International Product Considerations

by Luke Wroblewski October 15, 2004

Steve Portigal recently spoke about International Ethnographic Research at eBay’s Global User Experience and Design Summit. Steve’s Consumer Research work focuses on discovering and applying insights about customers to product strategy and design.

His process involves not only observing and interviewing people, but observing cultural context as well. Using examples from fieldwork in Japan, Steve focused on the latter of these techniques: how media, artifacts, and other elements of culture can inform international product strategies and ultimately impact usability.

Limitations of space, high expectations of customer service, existing systems for communication, infrastructure, aesthetics, are just a few of the cultural factors that can influence how a product is received in Japan. Some examples:

  • In Japan, Kawaii (“cute” comic book-like characters represent everything from banks to soft drinks to civic services (police).
  • Due to “super-styling” of even common objects, the point of entry (aesthetically) for products in Japan tends to be much higher.
  • US marketing often sells through association (use this product and be like me/us), Japanese marketing often takes a disassociative approach (use this product to not be like this)

Steve also brought up some interesting considerations for globalization of products. In today’s global economy, products and brands move between boundaries and are often transformed by cultures only to cross over boundaries again as “new” products: consider how “American” pizza (quite different from the original Italian version) has been transformed by countries like Japan. How long before the Japanese version comes back to America reborn? Steve illustrated this point by asking out how an international version of a product would differ if:

  • it was created from scratch, without an original product as a point of reference?
  • it was translated/localized from an original product?
  • it was based on delivering an authentic “American” experience?

To that end, Chris Palmieri recently shared a relevant example with me: U.S. branch in English U.S. branch in Japanese Japan branch in Japanese Japan branch in English