Any tech product manager who’s familiar with the term “simship” (simultaneous shipment) knows that it’s much easier said than done. The success of a product launch across multiple markets — all at the same time — hinges on the advance planning from the team behind it. Have the engineers written software strings with translation processes in mind? Is the user interface designed for a multilingual product? And has marketing thought about how all that collateral will be received in different markets?
At the heart of a simship is the process. Engineers, developers, marketers, designers and managers have to orchestrate a simultaneous shipment together. There are a lot of moving pieces, but pulling off a simship is worth it. Providing every customer with the latest version of a product shows that the company values each segment of the market. Better yet, if you ship a localized version of the product before your competitor, you’ll have a huge advantage.
To prepare for such a challenging undertaking, businesses need to think about three different things: product design, customer support and marketing.
The multilingual interface
Before even thinking about support and marketing, businesses that want to successfully ship to multiple markets at the same time have to focus on the product. For tech companies especially, localization of software and other products needs to start from the ground up. Even the way that developers design a user interface must be considered.
Software strings that are comprised of abbreviations or variables can trip up translators who need to tweak the code for translated content. In this case, it’s best to code in complete strings with variables that are clearly defined. Likewise, developers should think about how text is displayed in different languages. A Spanish or French phrase, for example, is generally longer than the English equivalent, and in Europe, dates are structured by day, month and year, rather than month, day and year.
A simship ultimately requires very early-stage planning from the product development side. That’s the only way to ensure that the user interface is seamlessly localized, without overlapping graphics or text that doesn’t quite fit within a given dialog box.
A decade ago, a simultaneous shipment of a product was a lot more difficult. Product cycles took too long. Scheduling shipments of hardware or software packages so that they arrived overseas at the same time as in the domestic market was essentially impossible. Consequently, many markets around the world were forced to rely on products that were essentially out-of-date.
In the tech world, those trends are still apparent. Take the continuing popularity of Microsoft’s recently discontinued Windows XP operating system. The OS is nearly 12 years old but still runs the majority of PCs in many countries, including China.
The Internet changed how tech companies can ship products. Now, a new operating system won’t take years to be released in other countries; it can become available through a universally available digital download. The increasing digitization of products — combined with a sleek, paperless approach like the one Apple touts — eliminates the need for bulky manuals or instruction and helps make a simship easier than ever. Technical documentation hasn’t disappeared; it has just migrated online.
For a simship to work, companies need to remember that the product isn’t the only thing that has to be multilingual — the support does, too. If customers in Europe call into a help center or visit the website, but all the help they need is in English, it won’t matter that the product was available at the same time.
Tech companies need to localize Web content for customers, especially those who are looking for help with the product. If they don’t, there’s a chance they could lose those customers completely. Three-quarters of consumers prefer to buy a product in their own language. If that product doesn’t have accompanying documentation, FAQs and other support resources in their native language, then the multilingual design and the simultaneous shipment will go to waste.
Back in 2006, Microsoft ran into a translation problem when marketing Windows Vista in Latvia. Apparently, “vista” in Latvian is slang for “frumpy old woman.” So when local office workers were presented with Windows “Frumpy Old Woman,” many couldn’t help laughing a little. Even more recently, the name of “Windows Metro” for the Windows 8 operating system had to be changed due to a potential trademark dispute with a German retailer. As Microsoft shows, there are a million and one ways for a business to misstep when bringing a product to a new market.
How can a tech company pull off a seamless simship when there are so many stumbling blocks?
The key is that any product being shipped around the globe at the same time has to be tied to a localized marketing campaign that helps build the brand overseas. Tech companies are all familiar with the amount of noise in the market, for everything from PCs and mobile devices to cloud computing and open source applications. A marketing campaign has to be built to help the brand stand out.
As Microsoft’s experience shows, however, no market should be taken for granted. A one-size-fits-all approach to marketing can be disastrous. Both linguistic and cultural subtleties for each market need to be taken into account when a campaign is being put together. That is the only guaranteed way to build an effective marketing campaign. Whether it’s through brochures, case studies and Web and social media content, among other collateral, multinational simships will be more effective if companies localize their marketing and brand.
Tech companies shouldn’t ignore the opportunities presented by a globalized economy. It’s more important than ever to make sure that new products are accessible to all potential customers at the same time. The best way to accomplish a simship is to have translation woven into the entire product development and launch process.
Ian Henderson is the chairman and CTO of global language service provider Rubric. He has a deep knowledge of globalization issues, technology and distributed team management. Prior to co-founding Rubric, he worked in various management and engineering positions at Siemens (Germany), Expert Software and Phoenix Software (New Zealand) and Berlitz (England). Ian can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @RubricInc.