The Global Operations Team: Using language to Support Mercari’s Business, D&I, and More! Promoting Better Accessibility Through Localization
One of the most unique aspects of Mercari Group is our emphasis on Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) in the workplace; we want to be a place where the top talent from across the globe can feel included and welcome. It is our belief that, in order for Mercari Group to achieve its mission and deliver services that are welcoming of all the diverse societies and cultures around the world, we must first reflect that vision internally.
The Global Operations Team, known simply as “GOT” within Mercari, is one of the teams that supports Mercari’s ever-diversifying members. It primarily functions as an in-house translation and interpretation team, but its actual impact and contribution to the organization and business far surpasses that description. In this short series, “The Global Operations Team: Using language to support Mercari’s business, D&I, and more!”, we take a deep dive into GOT and their important role in the company.
This year, Mercari Group finished a complete rewrite of the Mercari marketplace’s source code from scratch. This unprecedented, mammoth-sized project, better known as Ground Up (“GU”), which has been released internally, also included an English localization of the product. In this article, we are joined by a member of the GU project team, as well as two members of GOT who were involved in the English localization. Read on to find out how Mercari is leveraging language internally in order to make its external product better, more accessible, and more user-friendly.
Featured in this article
Satoshi Kobayashi（@koby）Koby is product manager of the Design System Team at Mercari. His role focuses on streamlining the design process to deliver a cohesive experience of Mercari services. Previous to joining Mercari, @koby has worked as lead product manager of the UI Framework Team at Sony PlayStation.
Emma Davis（@emma）Originally from Massachusetts, Emma graduated from Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, California) in 2015 with a degree in computer science and a humanities concentration in Japanese. Following this, she moved to Toyama, Japan, where she taught English for two years as an ALT (assistant language teacher). In September 2017, she relocated to Tokyo and joined Mercari, and has worked as an in-house translator, editor, and translation manager in the Global Operations Team ever since. In addition to languages and localization, she enjoys theater, 2.5D idols, and mobile games.
Miguel McDonald（@Miguel_RM）Miguel left his prairie village of Donnelly in the west of Canada to enroll in post-secondary in Victoria, BC, where he was exposed to Japanese culture and language for the first time in earnest. After graduating from the University of Victoria, he moved to Sapporo City to teach English on the JET Programme and later moved to Yokohama, where he started a career in localization. He joined Mercari in February 2021, and is currently a translator and interpreter on GOT1. When he’s not working, he likes listening to his daughters play the violin, piano, or trumpet. He’s addicted to long-distance running on the streets of Yokohama.
An unprecedented project with massive internal impact
──Let’s start off with a foundational question: What is “GU”?
＠koby：So, “GU” stands for “Ground Up,” which was a project to rewrite the entire code base of Mercari with the newest technology stack—rebuilding the whole app from the ground up.
──Is it normal for tech companies to completely rewrite the code for their services and products like this, and why did the company decide it was necessary to rewrite everything from the ground up?
＠koby：Definitely not normal! (laughs)
Since the original launch of the Mercari marketplace service, we have just been accumulating more and more technological debt, and we were seeing that the speed of adding new features was getting slower and slower.
So while it is actually not very common for companies to take a drastic step like this, we felt it was necessary to make the process more efficient so that we can keep up with the speed at which the service is evolving.
──I see! I can imagine that the process of rewriting an entire app would uncover some deeper issues—is that when the idea to localize the app into English for internal use entered into the scope of the project?
＠koby：Yes, that was one of the factors that went into it—we wanted to make the service more accessible to all Mercari members by including multi-language support.
@emma：Right. Mercari was originally written with only one language in mind, so the original code wasn’t written in a way that made it easy to, say, replace all the Japanese text with English. But when we decided to rewrite the whole app—both mobile and web—we organized the code so that it would be easier to add support for other languages if we ever decided to do so in the future, and we figured that was a good opportunity to localize it all into English as well.
Even though we didn’t—and still don’t, unfortunately—have any concrete plans to release other languages externally, we considered a future in which the company does decide to release a multilingual Mercari to the public, and we wanted to be prepared for that possibility.
Beyond that, though, we wanted the app to be more accessible internally. Mercari strives to be a diverse organization, and for many years we have had engineers from overseas who don’t speak Japanese but still work on the product. These engineers tend to face trouble in development because they look at the UI and have no idea what any of the text means. Even if they can look at the code and kind of figure out what’s going on from there, they still probably have to rely on others to explain things that aren’t so apparent from the code alone. I think it’s important when developing a product to be able to use it yourself and get a feel for it, but that was always a hurdle for us until now.
＠koby：Exactly! And this isn’t just for engineers, either—having the product be available in English for all non-Japanese speakers internally, no matter what their role, allows better improvements to be made.
@emma：Right. Even for someone who doesn’t work directly on developing the code for the product, it’s still important to be able to use it yourself and understand what our users are experiencing. Then, you can bring that user perspective into your own work and contribute more effectively, making better or more targeted suggestions, for example. Like maybe you noticed something when you were using the app that could improve the user experience overall. The internal localization makes it possible for everyone to have that perspective now.
The entire team looked at every single piece of text in order to create the best possible localization
──What was GOT’s role in Ground Up?
@Miguel_RM：We were mostly responsible for translating the text of the user interface, as well as writing what we call the Mercari Guide, which is a manual that explains how to use Mercari. This includes easy-to-understand instructions for shipping, making and receiving payments, and every other facet of the app.
In terms of our process, it was a little bit different from our normal workflow. Usually, only two GOT members are responsible for a translation request—a translator and a checker. For GU, however, the entire team looked at every single piece of text, every single description, every single part of the user interface—one person would be the owner for a given request, and then the rest of the team would review it to make sure that we had captured as many perspectives and opinions as possible. From a UX standpoint, we wanted to make sure that the in-app language would read as smoothly and as naturally as possible, as opposed to sounding like one person translated everything.
──I can see how the whole team being involved in every piece of text was something that really helped the localization process!
@Miguel_RM：Yes, and in addition to the things I already mentioned, another benefit was that it made for air-tight quality control. Every single GOT member looked at every single piece of text, so we were able to be as thorough as possible in areas like term consistency and writing style, as well as of course grammar and spelling. Everyone on the team pulled together to make this a success.
──From start to end, how long did the localization process take?
@emma：Well, the project started around two years ago, and we now have a localization of the entire service. But, that said, there was never really an “end” envisioned for the localization, as it’s an ongoing process—we constantly have to keep up with new features and other things that are added to the app. Whenever the Japanese text changes—which it does all the time—we have to localize that new text as well.
So, in that sense, it has become less of a localization “project” and more just a part of the regular development process.
Having the localization of the UI has been an invaluable internal tool
──This is a question for all of you: Do you have any favorite or special memory from being involved in GU that you would like to share?
@Miguel_RM：For me, I think it was working on the Mercari Guide. Even as an employee of Mercari and a user of the marketplace app, you still only get so much exposure to the product, so I enjoyed getting to see all of the different ways that you can ship an item, the various payment methods, and all of those features and details that I had never noticed before.
It really opened up my mind to how accessible the product is!
＠koby：I also really like the Mercari Guide. Having the localization of the UI has been an invaluable internal tool, but the Mercari Guide can help make Mercari even more international by helping users troubleshoot by themselves when they encounter a problem.
＠emma：For me, creating a localization of the app is something that I’ve wanted to do ever since I joined the company—I think I may have even mentioned it in my interview! (laughs)
Living in Japan, I often see friends or other people who can’t speak Japanese struggle to use apps that are either Japanese-only or machine-translated into poor English, and Mercari is unfortunately no exception. I sometimes see people giving up on using Mercari because of the language barrier, and it’s a shame because Mercari is such a great product. So I really wanted to help Mercari reach more people and be more accessible to everyone.
Plus, on a more personal note, as a member of GOT, I don’t often get to work directly on the product, so I was really excited to be a part of the localization. Even though we are only using the localization internally, I feel like we are one step closer to potentially releasing it to the public and having people outside of the company use the English version, which is something that I really want to see someday.
@Miguel_RM：Yeah, as Emma mentioned, GOT doesn’t get to work with the product directly very often because most of our work is internal, so it was amazing to be a part of this monumental project. I mean, when GU was finally released, we had a party to celebrate, with people jumping around on stage and everything. It felt really good to have been a part of that energy!
A project deeply rooted in Mercari’s culture of “Yasashii Communication”
── What has been the impact of the Mercari Guide and the localization of the app on the day-to-day tasks of the engineering organization?
＠koby：Oh, it’s had a really huge impact! Now, all of our engineers can use the app and understand the context of all of the features without having to rely solely on the design files. Because of this, everyone is getting new ideas for improvements and solutions to problems, which will directly contribute to making Mercari a better marketplace app.
──What do you feel was the greatest benefit to GOT being involved in this project?
＠emma：I think that, for example, we could have used machine translation or outsourced the localization to another company. Instead, we did it in-house, which gave us an advantage because GOT members are employees of the company who are already very familiar with the product and the company itself. I think that we were able to leverage that experience, perspective, and context—like understanding Mercari’s culture and brand—and apply it to the localization.
──So we’ve talked a bit about the success of the project, but what were some of the hurdles that you experienced?
@emma：One of the trickiest parts was figuring out how best to localize each string of text while looking at the actual screens and UI in context. The same text could mean different things depending on how it’s used—it could be a button or a pop-up, or text for a campaign banner—and figuring out how to incorporate the design elements and how they relate to each other was a challenge. Another challenge was the tone—Japanese and English apps tend to talk to users in different ways, so a literal translation of the Japanese text can sound overly wordy and polite, and really comes off as a translation. Trying to stay true to the intent of each string while shaping it into friendly and natural English was difficult, but a really fun opportunity to exercise creativity.
──Okay, last question! What would you say to engineers who are considering working in Japan or at Mercari, but who might be a little bit apprehensive because of the language barrier?
@Miguel_RM：Moving to a new country and having to contend with a new language can definitely be intimidating—I’ve done it myself. There was a time when I couldn’t read, speak, or understand any Japanese. But at Mercari you will have assistance. You’ll be part of a great team and a great company, and you’ll even have GOT support! So, if you’re thinking about coming to work in Japan, I think that Mercari is the best choice you can make, as the company makes integrating into work and life in Japan much easier.
@emma：I’ve been at Mercari for 5 or 6 years now, so I’ve seen a lot of people who are non-Japanese speakers come from overseas or other companies in Japan to work here. In that time, I have found Mercari to be a really welcoming and supportive environment; it’s not quite the same as a fully English environment, but everyone is very considerate and aware that we have varying language levels in the company—we even have something that we call “Yasashii Communication,” which basically means that everyone is mindful about speaking in a way that everyone can understand, not just native speakers. So, no matter what your native language is, Mercari provides a culture and environment that will help you succeed.
＠koby：I think Emma and Miguel summed it up nicely, but I would also echo the importance of Mercari’s culture of Yasashii Communication. Basically, it’s both parties trying to find a middle ground where they can both understand each other. At Mercari, we don’t force anyone to speak a particular language. Instead, we work together to make it easier for everyone to understand one another.
──Thank you everyone for your time today!
This is the last article in this mini-series. We hope that you have enjoyed this insider’s look into how GOT contributes to D&I at Mercari. If you missed any of the previous articles, they are linked at the top of this page for your convenience, so please check them out if you are interested.
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