Posted by: Geoff Wing | September 14, 2009

Make this foreign

We created foreign versions of software. They came back to bite us in unexpected places.

Our company was European. We had just opened an office in Japan to start our Japanese operations. Our most important client was an American consumer software developer, and the new service we offered them was multi-language software localization: simultaneously creating the French, German, Spanish, and Japanese language versions of their software. I was the project manager and main client contact, a role that put me in the front lines of the troubles that were to come.

Our client came to us because although the usual industry practice was to outsource European and Japanese versions to separate vendors; we managed all languages in the same project, creating cost savings and making each version consistent with the US original. Everything seemed fine until our client used their local offices to sign off on project release: their French, German, Italian and Spanish offices would approve our European products quickly with none or few corrections, but the Japanese offices would drag things out, complaining about our quality and demanding corrections and corrections of corrections until the Japanese product was delayed months after the rest. This caused chaos as everyone played the blame game: the US office would accuse their Japanese office of foot-dragging; the Japanese office would accuse us of poor quality, but when we defended our quality the Japanese offices would accuse their US head offices of neglecting the Japanese market’s quality requirements. In this game, everyone was at fault, and at its worst it degenerated into stereotypical accusations of American sloppiness versus Japanese political maneuvering. As the project manager, I had to discover the roots of the real problem.

Investigating the problem required input from our team and our client’s teams in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan. By Japanese market standards, we really did have quality problems, but neither we nor our US client knew this because we both used European standards as our benchmark. By Japanese standards, even many aspects of the original US product (which we faithfully reproduced into all languages) were substandard. Discussions about the printed manuals was most revealing, uncovering cultural differences that formed the foundation of customer expectations: American users didn’t use manuals because they were proud to “plug and play” on their own. Germans wanted perfect grammar in their German translations, showing concern about what regional dialect was used but perceived manual appearance as unimportant, expecting them to be made from recycled materials. The Italians didn’t care much about manual quality because after years of enduring English-only manuals they were satisfied by the mere existence of Italian manuals. In contrast, the Japanese wanted the tone and register of the translations to match their Japan office corporate image, and wanted absolute translation terminology consistency between all of their products. They rejected much of the original English source text, rewriting the Japanese manuals to explain things in a more detailed step-by step manner.They demanded higher paper and printing quality than the original English because the look and feel of the manuals and packaging affected quality perceptions of the product and company. They rejected the original spiral binding in favor of a more expensive and neater paperback-book binding. Although these talks seemed like the setup for a joke about national stereotypes, they were a useful discovery tool that created a conversation about country-specific use cases and customer expectations

Delving into country-specific customer behavior, values, and expectations helped us uncover deeper cultural differences that our client had not fully appreciated when they approached the project from the world of “every country gets the same as the original US product”. Understanding true customer requirements required a deep probe of customer’s expectations, and a culturally aware discussion of the philosophies behind how a product and its user are supposed to interact with each other.


  1. Authorize this comment and we will rescue an made up critter!

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