But Think Of The (World Wide) Users!

Laptop keyboard with strange characters on the keys

History is full of stories about technology that makes sense to the designer but doesn’t really fit the needs of the users. Take cake mixes. In 1929, a man named Duff realized that he could capitalize on surplus flour and molasses and created a cake mix. You simply added water to the dry mix and baked it to create a delicious cake. After World War II General Mills and Pillsbury also wanted to sell more flour so they started making cakes. But sales leveled out. A psychologist who was a pioneer in focus groups named Dichter had the answer: bakers didn’t feel like they were contributing to the creation of the cake. To get more emotional investment, the cake mixes would need to have real eggs added in. Actually, Duff had noticed the same thing in his 1933 patent.

It is easy to imagine a bunch of food… scientists? Engineers? Designers?… whatever a person inventing flour mixes in the 1930s was called… sitting around thinking that making a mix that only requires water is a great thing. But the bakers didn’t like it. How often do we fail to account for users?

From Cake Mix to Tech

Apple has made a business of this. Most of us don’t mind things like arcane commands and control key combinations, but the wider pool of global computer users don’t like those things. As the world continues to virtually shrink, we often find our users are people from different lands and cultures who speak different languages. It is, after all, the world wide web. This requires us to think even harder about our users and their particular likes, dislikes, and customs.

Even different regions can have different customs and language issues. For example, Braniff Airline’s slogan “fly in leather” was translated into Spanish correctly, but in Mexico, slang usage made it “fly naked.” A Swedish vacuum maker abandoned the English slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” in the United States for similar reasons.

Facebook and Cambodia

Khmer keyboard (CC-BY-SA 4.0 by 飯江誰出茂)

The recent leaks from Facebook had a technically interesting quirk to them. According to news reports, Facebook memos showed that company executives were surprised that about half of the voice traffic on Facebook’s Messenger product came from Cambodia. There was speculation that maybe the country had a high illiteracy rate. According to UNESCO, the adult literacy rate is over 80% and rising. Among younger people, it is well over 90%. You may think that’s bad, but it is roughly the same rate as the United States. In fact, Cambodia is slightly higher since the US has about 21% adult illiteracy. Although, in all fairness, UNESCO does mention that different countries define literacy in different ways, it seems unlikely that Cambodia has enough illiterate phone and computer users to account for half of Facebook’s voice traffic.

What was the problem? The Khmer language has more characters than any other world language making computer keyboards notoriously annoying. There are 74 characters, so most keys have two different functions and most phones do not have Khmer-enabled keyboards installed by default. Some users don’t even know they could type Khmer on a phone keyboard. Reportedly, young people transliterate Khmer into Latin characters or omit characters, relying on the recipient to fill in the blanks. There’s a good article about this on the website Rest Of World.

But Do We Care?

There was a time when the chances of your work winding up halfway around the globe were immeasurably slim. Sure, if you happened to work for a giant multinational company it might happen, but otherwise your designs were unlikely to be international travelers. Today even the smallest companies can export worldwide.

You might think that you don’t do anything commercial so you really don’t care. But if you post your work on Hackaday.io, GitHub, YouTube, or anywhere on the Internet, you are exporting in ways that would have made the biggest global companies in the world jealous just a few decades ago. That 20 line script to control your mood lighting based on the current song playing might get picked up in China, Australia, France, and Ethiopia. Who knows?

This sort of problem isn’t limited to Cambodia, either. Many Asian languages are troublesome for keyboards and Kanji — the pictographic language — is especially hard since it can combine several thousand elements. Look at this picture of a Chinese typewriter, if you don’t believe me.

A Double Pigeon typewriter. (CC-BY-SA 3.0 by [Dadiolli])
So I think the answer is yes, we do care. Of course, you can’t be an expert on every language and every culture, but it is always good advice to put yourself in the place of the user and try to understand what they would like, not what we think is the right answer. As the world shrinks, that gets harder to do, but if you want your projects to spread, it is work worth doing.

47 thoughts on “But Think Of The (World Wide) Users!

  1. “It is always good advice to put yourself in the place of the user and try to understand what they would like, not what we think is the right answer.”

    Or just make it perfect for yourself. Thanks to internet, you can reach dozens of people with the exact same need, even if it is very niche.

      1. Truth.

        How many people posting to hackaday.io and alike even speak more than 1 language? How many have been to Ethiopia? How many know what sort of components are available in Cambodia?

        How in the heck am I supposed to “put yourself in the place of the user” of places like that? Sounds very White Knight Syndrome to me.

    1. I think even servicing a niche is still understanding the needs of that niche. So if you were an artist and you discovered that you and a few people really enjoy photographs of people smashing cellos then you found your niche and you understand what they want. But most people want to maximize the reach of their art so they would probably prefer to figure out something they like that has broader appeal. But either way you’re finding the people you want to understand and understanding them.

      I just got finished using an application for example where there was a table of data only three columns of which I care about the first two columns are on the left and the third column is way on the right hand side and in between is a bunch of stuff that only the accountants care about. If anybody bothered to see how people really use the application they would give you a view with those three columns altogether and maybe even hide the rest of them. Doesn’t mean you’re trying to please everyone just means you’re trying to please the people who actually have to use what you’re producing.

      1. Now that everything is web based the person who decides these things is the boss in administration and he wants something flashy on his 8 core desktop with a 30″ screen, god help those who don’t have such tech especially phone users.

        I have seen the absolute worst web apps and websites from leading companies in the last 5 to 7 years.

      2. Smashing cellos with a sledgehammer might be considered “art” by some,
        but smashing violas is justifiable to others in the orchestra!

        (For those who are confused by what I wrote, do a websearch for “viola jokes”)

    2. In New Hampshire you are throwing away three quarters of your business if you don’t make allowance for the French speaking tourists from Canada. Your business and your livelihood depend on foreigners who don’t speak your language.

    1. The Fiero is not a ‘flammable car’. Many cars have issues in their first year of production (don’t buy a brand new model), and the Fiero was no different.

      This post sponsored by the Fiero Gang

  2. It leaves me wondering how many people would like to have a redesigned numeric keypad on computer keyboards.
    What? Offset the zero so it is under the thumb like is found on a good desktop calculator.

      1. “But in CS/math/cryptography etc, it’s a number used once”

        You could be pulling my leg, but I’ll go with what you wrote.
        Nan = not a number

  3. I used to love customizing mechanical keyboards back when I only spoke English. But being bilingual now it’s getting to the point where I find myself preferring to use a phone over a traditional keyboard for non-coding tasks because non-Latin languages are so difficult to touch type with Latin keyboards.

    Chinese users know this pain all too well, that’s why they like bigger screens.

    1. A former job had me packing keyboards with computers to ship to various countries (mainly EU).
      I was amazed by the various characters and layouts used.
      I secretly wished a few had been defective, just so I could take them home, but none were.

  4. It is a little ironic that, in an article about considering end users, you used the term “kanji” to describe Chinese keyboards. Kanji is Japanese. The Chinese characters are Hanzi (Honzi in Cantonese).

      1. The quote from the article is “and Kanji — the pictographic language — is especially hard since it can combine several thousand elements. Look at this picture of a Chinese typewriter, if you don’t believe me.”

        Not “a pictographic language”, but “the pictographic language”. Without the modifier “Japanese”, the implication is that all of these pictographic character sets are called “Kanji”, especially since the very next sentence jumps to “Look at this Chinese typewriter”, not “Look at this Chinese hanzi typewriter”. If you are going to use the characters to reference a Chinese implementation of them, use the Chinese name.

        I recognize that it is a small quibble, and I wouldn’t normally nit-pick such a thing, but the whole message of the article to be in touch with your potential user base and understand the potential limitations one’s designs impose upon them.

        Also, kanji may be Chinese in origin, but no one in China would ever refer to their characters as “kanji” and they would be justifiably insulted if one insisted on calling them kanji. The same would go for the Japanese and the use of the terms “hanzi” or “honza”.

    1. The author doesn’t actually say that Kanji is Chinese though. “Many Asian languages … Kanji. …look at this Chinese typewriter.”

      Kanji is Asian, and that typewriter is (I assume the author is correct) Chinese. Putting them near each other doesn’t equate them to one another.

  5. When reading anecdotes about advertising and psychology, one has to remember that marketing people are victims of their own success: they’re most capable in convincing themselves that their methods actually work for the reason they claim.

    Powdered egg tastes nasty.

      1. Personally, after I found out how good cakes are when you pour in melted baker’s chocolate and use real butter, I’ve only used mixes in extreme emergencies. But I can only imagine that a just-add-water cake mix is going to end up tasting like somebody tried pouring pancake mix into a cake pan.

        1. As the article points out, the ready-mix cakes took off in the 50’s not because of Dichter and the eggs, but because they drummed up a fad about decorating the cakes in all sorts of ways, which also masked the rather dull flavor of the flour mix which was now being used as a base rather than the main article.

          Before the war, the selling point of the flour mix was that it would keep well and not require a housewife to obtain and keep a lot of easy to spoil ingredients on the ready – in other words, it was cheaper. Using real eggs solved the problem of terrible taste and people bought it just fine – but then after the war the economy went up and people didn’t need cheap cake-mix as much. The innovation was promoting the cake mix in women’s magazines by pushing all sorts of fancy recipes with icing and fillings that were laborious in themselves AND prescribed the cake mix to speed up the process.

  6. For some reason this article (particularly the cake mix part) makes me think of Programmers that consider themselves (slash ‘become’) Developers…

    Too often I (and I assume we) have encountered projects where the programmers are too focused on what they want it to do rather than what people are actually using it for.

    For instance- projects that have support forums devoid of ‘developer’ interaction or require you to use /their/ chat platform of choice. …a *true* Developer doesn’t hide themselves away in little self-constructed bubbles safe from the criticism of their choices.

    And yes. I am speaking as an ex-Dev… Developers are supposed to be the ones maintaining the *project* as a whole and not just the function of the code. Programmers write programs. Developers develop projects.

    1. Yes, except the cake mix part is a myth and doesn’t support the assertion.

      The original reason for the cake mix was that it was cheaper although worse in the pre-war economy, and the sales slumped because after the war the economy went up and people didn’t want ersatz food anymore. Fooling around with adding eggs or not adding eggs had little to do with he outcome. The story was just made up by marketing people to market themselves – the actual product served its users just fine.

    2. You have to remember that as much as people like to quote early 20th century psychology experiments, it’s just these studies which have the worst replication rates in the social sciences – a lot of them are simply and utterly myth and bunk.

      Kinda like the point that game theory was a big thing back in the day, but when tested on actual people it turned out that only economists who had read game theory behaved accordingly.

  7. Ifs hard enough dealing with ‘spell checkers’ that insist on trying to turn everything into american ‘English’ let alone dealing with software that insists on using a different character set……

    1. A pet peeve of mine, being a native German speaker i use the word “mal” as in “kannst du mal bitte”, “could you just please”, and Androids GBoard insists on uppercasing the m so i have to constantly correct “Mal” back to “mal”. Makes me want to tar and feather the responsible person. >.<

  8. The Chinese would have indeed regretted leaving behind thousands of years of heritage in the form of written texts for the sake of conforming to the limitations of the western QWERTY keyboard. The role of the graphics based screens that makes the Chinese process workable is greatly underestimated here also. Well done Chairman Mao! We should all take pride in the diversity of our cultures, not homogenise it just for the sake of a Facebook comment.

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