It was 2011 when I wrote the blog below on US-China design. Most companies I worked with focused on design and co-development of hardware products: computers, components, car parts, consumer products – things you can touch and feel. Design elements focused on physical parameters and attributes.
Fast-forward eight years and we see cross-border design and development moving more into the service space – communications, travel service, gaming, computing are just some examples. I am re-running the initial blog as an illustration and reminder that in the service space, too, there will be different inherent ideas and biases on basic elements of the services, which are based on hidden cultural differences.
These product nuances can be hard to perceive because they are not always physical, like a preference for a different form factor in hardware or color in cellphone is. Instead, differences show up in the form of assumptions on how the product will be used, how the people using it interact with the product and each other, and on what kind of information the users need and are working from.
If cross-border designers and developers are not aware of these (sometimes wildly) varying feelings and preferences – even amongst developers, not to mention end users – there will be misunderstanding, miscommunication, and slower progress. Upfront work to reduce variation in perception of needs between US and Chinese teams and to clarify assumptions and definitions on product frameworks will make the cooperation more productive and less fraught with frustration for all.
ENJOY THIS ADVICE FROM THE PAST
Beware the onomatopoeia!
For companies based outside China, translating qualitative design parameters in terms that make sense to engineers in China is challenging. Sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes are culturally influenced—not universal. In particular, describing a sound or taste across cultures is difficult.
Is the sound of a car door solidly slamming closer to the Chinese gedeng sound or the guang sound (“thump” and “slam”)? Is the sound of the laptop lid shutting closer to kada (“clack”) or kacha (“click”)? Is the mala taste more “hot”, “spicy” or “peppery”?
When members of product development teams literally speak different languages, there are extra considerations to being successful:
- Start with clarity on the ultimate end user of the newly designed product. This dictates whether engineers should strive to match a Chinese parameter, a US parameter, or are creating a more global hybrid. (See “Is Local Design the Key to the Throne?” about the Numi smart toilet).
- Co-locate team members. For best results physically place key design team members on both sides of the development group. For example—one Chinese team lead in the US and one American team lead in China—to bridge cultural translation gaps.
- Prepare for trade-offs between cost, timeline, and results. Differences in language and perceptions across cultures add to design and development complexity. Achieving the exact desired result may take more time due to added need for explanations and examples. Locally available materials may or may not provide the desired effect. And so on.
- Conduct cultural communication training. Provide cross-cultural training to both sides of the development team. Allow team members in all locations to have the same basis of knowledge about how the “other side” works, thinks and communicates for best results and ROI.
Blue Heron Holdings provides advisory services, executive briefings, and global leadership development for organizations competing in the US-China arena. For more about how to succeed in China, review our free articles or contact us directly.