Is Global Software an Oxymoron?

Assessing the different needs of local markets may be taken for granted in most industries, but many software firms have taken a more convenient route toward product development. They focus on functionality that they feel will be globally applicable (“internationalization” in the parlance), and then add language-specific user-interface features for different countries (“localization”).

But customer satisfaction among software users is dependent on a number of product attributes, not just capability, reports a growing body of research. And the importance of each product attribute changes depending on the geographic market, according to “Quality Dimensions in E-Commerce Software Tools: An Empirical Analysis of North American and Japanese Markets,” a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Organizational Computing and Electronic Commerce.

The paper compares North American and Japanese users of an e-commerce development tool across five variables —capability, usability, performance, reliability and documentation — and reveals differences between the markets that suggest internationalization does not work. For example, North American customers prize usability as the most important quality attribute, while Japanese customers place a stronger emphasis on capability.

Other differences include the lack of importance of usability and documentation in Japan, a finding that surprised the authors, M.S. Krishnan, an associate professor of computer and information systems (CIS) at the University of Michigan Business School, and Ramanath Subramanyam, a doctoral candidate in that CIS department. In the United States, by contrast, users want the base features but also want software to be easier to use.

But that's not the only interpretation. It's also possible, admits Krishnan, that software developers simply have not gotten localization right in the Japanese market, so Japanese users are accustomed to poor usability. “Maybe these companies building interfaces in Japanese just aren't doing their jobs,” adds Krishnan. Still, it suggests an untapped market opportunity.

The study includes a survey and selected follow-up interviews conducted in 2000 of 323 North American and 146 Japanese customers, all experienced software users.

“Any company approaching a different market should do a similar study,” says Subramanyam, because the precise attributes driving customer satisfaction might differ by country and by software. “Applied to operating systems, there might not be differences,” says Krishnan. “But as you move closer to business applications, the diversity increases.” So he would expect greater differences to emerge with enterprise resource planning or customer-relationship management software.