process also ensures companies can react flexibly to new problems they may unearth.

For example, when Mobisol tested their mobile solar panel in the most rural parts of Tanzania, they found that last-mile delivery was a huge issue. And it didn’t just apply to solar panels, but to all the goods rural Tanzanians didn’t produce themselves. Accessibility issues inspired Mobisol to start developing a new product—a drone delivery service—to help the most isolated Tanzanians get what they needed.

Partnerships Help Implement Design Thinking

Design thinking can help localization efforts succeed. Partnering with language solutions providers helps companies move towards implementing design thinking in their localization strategy. Companies will need community connections, translation and interpretation services, and cultural expertise to complete the empathize and testing phases of design thinking. Contact ULG for more information on how we can help today.



Topics: Localization