Take cultural differences into account

Business to Business

Blame it on the economic slow-down or the fact that businesses are finally waking up to the realities of the global economy, but there is a growing demand for multilingual and globally functional technology products. This translates into increased demand for multilingual software manuals, globally user-friendly interfaces and globally functional Web sites.

The problem is that most people requesting these products have no idea about the difference between making a product international versus making it available in multiple languages (multilingual).

So let’s start with the basic definitions.

Internationalization requires that a product be friendly towards users from different countries and cultures. This requires a range of features including, at a minimum, the ability to specify multiple currency and language preferences. As part of this, specific content (packaging, manuals, etc.) also needs to be generated for specific regions.

This content should reflect the cultural expectations of the country, and may include language-specific content. It is not sufficient to write English content for the U.K. using American or Canadian spellings. The same holds true for French, Spanish, German and other languages.

Next are the products offered in a choice of languages, which usually pay no attention to cultural issues (i.e. what icons are usable to French versus English Canadians). The content is simply translated, and the issue of reading left to right versus right to left and its effect on graphics is addressed.

For example, an American software product might offer its users manuals in American English and American Spanish (the one used in Puerto Rico and not the Floridian/Cuban Spanish). No attention is given to trying to communicate or sell the product to South America or Spain. In this case the product is multilingual and not intended for the international market place.

To truly understand the difference between multilingual and international, let’s assume company XYZ wants to start promoting itself to South America. The first thing it needs to do is have all the documentation translated into Brazilian Portuguese and South American Spanish (there are several of these, but generally Mexican is acceptable, even if Mexico is in North America).

Once the content is translated, the choice of graphics, colours, etc. need to be reviewed to ensure they aren’t offensive to the specific target market. Once completed, the XYZ product can be marketed to South America. XYZ now has an international product appropriate for the South American market. With some minor adjustments, the product can also be made customized for marketing in Spain and Portugal.

So next time you see project proposal calls for multilingual or international software, ask your client this basic question: “What do you mean by that, and who are you going to market your product to?” Failure to do so may result in the wrong product being built. And by asking it, you can help ensure that the client realizes his or her goals.

K’necht is a Toronto-based consultant specializing in the project management and business analysis of technology projects. He is a frequent speaker at technology conferences and can be reached at alan@knechtology.com.