UX and Localization

It is more by happenstance than by design, but I came across lack of localization as a user experience issue on several occasions recently.1

I don’t think that it is by chance that most of the issues revolved around a lack of empathy for non-angloamerican users. Many of the biggest web services and tools still stem from the US. Being from the US entails that you experience the hegemonic bias2 privilege of being blissfully unaware of your lack of empathy for needs and expectations of non-angloamerican users 3. I do wonder if UX design teams in US based companies really pay enough attention to intercultural communication issues.

Case in point: Several times in the last weeks did a web form refuse to accommodate my non-US data, and in turn I was forced to BS the system go gain access. Surely that’s not the kind of user experience you want your customers from abroad to have?

Moreover, software that is meant to be deployed to a world wide audience often lacks localization features that are critical for the tool to work in other cultural contexts. Mail automatization was but one example where I cursed the Intertubes. Surely the T/V distinction is relevant to a large enough part of your users world wide, what with the European languages (and their colonial offspring) all featuring it? Well, almost all. English being the one sizable exception. How many Spanish, Portuguese and French speakers are you willing to exclude from your service?

There is more to honorifics in other languages, where implementation may be more complicated than introducing a toggle switch. I should know, because the intricacies of Japanese were part of my personal struggles. And yet, would it not be worthwhile to spend resources to overcome the limitations of your tool once you are expanding your target audience?

Apple for example still does not provide me with an easy toggle in my address book to mark if I am on first name terms or still on last name terms with a business contact of mine. That is critical information in many cultural contexts, and it’s not like Apple is struggling to make ends meet. Then again they are notorious for screwing over their non-US customers anyway. USD prices converted into other currencies, like EUR, without doing any actual conversion except for changing the currency sigh are not unheard of.

But most companies cannot rely on zealous customers to overcome their apathy towards foreign users. There is a reason so many well designed tools fail to get any traction outside of the US. It’s because they are not designed for us. So stop wondering, why your marketing does not work for you and start investing in localization expertise for your UX design team. Localization is about much more than translating your interface.

  1. Seeing that I intend to share my experience with you more frequently than in the past year, it is probably a good idea to quit putting things on my radar into an ever overflowing task box: Rather than waiting to post until I can show off my solution (that I may never get around to create) I should think that perhaps smarter minds than I may find it worthwhile to be made aware of those issues. 

  2. $%&, 1504 Google hits. I thought I was more of a sociology hipster. Anyway, more chance for you to read up on your Gramsci about hegemony. It’s not a leftist-liberal conspiracy, it’s about understanding how experiences frame your perception of the world. 

  3. Shall we call them “core removed users”? Peripheral users would be my preferred term here, but unfortunately it is being used with a slightly different meaning in UX design already. I mean users from the periphery (as opposed to core) in the sociological sense. Yes, I want to make sociology a thing in UX circles. There are some pretty well thought out articles out there that deal with the sorts of phenomena where design is still struggling to find a name for. 

You can take any language. Take English for example…

This sentence sums up so much of what is wrong in social and cognitive sciences or even life in general, it has become a standard joke among non-native English speaking linguists.

5 Things Binge Drinking With a One Legged Stripper Taught Me About Marketing

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

He was a great sport, though. He taught me lot about partying beyond the point of passing out. Perhaps I even learned something about not relying on first impressions. Alas, I remember nothing about that night. Binge drinking does that to you I hear. Not that I ever drink. Was there even a one legged stripper?

You could already have known that there was nothing to be learned from the experience just by reading the title. It is a variation of one of those self-help internet tropes that piss me off. Everyone is a marketer these days. People are “optimizing” their titles to entice readers to click on them. But blindly following advice that is littered across get-readers-fast-blogs is bound to hasten the rise of the army of mindless thought leaders.

Taking a page from the book of life and adding a human touch to your teachings is probably a good idea to connect to your audience. True epiphany is greater still, yet hard to come by. Reversing the process and putting a generic backstory to your preconceived ideas just to follow a common it-works-to-attract-readers marketing scheme will eventually turn life lessons into a meme that ridicules genuine revelation.

Seriously, stop it. Already I am starting to avoid titles like that. All too often they feel like a scam. I don’t know how many of my readers have been disappointed by similar unsubstantiated claims of what-life-taught-me-about-living to the point of shying away from them, but I do know enough about communication to tell you that feeding your readers generic material is not a sustainable strategy. While we’re at it, unless you want to become a final boss in the army of brain dead thought leaders don’t create lists just for the sake of it either. Once a scheme gets too common it no longer works. Even if I follow one of these “optimized” titular links, just to satisfy my curiosity, I am already eager to dismiss your ideas. Are these really the clicks you are looking for?

Who would have thought a one legged stripper would be a marketing sage. If only I could remember…

The Filter Bubble In Your Head

Technodeterminism is one of the cardinal sins of communicators. When you are overwhelmed by complexity you might feel drawn to a one stop shop promising all the answers like "the Internet makes us stupid" or "the Internet will bring democracy for all." Don’t give in. You will be blinded to the functional and sociological aspects of communication if you do.

The rules by which the interaction of man and machine is governed are never determined by machines. Ultimately humans are the agents to the tools they create. This is not to say that people are naturally good at working with technology. Most of us suck at using the tools at our disposal. But is that really the fault of our tools?

It is complexity that looks to rob us of our agentivity, not technology. The intricate rules and conventions of media use are being worked out by an amorphous mass that makes us feel like we are mere subjects to the process. Which we are. But we are the driving force behind it as well, each and every one of us. The choices we make as a collective determine the course of our social and technological evolution.

The concept of the filter bubble is a great example of our struggle with complexity. Eli Pariser happens upon a valid observation and creates well deserved awareness about it: The very dystopian experience of finding computer algorithms selectively hiding information from you when you look for it. Based on past browsing and search behavior these algorithms by Google and its ilk decide what kind of information you are more likely to like and filter out results that are in conflict with your profile. This is eerily close to what Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson were warning against with their video EPIC 2014.

But the filtering of information is actually an attempt to make the results of your search more relevant to you. The algorithms are taking a cue from nature here. One of the most promising solutions to target complexity is using filters. It’s what your brain is doing all the time and unless the task happens to be spotting gorillas among basketball players your brain usually does a great job at getting you through life safe and sound.

However, since a medium creates another layer of filtering information the crucial task is to carefully select filters that maintain a representative or predictive power. The model of the world you create with them needs to provide enough of an approximation to the complex reality of an unfiltered world for you to make sound decisions. Put it differently: You need to select filters that help you understand the world rather than obfuscate it. The relevance algorithms fail in that account.

Eli, in turn, fails to appreciate the problem that these filters try to address in his reductionist tagline "What the Internet Is Hiding From You." The Internet is not hiding anything, I am inclined to shout in frustration. You are just too lazy to use it. It is your selection of tools and your application of these tools to your purported goal that is hiding stuff from you. Heck, the concept of evoked set has had marketing people manipulate your choices for decades and you don’t even know you are turning a blind eye to this when you resort to technological determinism.

The problem with media and filters is that humans generally have a hard time using them. One of the hardest things to do, for example, is acknowledge that your filter is failing you and let it go. Just look at macroeconomics. The field is full of experts who cling to models that have proven unsuccessful time and time again in their predictions of consumer behavior and world finance.

And yet when you have invested lots of time and effort to acquire a sophisticated skill set (which is in its essence a bundle of filtering algorithms) it is very natural to be reluctant to admit that your tools are useless. Instead of moving on people tend to double down and try even more of the same. Which is why monkeys throwing darts often fare better at predicting the future than experts who rely on institutionalized knowledge.

It’s not technology that deprives you of alternative views, it’s you. First off, it is your brain that denies you unfiltered access. All sorts of biases are constantly seeing to it that you can continue your precious self involved little illusion that your actions and motives are just and those of your fellow humans coherent, if at times unreasonable.

Psychology aside the greatest hurdle to you gaining access to unfiltered information is that none of us are growing up to understand media, even though our communication relies on it. We use media all the time. We use them even before we are born and yet we know almost nothing about them apart from the conventions that we associate with them. Yes, I am probably using the term medium differently than you are used to.

Everything that lets you share information about the world is a medium. Your index finger is probably the first medium you actively used. Point. Look. Very basic conventions and easy to grasp. Speech is one of the most powerful media available to you. So much potential to share information, so much nuance.

But even the mere pointing at things is but a convention that has been established to make use of the functional constraints of extending your index finger: Your ability to discern objects from another. Your inference of selecting one object by tracing the visual cue in a shared field of vision. Your attribution of intentionality to the act of pointing. You are constantly using many more such properties that are necessary to communicate without ever thinking about them or knowing they exist. How likely is it that you have explored a medium like the internet to its fullest potential?

Some basic knowledge about how media work and how to use them would go a long way to help people get access to relevant information. As it is, the filter bubble in your head is the greatest obstacle. Not the internet.

An Echo Chamber Full of Kool-Aid

I’ve been meaning to write about different aspects of communication to provide somewhat of a common ground for my readers when I discuss specific constraints or theories. Turns out I need to vent a bit before I can address this in a cool headed manner. You might have experienced a similar feeling of frustration as I did when a link in my twitter timeline promised me a deeper understanding of how to connect with people. Or rather three secrets to it. Boy, oh boy do I hate “social media” sometimes. And time and time again I fall for the ruse.

One thing that really irks me about communication is that it gets usurped by a group of people who have an extremely narrow perspective of it. Marketing people. I gladly grant them that they excel at their area of expertise. In fact, their proficiency in convincing people is at the root of the problem, they themselves being the first victim of their own devices. They have managed to make a brand out of the field of communication. Their brand.

Enter the age of social media. Experts suddenly abound. Ever growing networks of social media gurus harness the power of computation to measure impact scores of people and messages. Yet all the metrics about scores, the talk about influencers and the blatantly tautological ex-post rationalisations about impact serve no advancement of understanding communication. It is a cargo cult of success stories where the only metric for success is distribution.

The phenomenon of massive number crunching standing in the way of searching for profound answers is not a feature confined to the social media scene. In fact, the excellent Vaughan Bell has recently unearthed a few articles that point to the same problem in psychology, where human behavior can now be described and even predicted to some extent by advanced statistical models. But explanation of human behavior in a data driven research framework is absent. For all the sophistication of our models they tell us nothing about why they even work.

Putting an instrument like this in the hands of marketers however has helped them create an echo chamber that is virtually watertight. Ever longing for faster results marketers in social media have all but shunned the search of why. Experts are passing out the Kool-Aid to their peers in networks that turn into a giant meme machine of self perpetuation. Social media marketers tell social media marketers how to be more successful as social media marketers. Only that they believe to be experts on communication rather than experts on how to game the pyramid scheme of social media marketing they all have fallen victim to.

The understanding of communication as “selling” ideas or messages is a reductionist view at best. At worst it has created a positive feedback loop that reinforces this reductionist perspective and drowns out alternative views. To put it bluntly: In spite of all the claims that you need to “write good shit” content matters not in the incessant stream of “how-to-get-followers” schemes. Not to the number crunching, not to the impact scores, not to success. Content is a McGuffin in the social media scene. Three Secrets to Writing Lists just for the Sake of Having a List of Three In Your Headlines.

The problem is that this echo chamber full of cool aid is very successful at posing as the place where you learn about how to communicate effectively. Sure enough, it is a place where professionals do what they do best in a competitive environment. Marketing themselves.

But if you want to understand how communication works, if the why is of interest to you so you can hypothesise, create theories, innovate and come up with new angles you better look for inspiration elsewhere from time to time. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

Communication breakdown

In communication intent matters not. Only what is perceived is communicated. Yes, when the sender of a message picks up the signal that the recipient understood something the sender did not mean to say, there are ways to remedy the misunderstanding. But the more layers of media are entered into the mix, the harder it becomes to fix a communication problem.

I recently had an abysmal experience, when I tried to follow a webinar through a service called GoToWebinar. There was an invite posted in my twitter feed to attend a lecture about communicating (I am not kidding) featuring the ever so awesome Nancy Duarte and I was all fired up. I registered with the service on the page that the invite link lead to and received a confirmation email shortly after, telling me to do two things.

1. Click on a link that would allow me to join the webinar at the scheduled time.

2. Dial a phone number to join the conference call.

While this might seem unsuspicious enough to people who are used to conference calling, this already was a red flag for me. There is hardly a reputable service in Europe where you need to dial in to complete a registry process. In fact, the EU had to introduce some legislation to combat the droves of scam artists that lured consumers into dialing numbers at outrageous rates. So while I did not doubt the legitimacy of the service, because it was recommended by peers, I was hesitant to call a number I did not know the going rate, nor was there any indication how to even reach it correctly from outside the US. I could only guess it was a US number, because I knew the company was US based, by the way. No country code or any guide for foreigners was provided.

There’s always the trusty computer speakers I thought. No need for me to chime in, listening alone would be cool enough. But upon a Java applet starting up opening the webinar dialogue and the screen for the visuals there was no sound on my side. Browsing through the help section of their homepage it stated on several places that attendees should enable either voice over IP in the dialoge box or call in using the provided number and access code. There was the phone number I wished to avoid calling displayed on my dialogue box, but in spite of what the knowledge base said there was no check box to enable the computer speakers.

I decided to type a question in the dialogue box, even though it did not specify whether those questions would be directed at the person giving the webinar or some staff monitoring the chat box. I still do not know, because I never received an answer. Time was ticking away, Nancy browsing through her slides, but without sound there was no point following the webinar, so I decided to contact tech support to see if they could help me. Even help me to connect to the conference call, I just wanted to hear Nancy speak.

This is where things turned ugly. I meant to be as helpful as I could, after all they might learn something from my inability to connect and improve their service. For all the chance of me being stupid and overlooking the obvious they still might learn how to deal with idiots like me and make their experience smoother. Bear in mind that there is hardly a thing that can alienate a person as quickly as sabotaging their attempts to help you. Which is exactly what the company’s knowledge base did.

While I tried to write a post that was as specific as possible for them to understand my problem as a Europe based newb not knowing how to get audio access to a webinar, I opened the knowledge base in a second tab, to query for international calling and related information - to no avail, by the way, even though they have international help desks with phone numbers for non US-callers, there is no mention of how to connect to a conference call from outside the US. Unbeknownst to me, triggering the search query in one tab activated the search in the original tab as well, deleting my carefully written help request. Not cool.

I was too impatient to write the whole thing again, so I merely asked for help the second time around, mentioning that the design of their help section was less than helpful. I got no reply (to this day) and after looking for information on their homepage in vain and fiddling around with the settings of the Java applet to no avail I finally quit. A dialogue popped up to ask me if I would consider paying for their service and if I had any comments on the experience. Again no mention was made whether this feedback was directed at the person giving the webinar or the staff of the service. So I tried to be helpful one last time.

And got cut short. The form did not tell me there was a character limit, but there was. I was so fed up with the whole broken user experience that I wrote a snide comment and tweeted about this. I even looked up their handle in twitter - I could not find it at first glance on their homepage - and included them. Within two minutes I got a reply, asking me to write a mail describing my experience to their staff.

Picture a satellite moving in orbit, slowly gathering energy, aligning with some place in the americas and carefully shooting a gigaton of radiation in the foot of some poor chap named Glenn.

If you ever read this, Glenn, I’m sorry. You were just the person who got the wrong end of the stick when communication broke down. I am sure that all the people at citrix are great chaps, in fact I trust that my peers have good reason to turn to your service, but my subjective experience only spiralled downwards ever since your first message clearly was not directed at me. I am not American and don’t know how service numbers work there. I never used conference call. Don’t assume I know what you need me to do. Explain it to me and make it simple.

I trust that in this post you might find several issues you can adress to avoid communication breakdown, regardless of where you work. The success of communication is decided in the mind of the recipient. Make sure you establish some common knowledge instead of assuming it is already there. Oh, and if you need people to call a landline for free from outside of the US, there might be a way using Google voice.