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Should a switch UI element that contains the words "ON" and "OFF" be translated, or is it ubiquitous enough to be understood everywhere and not cause confusion? Is it globally recognized? Or perhaps just in western countries?

Edit: I would like to add that the question is not whether to use text or not. We realize that would solve this problem, but that's not the question.

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While it depends on your demographics, I would say yes, you should translate it. It also depends on whether you are translating everything else. Having a translated control in the middle of other untranslated controls (or content) is somewhat confusing and definitely looks bad, as if the designer / developer did not care.

About your specific question: we conducted a test for an application in Spanish. We are in Argentina and we have a wide influence / use of Anglicisms in the words we use every day. So, just as you say, we assumed that on / off would be easily understandable. And so it was ... for the age segment of 14 to 50. The older the age, the bigger the friction.

But then it got worse: when considering other Spanish-speaking countries, friction with ON / OFF was really important in almost all age segments. This was seen especially in Spain, which is usually a more careful country with the influence of foreign languages.

Anyways, in Spanish, ON / OFF is translated as ENCENDIDO / APAGADO. And our particular case, we did not have space for so much text, so we decided to use ON / OFF and help us with a switch where both states are easily distinguishable. A good example would be Material switches

enter image description here enter image description here

Or something where the on/off wording is clearly supported by its affordance, like this, where they use color an iconography on top of the on/off labels:

enter image description here

Bottom line: if it is within your possibilities and you do not find space limitations, I would recommend that you translate the labels

  • Great answer. We would also need to translate to Spanish, besides other languages, so maybe we need to re-think this :) – ecc Nov 21 '17 at 8:39
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This is how we did it.

This is how we did it. We support multiple languages as well.

Just be aware of right to left languages as the animation would probably need to be opposite. But that's not a big deal.

  • 1
    I don't think the direction of the switch has anything to do with writing direction. Even in western countries, physical switchs go up, down, left, right, in and out with no pattern at all. Thank you for all the "don't use words at all" suggestions, but they are actually off topic. We realize that's an option, but the question is just if we should translate or not. – ecc Nov 22 '17 at 12:16
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We faced the very same question in our application which works in 15+ languages. We decided to let integration partners do the translation, but it was not a good idea because:

  • labels can get really long in some languages
  • long labels can easily make parts of your UI fall apart

Instead of translations, I would advise you to use a switch design, which doesn't involve any text and delivers the On / Off message with colors or icons.

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

  • "We decided to let users do the translation" what do you mean? Why would you let users translate your app? – ecc Nov 21 '17 at 13:09
  • @ecc He might mean he lets his "clients" handle the translations? I'm currently working on a project that might have to be internationalized in the future. It's only distributed to clients with whom we have very involved deals. To handle translating, we're planning on preparing a list of terms in English and let each client be responsible for attaining or providing the translations that can then appear in their UI. – maxathousand Nov 21 '17 at 22:00
  • Sorry for the mistake. We let integration partners translate the UI. Our application is built for white-label integration. – Roland Pokornyik Nov 22 '17 at 14:14

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