Taking Your Product Across Cultures by Lisa Long

BY MARTIN ERIKSSON ON NOVEMBER 25, 2016

The commercial world is littered with the wreckage of international expansion plans gone awry, whether it’s the $2 billion that US discount retailer Target misguidedly spent thinking Americans and Canadians are the same, Tesco’s failure to understand US shopping habits with its Fresh & Easy brand or the failure of the HP digital magazine Pivot to accommodate French and German editions in a layout that was grounded in English. Telenor’s VP of Product Lisa Long gave the London #mtpcon audience a valuable crash course in how to minimize these sorts of missteps when you try to take your product beyond its initial home audience.

Here be dragons

She started with the story of an invitation to brunch in Norway – who knew that whilst in the UK it’s more than acceptable to appear with a bottle of champagne, in Norway you’re expected to bring bread and bringing a bottle of champagne leads your hosts to ask if you have a drinking problem? Says Long: “Such are the vagaries of culture. Culture tells you everything you’re supposed to do, from the products you make to the things you’re supposed to bring to brunch… Here be dragons, and the bad news is we don’t even agree what dragons are!”

But once you’re established in one culture, how do you know what questions to ask to take your product to the next one? It’s hard, says Long, and even those with deep pockets get it wrong.

Do your research

As a starting point, ask what problem your product solves, says Long. She uses dating apps to illustrate the point: in the UK dating apps are used to meet new people, whereas in Norway they are used to vet your existing network. And in Iceland – population 300,000 – the first information that comes from any dating app is how closely you’re related to another person. Dating apps may help you to meet new people, but in each of these cases they solve a very different problem.

You need to understand the basic assumptions about your product in your home market so that you know what must be changed to make it work in a new environment. Product managers need to understand fundamental social conventions in the country they want to launch in, and that means learning about the country and talking to users. Long suggests that information sources like the CIA World Fact Book, Statista, your chosen country’s embassy, the UK Department of International Trade are all good places to start.

“Once you know what the country looks like, you can bring the country to you,” she says. “If you know what the three best-selling mobiles are in the country you’re targeting then use them for a week.” Facebook for example has 2G Tuesdays where the staff has to use phones from emerging markets in simulated slow network speeds, so that “everyone can feel what it’s like to be in a developing country and never see an entire Facebook page load.” When investigating a new market, it’s vital that you discover the perceptions of the problem that product solves, assess your assumptions, and that you bring the country’s infrastructure to you.

It may also be that marketing needs to be changed for a different market. For example in the UK Stella Artois is an everyday beer, but in the US it becomes European sophistication; in Canada Budweiser is a commonplace beer, whereas in China it’s a high-end drink. “Keep doing your research,” urges Long, “otherwise the market may move while you’re not paying attention.”

Lisa Long at #mtpcon

About the data

Understanding data from one country to the next can also be difficult, as there are different views on the use and sharing of data. In the US a Zip Code reveals an address to within about 1,000 houses, whereas in the UK a postcode gives an address to within about 10 houses – UK users are therefore understandably much less willing to share that information. It also applies to users: sharing your Social security number in the US is considered highly invasive, in the UK most people would ask why on earth you could want their National Insurance number.

Names are also fraught with problems. Facebook for example has run into multiple problems trying to fit people into its naming conventions, says Long. “Telling people they have to abide by your conventions for naming is offensive and it will stop them from using your application.” Take a look at other local applications and see how they are asking for this sort of information, she advises.

Passive data collection can also be a huge issue for product managers, says Long. Fitbit accidentally published all the fitness data it collected a few years ago, and in so doing published all of its users’ sex stats. But passive data collection also has a darker side. Egyptian authorities used Facebook and Twitter to track down protesters’ names and round them up during the Arab Spring, while the Zimbabwean government has used Facebook to track down dissidents. “Be careful about the information you make public and how it might be used, but also understand how people think about that information,” Long counsels.

Payment

There are three essentials that product managers need to get right when it comes to payment, says Long: make sure the currency is right, make sure the price is correct and that the price shown is the price charged, and make it easy for people to give you money.

In Germany for example, credit cards are not popular and people are often reluctant to enter debit card details into sites they don’t know. Instead PayPal or bank transfers are popular.

User interface

All of one’s cultural assumptions show in a user interface, says Long, and users can quickly see whether you’ve done your homework. Names, Zip Codes, telephone numbers, currency, can all potentially present problems for users if you’ve skimped on the research prior to launch.

Iconography can also be tricky, for example what we may all recognize as a save icon, may mean nothing to someone in an emerging market who has never used a floppy disc before.

Colour too, can trip up the unwary. In Vietnam weddings are red, in the West they are white. But white is for funerals in India. Orange to the Dutch is royalty, to the British it’s cheap flights.

In summary, review your text, your input fields, your iconography and use colours that make sense.

And finally, says Long, it’s important to remember that not all problems exist in all countries. It may be that you find that your product doesn’t fit because the assumptions you have and the problems you’re solving don’t really exist in your target market.

Martin Eriksson

About MARTIN ERIKSSON

Martin Eriksson has 20 years experience building world-class online products in both corporate and start-up environments for global brands such as Monster, Financial Times, Huddle, and Covestor. He is the Founder of ProductTank, the Co-Founder and Curator of Mind the Product and currently a Product Manager at large, advising and mentoring startups while writing Product Leadership, How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams (O'Reilly, 2017).

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