How to make / get normal people to see your technology


I have added two updates at the bottom – generally I don’t like to edit old articles, but in this case I do feel a need for clarification in the sense that this article is not just about translation and that I would like to see everything in German. It is more about missed opportunities due to the fact that you might overlook what is really happening in your market.

Scoble writes about “The problem facing every tech company”:

Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of Sun Microsystems, blogs about the difficulty of getting people to see their new technology and programs. I feel his pain. When I was in Montana I met people who hadn’t heard of blogs, podcasts, or Second Life (or even Windows Vista). You know, normal people. People who have other things to care about than what is on TechMeme.

It is not difficult. It is about how you address things to the normal public and where to spend your money.

Normal people for example don’t care what one website says about a product, they still want the clue on paper or in their television ad. They will buy (and therefor before be exposed to) what their friends talk about. And if you go out of the Valley and even the US, you will probably find that people in other countries do care about so different things, you don’t even think about. One reason they do? Because they don’t get to know at all about ‘your product’.

Take for example Google Spreadsheet. I tried it but exactly when hitting the third key it already made me close it again: I use my numeric keypad on the side. And we do use a comma instead of a point for numbers. Does not work in there, is not even configurable. Is that important? Well, probably not for you, reading this in English. For me, it is.

Talking about the latest TV Shows and how you can download them in itunes? Well, not over here. So why should we talk about this in the media and why should newspapers pick this up? I love West Wing, but it never ran in German television and never will. Like oh 80 percent of all TV shows?

Flickr? Well, the interface is not in German, so why use it instead of some nicer German websites? Yahoo and all those web Web 2.0 applications? All of them focused on the American market. On the English market. Why use them / talk about them etc when you alienate us from the start?

Coupons! Free SMS! Free Skype calls! Free this and that to buzz about? All for American market.

I think I just found the reason why the hell I cannot active voice recognition in my tablet. Because the German version does not allow me to do this. I need to have the German version in order to have support for the time I want to use it in German, but cannot use this feature at all even if I would be to use it in English. I cannot install several applications because of the limitations to English tablet versions – they never care about the rest of us but they do care enough to make sure we cannot use it.

There are not many tablet users in Germany, but many may be interested in using one. I could be a blogging about how happy the tablet makes me, but I have to admit, I cannot. Because it does not let me do the stuff I want to do – and therefor I do not expose my peers to it.

I will not blog much about Flickr, because it uses English and all the help and exposure I could give would be irrelevant because I would need to do translation as well.

I will not blog much about Google Spreadsheet, because the first thing people will notice is that you cannot even start to use it for German calculation.

I will not blog much about Office 2007, because it is unusable for me and I also assume that I will not be able to even install it without bigger problems on my machine.

If you look at my examples they may sound non relevant, but they are little step stones toward a bigger picture: We do get used to ignoring you over here because you don’t care about us. And while we are busy conducting our lives, you bring one firework after another – just on the other side of the earth ball.

In the meantime, a total copycat of Rocketboom will receive honorable awards for being innovative – just because it is German and most of the public here has no clue about what is going on on the outside of their language realm. People like me who are interested in this technology will do follow it in English but as long as nobody pays me to do so, there is only a limited amount of time I will invest on doing translations and bring the information into my home market.

You want people to adapt technology an learn about it? Well, do it in a way they understand and on a scale they will take notice. Which means: Speak in a language they understand and in ways they will care.

To use the real spoken language as a divider: German Podcasting and video casting just received a boost and I will go so far to say it will impact the European as well:
German chancellor Angela Merkel will start video casting a weekly podcast.

If you are American, this may be nothing new to you, but there has never been a regular announcement like the weekly radio address in Germany from the chancellor. This is huge. And they do a nice job as well in starting to explain Podcasting to the people. And just in case you care: They do a good job not using iPod somewhere there.

German as well as other Europeans do not tend to favor the iPod, there are a lot of mobile phones and other mobile players. I am betting on Nokia to sell more mobile players to Germans than Apple in iPods.

Oh and in case you cared: Germany has about 82 million inhabitants, as well as other countries around it speaking German. We do have money too.

Update 1: Eric Schwiebert has a nice look into why it is not easy to make internationalized versions of for example MS Office. Which btw is a product which is *very* well localized in most aspects I can think about. That starts with nearly the only usable spell checker and goes to a lovely list of sticker vendors for your mass mailing. Because you do buy Zweckform in Germany and not – insert your local provider of sheets of sticker -.

If you are interested, you should also read the follow up examples on Robert’s second post, especially that quote from Paul Morriss:

The smart companies will be making sure their software works in China ready for when its economy overtakes the US

Of course you should not optimize for China, because then this side of the pond gets left out again. ;)

Update 2: I don’t like to edit old articles, but in this case I do feel a need for it. A lot of people refer to this article being about translation only: It is not. If you read the examples and comments below you should see that while it is also about translation of software, it is mostly about localization. It is also not purely about “i want to have a localized, German version of everything” but about broaden your understanding of how people outside of the US perceive applications on and off the web.

As many of you only seem to care about money, let me put it this way: The date example in the comment is a perfect example of how to screw me as a non American on those websites. I will spend this year some serious money for flights, hotels, and the rest in the US which I do book in great part over the net. I nearly screwed up more than one time in booking those, just due to the fact that the presentation of the date. There are many more examples where companies in the US make it hard even for the fluent English speaking, credit card owning geeks.

If it is hard for such people, how do you imagine it is for normal people?

Given the often argument in other blog articles and comments by mail that it is natural just to concentrate on your home market, I think it is not. It is very short sighted. If this articles boils down to something, then it is one of my favorite quotes: It is about being ready. And the other one: Make it easy for me to shop.

Wanna see the impact on making it easy for people to shop? Do research the numbers of Harry Potter books sold on their first selling day. Not the translated ones, but the English version. Stating their press release, Amazon reported over a million pre orders for the English version for release date. Now guess the number in this not English speaking market of Germany, where we are reluctant to speak English and people like me are seen as an alien when they tell about their English adventures.

110K copies have been preordered in Germany with Amazon. (Btw, I wanted to write 110.000 because that is how we separate thousands.)

I do absolutely understand why you say it is easier to do it in your home market, because that one is so huge. But, as we say in German: You lie yourself into your pocket – you do fool yourself.

Many products and especially the web 2.0 ones are not sold to 280 million Americans but a subset of them. I would love to interview somebody from think geek and alike on how much money they make in the home market and which out of the country.

As said in the comments: Today it may seem like a good idea to only focus on the ‘home market’ because it is easier, better, what ever. Look back 5 to 10 years and try to imagine how the future is becoming globally.

[ Thank you for reading an article done by a person sitting in Germany (probably in a different time zone) with her credit card next to her because she just started booking her hotels for the next trip to SFO and just did some research on local shops she wants to visit and spend money on (because they are too stupid / too expensive to deliver me the stuff). ]

Tag(s): , , ,


20 Responses to “How to make / get normal people to see your technology”

  1. Ebrahim says:

    All so true! Nice read.

  2. Eric the Red says:

    As a fellow EU member I have to say that the ipod is maybe not as ubiquitous as it is in the states but it is the clear leader in the mp3 market in most countries I visit. Certainly among the ‘hip’ and the influential people.

    And the Germans are historically among the worst in speaking English; maybe only outdone by the French. (in western Europe that is). Which does make the uptake of new technologies slow in your big country. Rather than asking everyone to translate their applications learn some freakin’ english. Stop translating every goddamned movie and start subtitling.

    You are dead on about the international settings though (dots and commas and what about support for special characters?) That is always an issue when you get a shiny new app from the US.

  3. ZF says:

    OK let me see. Tomorrow has only 24 hours. Shall I spend them improving what we deliver to the 300 million Americans + 100 million in ‘Anglo’ countries, who we can address from our own office and are in the market on which our most capable competitors, and our sources of capital are focused? Or shall we instead hire some new people and address 82 million Germans who have trained themselves not to pay much attention to what we might offer them? Not a hard decision, especially given that the English speaking parts of the globe are growing much more rapidly than non-British, non-Irish EU.

    The chances are very good that, if you didn’t live in Germany you would do exactly the same.

  4. Sebastian says:

    For some reason I think you are seeing it too black&white.I agree, there is a need for more products with a German language version or specifications adjusted to the German market.I don’t see this as reason for not using products like Flickr e.g.
    I’ll use what I have to until there’s a better product and for me there is no difference whether the language is adjusted. However, you are right on the money with the iTunes-Store. Why can I not download the NBA or NHL products outside the US? If you live in the US, you might as well watch it on TV – the product is interesting when you do not have this opportunity, same with West Wing as you pointed out.
    Regarding the language thing (again), I agree with Eric: Germans have to learn better English, too.

  5. Nicole Simon says:

    @Eric: Agreed, and it is surely the most visible. So visible as portable MP3-Player that I get asked quite a lot if I carry “an ipod” with me, meaning mp3 player. And while language is only one part of the equation (but a big for the french, spanish, brazilian and german speaking countries), the impact of other parts of localisation are even more important.

    Which leads to an answer to ZF: Sure, stay with yourself. And as soon as your capable competitors start going international and your sources of funding start demanding that your products at least in core are able to be internationalized you will see where you are headed.

    Give the example of mobile services: So many things are crying to be done mobile. You would not need to explain that to all those europeans who have been using mobile for a much longer time than for example on the US market. Extending a business into a global, multilingual business is not that hard – if you have done your homework.

    If you would like to stay in your niche – others will be very happy about that too.

    Sebastian, I do always see colorful things around me! ;) And of course others should learn more english. As Sigurd Rinde said at reboot: English is not a language anymore, but a commodity.

    Still – tell me if you are satisfied with the fact that if you would be to use Google Spreadsheet, you would be forced into tweaking your keypad in order to just enter number? You are fluent in always calculating the correct time when your American contacts just throw EST/PDT etc at you? You do prefer when the day of the week starts at Sunday? :)

    Seriously. If you develop products today especially in technology which not at least in their design make sure you are not locked out of going localized, I don’t think you will receive much funding in the futre. Sure, 300 Americans sound nice. But building a software which is localizable for a world audience is much more valuable.

    Btw: it is not only about the money. “going mobile” is a localization of its own.

  6. Sebastian says:

    I am not going to use Spreadsheet, but most likely not due to the keypad issue (on my laptop I don’t use the keypad). Just to be nitpicking, GCal and 30boxes let you choose on which day the week might start…
    In general we don’t disagree though.

  7. Nicole says:

    Of course we don’t ;) The fact that two Germans are talking in English about a topic like this already shows that we ourselves have found a way on how to deal with this topic.

    But calendaring is a good example. I love Gcal for the fact that I can enter my appointments for the group in my time zone and it pop ups on the other side in their time zones. That is what is meant with building with internationalizing in mind.

    Now, when do we start a petition to make TV stations offer english television? ;)

  8. Nikelman says:

    I may not be German, in fact I’m French Canadian but the same thing applies to us.

    I can understand a software company building is application only in English. But I can’t understand that with the tools we have now that they restrict themselves to 1 language and 1 country. Ok don’t translate it but give the user a chance to do it or third party. Why can’t we see software from ABC and if you want the XX language version you buy it from a company in your country that took the time to translate it. And have your software comply with the “comma”/”Dot” notation.

    As for “all of you should learn English” weaning, that typical from American. “Only 9% of Americans can speak their native language plus another language fluently, as opposed to 53% of Europeans.” (From

    And the argument of the size
    The Summer Institute for Linguistics (SIL) Ethnologue Survey (1999) lists the following as the top languages by population:(number of native speakers in parentheses)
    1. Chinese* (937,132,000)
    2. Spanish (332,000,000)
    3. English (322,000,000)
    4. Bengali (189,000,000)
    5. Hindi/Urdu (182,000,000)
    6. Arabic* (174,950,000)
    7. Portuguese (170,000,000)
    8. Russian (170,000,000)
    9. Japanese (125,000,000)
    10. German (98,000,000)
    11. French* (79,572,000)
    *The totals given for Chinese, Arabic, and French include more than one SIL variety

    So should this mean that in a few year all software should be in Chinese or Spanish?

    My answer is build it to support more that 1 language and user that want that language will see to have it (either by third party, free or open source translation).

  9. Nicole says:

    To avoid the typical next argument: 332 millions according to this are also not all wealthy, just like fromt the other countries. I consider myself fluent in two languages, while most of other German barely know English. Still: They will be able to use it in a more fluent way than most just English speakers ever will any other language. :)

  10. The main reason that most U.S. companies don’t create products usable outside the USA (and sometimes other English-speaking areas) is that most Americans are very isolated internationally. Most Canadians know a lot about the USA but few Americans seem to know even the most basic things about Canada, which is its largest trading partner (yes, American readers, we are your largest trading partner!). This includes the president of the USA, who would rather invade a country than learn anything about it. The comments already here that “you should learn English” demonstrate the reluctance to become international.

    Rather than viewing this as a problem, however, those of us outside the USA can view this as an opportunity. When Americans are reluctant to make products for a world market, they leave more room for the rest of us to do so.

    Rohan Jayasekera, Toronto, Canada

  11. martin english says:

    hah – what about dates ? I am so sick of applications (not just web sites) that insist on me entering dates as 5/31/2006 – hint; its not the seperators, its the sort sequence… and what do I make of a date like 6/5/yyyy ? is it in may or june ?

  12. Nicole says:

    Oh don’t get me started on that. Even worse – some sites actually *switch* the way they want to have the date during the process. Big chain Hotel site, first you have to enter in d/m way, and once it recognizes after the first submit that you are from Germany it switched (haha, we are clever) but if there are any questions left you need to enter, you of course don’t look at the date agein but enter the missing information.

    If you then hit submit, it will give you a date error – because you did not understand that they ‘adapted’. Depending on how you get into this with your bookmarks, you have the same fun over and over again. Which is why it is a good idea to split the date into seperate fields to enter it.

  13. Nicole says:

    I make this as a link in the comments – if you look at Tara Hunt’s calendar screenshot you may notice nothing special, but for me there is a big surprise and it is call “since when does Vloggercon happen on monday too?!”.

    Of course it is not, but in my world, the first day of the week is Monday. Of course, my google calendar starts on Monday. Small things, big impact.


  14. Hello everybody, this is a really good discussion and I think language related product and development issues are something that companies should accept wholeheartedly: at the end of the day, their business is just going to grow and grow. The difficulties should be seen as opportunities to overcome and exploit.

    If you’re interested in reading another discussion about languages and new products with some heated opinions and a very arrogant (in my opinion)response from 37 signals, check out where many similar issues are discussed. Thanks.

  15. Nicole says:

    Sorry everybody – I was mildy wondering why I did not recheive any trackbacks for this entry as there are some nice articles by others which are worth the read. DOH. If you turn of your trackbacks because of spam, it is no wonder nothing appears. :( Am in the process of fixing that, sorry

  16. epobirs says:

    On the other hand, it is multilingual techies like yourself, Nicole, who have the most influence on getting a company like Google to be more active in their localization efforts. Someone like you, equipped with both the appreciation for new tech and the ability to use those apps solely offered in English, can bring the word to native German speakers that there is something good here. Those people in turn can make their voices heard in requesting a localized version of the app.

    Now, it isn’t your job to do those companies task of determining new markets but if your blogging brings in money this is a great niche to stake out. The smarter companies will begin to see you as an opinion leader for your home market and compete for your attention.

    What more could a blogger want?

  17. So interesting to read this. My husband and I were involved in localizing software for a small startup firm over ten years ago and so many of the comments and frustrations are still the same. Now we live in Mexico and are coming up to speed on a second language (the second most spoken language in the world, according to the statistics just cited). We see on a daily basis how much of the world is being ignored or left behind? because English-speaking (mostly American) software designers/developers/marketers don’t REALLY realize the rest of the world is out there. But its just a matter of time.

    and i just want to say that the date thing is an issue here too. Is it possible that MOST of the world sees dates as dd/mm/yyyy?

  18. Nicole says:

    @epobirs In theory – yes. But that would also mean I’d have to deal with the specifics of the German market. Which for the moment in my case is about some trolls (mostly anonymous) from different sides trying to put me down, interestingly in using terms to make me look like a little girl who cannot possible think that she knows more than just a tiny little bit about tech. The German circle is *so* closed that the fear seems to be so big, it is annoying.

    That set aside: Imagine for a moment you would be explaining all the good things of soccer to the whole world of the US, starting by calling it football. You know, like everyday people and Amerika not even into the World Cup. That is called Sysiphos work. ;) ;) Do you really want to do that?

    [Of course I will. I can’t help it.]

    Working Gringa: *biggrin* yes. I think anyone outside the english ones do. Because dd/mm/yy is a logical flow, yy-mm-dd as well, but mm/dd/yy is somehow .. quirky.

    The only thing where this *does* come in handy is when you do take the date as first part of your computer file system – people here do call it “12.06.06 letter” and it is as hard to train them to 2006-06-12 as it is to train you on dd/mm/yy. ;)

  19. Working Gringa: French Canada has always used the European standards, but here in the English-speaking part of Canada, where we use many of the same practices as in the USA, many people here write MM/DD/YY while many others write DD/MM/YY. So when I see 03/04/06 I have *no idea* whether it is 3 April 2006 or March 4, 2006! I have to try to figure it out from the context (e.g. if it’s a date from the past, and it’s still March now, then it would be the second interpretation). Because of this problem, the Canadian banks have now replaced the space on cheques (“checks” in American spelling) for the date by three spaces which *must* be written in the form DD MM YYYY. So yes, even the closest group to the USA is clearly going with the order DD MM YYYY. (I myself would have preferred the international standard of YYYY-MM-DD, but this is better than nothing.)

  20. Identity Withheld says:

    I am a virtual American. Which is to say that I have a US address, bank account, social security number etc. But I am not American (I’m European) and I live in Asia. I get calls from my bank from a lady in India who thinks I’m in America. It’s all very amusing, except when I have to go the trouble of having a US IP address to complete an online transaction. I have had domain names confiscated and all kinds of grief when it’s been assumed that a person using the Internet outside the US with a US visa card must be a crook, but, I have to say the sheer PAROCHIALISM of Americans beggars belief at times. The mind numbing ignorance of what is beyond the cosy little English speaking world is truly odd given that America is the world’s greatest melting pot. I long ago LOST COUNT of the web sites I’ve encountered that want “zip codes” and phone numbers in formats that don’t work and which generate errors if valid data is entered for the country in question (I have homes in Europe and Asia). Forget language differences. Just try DATA ENTRY on the web! You’ll run into stupid Catch 22s in no time. It’s bad enough that I have in moments of frustration considered setting up a business to capitalize on this. I would PAY to have an alter ego in America who would impersonate me and forward mail (software and books mostly) at a reasonable price. An electronic concierge for a more convenient interface to the world that doesn’t know another exists outside what it sees on its dumbed-down 80-seconds-around-the-world TV. American software vendors all too often freak out if you call from overseas. They REQUIRE you to purchase from the local distributer even if you want the US version and you are not enthusiastic about paying DOUBLE. As for undertanding TIME DIFFERENCES, I learned long ago not to give out my US number at home to anybody known to have a passport with some stamps in it (I wish I were joking). Despite explaining that this number rings half a world away and there is half a day’s time difference… “It’s 4AM??” I have no doubt that there are MANY people whose business in the US is counted as domestic but which is actually international and which is facilitated by various intermediaries and which contributes to the rest of the world being off the radar. It’s a pity really. It may not be a huge volume of business but effectively asking customers to take their business elsewhere is surely not a good idea most of the time.