– Designing systems to cross cultural boundaries.

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“There is only one problem with common sense; it’s not very common.”
– Bryce’s Law


In this day and age of “globalization” more and more Information Systems are crossing geographical boundaries. Because of this, serious consideration should be given to making systems universally applicable to any country. Some might consider this an impossible task, but it is actually easier than you might think. It just requires a little common sense and some planning.

First, it is strongly suggested you adopt standards for system development. System Design Methodologies are particularly useful, but consideration should also be given to the “look and feel” of your systems, to assure uniformity in operation no matter where you use it on the planet. We have found the “Common User Access” (CUA) standards developed by IBM excellent for screen design. Beyond this, consideration should be given to all inputs and outputs, including forms, reports, messages and Help text.

The biggest problem in making universal systems is that programmers tend to bury too many of the details of a system down in the program source code, which is not a good place to tinker around in. Instead, certain elements of the system should be placed in separate files thereby making it convenient to translate. Consideration should be given to creating separate files for:

* PRINT MAPS – An output, such as a report or printout, can be decomposed into various sections. When a program is executed, one of the parameters should be the desired language (e.g., English, Spanish, German, French, Japanese, etc.). Based on this, pertinent print maps are called from the “Print Map File” to assemble the requested output.

* SCREEN PANELS – This is similar to the “Print Map File” whereby the sections or a screen can be decomposed into its various panels. As a program is executed, pertinent panels are called from the “Panel File” to build the screen.

* MESSAGES – Messages are too often buried in source code. Instead, they should be placed in a separate file for printing or display in a screen.

* HELP TEXT – Help text should also be maintained separately for easy retrieval based on the selected language.

Separating Maps, Panels, Messages, and Help text from program source code, makes it easy to translate to foreign languages. Further, it encourages developers to share and re-use resources, thereby contributing to integrated systems and expediting development.

A serious consideration in the Far-East is the Double Byte Character Set or DBCS which is used to accommodate Japanese and Chinese Character alphabets with voluminous characters. To construct one such character, two bytes must be stored in a single byte (hence the name “DBCS”). Fortunately, the technology has evolved and DBCS is implemented in most operating systems today. However, developers should be cognizant of this requirement, particularly as they are designing Inputs, Outputs, and Files. Check with your hardware or operating system vendors for specifics. Better yet, check it out on the Internet.


During design of the Inputs and Outputs, consideration should be given to the expression of certain types of data elements; for example:

* DATES – How dates are to be expressed may vary from country to country; for example: Nov 13, 2014 – 13 Nov, 2014 – 2014-11-13. How a date is presented to an end-user is different than how it is physically stored.

* TIME – This is similar to dates; some people like to see AM/PM, others like military time, e.g., 14:30 (2:30pm)

NOTE: Regardless of how Dates and Times are to be physically presented to the user, standards should exist to express how dates are to be physically stored, such as “YYYYMMDDHHMMSS” (Year/Month/Day/Hour/Minute/Second). Failure to do so caused the horrendous Year 2000 (Y2K) problem years ago.

* TIME ZONE – Representing local time.

* CURRENCY – What form of monetary values should be expressed; Dollars, Yen, Pounds, Euro Dollars?

* MEASUREMENTS – Accommodate different units of measures for weights (pounds vs. grams), distances (miles vs. meters), and temperatures (Fahrenheit vs. Centigrade).

* TEXT – The Western world prefers viewing text horizontally from left-to-right, but as we go into the Eastern countries, they like to see text vertically, sometimes right-to-left.

Many operating systems today provide the means to capture such settings. However, it might be necessary to establish a separate “Personal Settings File” for a particular Information System.

Attention should also be given to DEFAULT settings, particularly at time of input. Further, where applicable, consider auto “UPSHIFTING” or “downshifting” text as needed. For example, most Internet addresses (such as a URL or e-mail address) should be downshifted.

The techniques mentioned above are simple and effective to implement. It is important that a translation strategy be considered as part of the system design. During design, your mantra should be “Know your audience; make it usable; and think Global.”

NOTE: This paper is excerpted from the “PRIDE” Methodologies for IRM at:

Originally published: 12/20/2004 (with additional text added)

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Copyright © 2014 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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Listen to Tim on WJTN-AM (News Talk 1240) “The Town Square” with host John Siggins (Mon, Wed, Fri, 12:30-3:00pm Eastern), and KIT-AM 1280 in Yakima, Washington “The Morning News” with hosts Dave Ettl & Lance Tormey (weekdays. 6:00-9:00am Pacific). Or tune-in to Tim’s channel on YouTube.

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