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. ↩︎

Here is a post to familiarize yourselves a bit with some communication concepts that you may find helpful if you are introducing a computer into the equation: How do you communicate with a machine?

Bear in mind that the article is strong when it gives you examples to ponder, such as the case of failed communication being part of communication. It is less strong in extrapolating sound theoretical concepts from the observations it makes, but perhaps that is just the linguist in me talking. I would still say that there is a communication threshold that a computer cannot cross and only approximate by faking it: The co-constructive nature of coming to an understanding. This is where disambiguation is more than weeding out competing semiotic tokens, it is the process of ascribing new meaning to them.

None the less, getting a hold on the semiotic tokens first is something you will need to do when working with content and computers, so do go ahead and check the article out. It may be really helpful in that regard. Meaning in communication and how to mimic it in artificial settings sure is one huge area to explore.

First Principle: Disambiguation

I’d like to present you with a thoroughly enjoyable article that may serve as a reminder why communication is a founding principle1 in design that goes beyond semiotic tokens. This is all the more true for user experience design, where interaction between a user and a machine has some of the very properties humans look for when they communicate with each other.

As a side note: Being a semanticist myself I find it pleasantly surprising how often Lakoff is mentioned in UX design circles, deservedly so, I should say. However, his seminal work is decades old by now and more contemporary insights from cognitive science have yet to find their way into UX design. Grice’s work is older still and if you are looking for more advanced methodical applications of his theoretic underpinnings, perhaps Relevance Theory is an avenue you may wish to pursue.

Seriously. There is lots of stuff that has evolved from what Grice introduced (beyond Relevance Theory). Lots of it is much more apt to describe and analyze communicative phenomena. Especially when it comes to interaction with computers, that just so happen to fail to qualify as a communication partner because they lack, in Grice’s terms, the capacity to act as intentional agents under the cooperative principle.

Still, read the article and make up your minds. Especially, if the concepts I threw around here are alien to you.


  1. The details of which I’ll save for some later posts. Suffice it to say that there are two systems of communication, a semiotic and a co-constructivist system. The latter is not one in which a computer may partake in communication, but it may well serve as a mediating proxy for communication with the creator of a program. ↩︎

UX Magazine: UX Design as a Two-Way Conversation

Knowledge Representation, Mental Models and Barsalou Frames

It’s a regrettable but undeniable fact of life that specialist knowledge hardly ever disseminates from one field to another. Innovation largely comes from those rare occasions when it does.

Recently I was researching some psychological concepts that are used in interaction design and I noticed how mental models are represented in flow charts1 to explain the way users understand a given interface. Some of these charts were eerily familiar, yet I could find no mention of another psychological concept that I feel would amend the theory of mental models:

Frames, in Barsalou’s sense, are recursive attribute-value structures. While frames can be used to implement individual and sortal concepts, their attributes can themselves be analysed as recursively interrelated functional concepts. Given that frames are the basic format of concept formation in cognition, attributes and frames might have neural correlates in our brain.

Frames are a natural linguistic and conceptual format for the representation of complex ontologies that embody substance-accidence and part-whole relations. Of particular interest is the relation of frames to complex representational formats such as conceptual spaces and mental models.2

There you have it. Scientists looking for the relation between

  1. their specialist knowledge of frames and
  2. mental models.

I just thought I put it out there. Perhaps you know an IxD person who would be interested in this kind of research.3


  1. The examples were mostly from papers and slides used at conferences, but a quick introduction to mental models for designers can be found in this article: UXmag ↩︎

  2. The quote is lifted from an invitation to a 2007 conference organized by a cognitive science research group at the Heinrich Heine University. About the FFF ↩︎

  3. If she doesn’t mind digging through scientific articles, this paper may give a good hint as to why the theory is relevant for design. ↩︎