Localizing attributed strings on iOS

Create attributed strings on iOS without hacky, fragile solutions.

In an iOS app, localization can be especially difficult when dealing with attributed strings. Fairly often, designers request something like:

Read our Terms of Service, Privacy Policy, or contact us with any questions.

or like:

Searching for burgers in SOMA, San Francisco, CA:

The golden rule of localized strings is to treat them as atomic units:

  • Never concatenate strings to form sentences. Many languages have different sentence structure or gender rules than English and you cannot just substitute a single word or phrase in for any other.
  • Never use substrings for searching in an original string. If you depend on the standalone translation of “Privacy Policy” matching the sentence version, you will likely find translators do not understand this intent. You may also find the same search term multiple times (imagine if the user searched for “Search”).

Often these complexities are cited as reasons to avoid localization. But, unless you have geographic constraints, you will find a substantially larger audience with a localized application.

ZSWTappableLabel and ZSWTaggedString are two open-source libraries I have released to help solve these problems.

ZSWTappableLabel makes links inside your attributed strings tappable, as the name suggests. It’s a UILabel subclass which does not do any drawing itself, making it fast and easy.

ZSWTaggedString is the powerhouse. It transforms an HTML-like syntax into an attributed string. You can read more about the syntax and advanced usage on its GitHub page, but here’s how you might use it for the examples above:

Read our <i><tos>Terms of Service</tos></i>, <i><privacy>Privacy Policy</privacy></i>, or <i><contact>contact us</contact></i> with any questions.

Searching for <term>%@</term> in <location>%@</location>:

In my experience, localizers1 are familiar enough with HTML to have no issues with localizing these strings. By marking the regions you intend to be visually distinct, they can more easily understand your intent, producing better localizations.

While on the subject, here are a few best practices for localization in iOS:

  • To handle the current locale changing, or the dynamic type setting changing, reload your UI when observing:
    • NSCurrentLocaleDidChangeNotification
    • UIContentSizeCategoryDidChangeNotification
  • To represent dates, durations, distances, lengths, etc., use an appropriate formatter.
  • To create your own date formats, use +dateFormatFromTemplate:options:locale: on NSDateFormatter. Remember that these need recreating if the locale changes.
  • To combine a first and last name, use ABPersonGetCompositeNameFormatForRecord with a temporary ABPersonRef, or use the new NSPersonNameComponentsFormatter.
  • For sending non-user-facing data to a server, use en_US_POSIX as your locale.

Read more tips and tricks at NSHipster about NSLocalizedString and NSLocale.

  1. If you’re looking for recommendations on localization, working with Applingua has always been wonderful.