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User Interface Design: An International Approach

by Cindy Swain

At the International SIG's October, 1996 meeting at Waters Corporation in Milford, MA, more than 30 attendees heard about issues involved in creating GUIs and Web pages that are easy to translate and localize, are usable, and are culturally acceptable.

Chauncey E. Wilson, human-computer interaction architect at FTP Software in Andover, MA, presented a well-prepared, amusing, and expert talk on international user interface design. Several members of the audience also contributed their multilingual and multicultural experiences, further enriching the evening.

Mr. Wilson, who has ten years experience in user interface design and 20 years experience in human factors design, emphasized the need to sensitize designers to international issues. He first reminded us of some well-known points about cultural differences and noted that any or all of might need to be taken into consideration when designing an interface.

As for the finer points of international faux pas, lots of anecdotal information exists, but in many cases there has not been much formal research. Mr. Wilson provided SIG members and guests with a very useful bibliography.

Younger users, more attuned to an international view, are likely to have far less emotional reactions to many issues than older users, he noted. A well-thought-out design and well-written content reduces the time required for good international products and saves money. As a bonus, most internationalization issues apply across all languages and usually help improve the quality of the American-language product as well. (Yes, I mean American; the U.S. and the U.K. may both claim to speak English, but much wrangling has occurred on many projects due to linguistic and cultural differences.)

Aids Clarify

For example, clarifying aids, such as hyphenation (e.g., "file-sharing-mode" flag instead of "file sharing mode" tag) and prepositional phrases (e.g., "table of cable adapter numbers" instead of "cable adapter number table"), make the translator's task easier while also making the English (or American) text easier to read.

Translated text can expand a document anywhere from 30%-250%, with an inverse relationship existing between the size of the word and the percentage of expansion (small words expand more than long words). Therefore, designers must provide for the extra room that is needed by the translated text, and content developers must avoid wording that causes translators problems. Human factors issues and expansion needs (text next to an entry field or drop-down list is easier for users to scan, but text placed above these fields facilitates expansion) may force a com-promise in some cases.

In addition, designers must strive to achieve a balance between the elimination of redundancy and the need to add words for clarity (translators are often paid per word, but lack of clarity may require the translator to provide a more detailed explanation so that the text is understandable in the foreign language).

Be Consistent

Consistency in wording (are "quit", "exit", "close", "cancel", and "end task" synonymous?) and in design (what would you anticipate to be the result if the "yes" and "no" button arrangement were changed to "no" and "yes"?) are important. Happily, attention to all these issues only improves the final product in English as well as in other languages, because all users appreciate clarity.

Images and icons (which are, after all, images) may be a particular sticky point for designers. In languages that read from right to left, a series of icons that imply a process, arranged from left to right, is nonsensical. World maps and globes should not show North America as disproportionately large; a dollar bill should not be used as a symbol for money; a hand extended palm side out means "stop" to us but is an insult in Greek; a light bulb does not signify ideas to the rest of the world (a Belgian audience, when presented with this symbol, interpreted it as "a light bulb" and "it's on").

Even smileys ("emoticons") are not international; the Japanese have developed their own version of icons that express emotions more common to their culture and have the advantage of presenting the face right side up rather than on its side.

Mr. Wilson provided us with a wealth of material, examples, and ideas and had more material than the we had time for. Our thanks to him for providing us with an entertaining, as well as enlightening, evening. One final thought: As users, designers, International SIG members, STC members, and international citizens, we should remember and use as often as possible the ultimate symbol -- a smile.

Cindy Swain has been in traditional publishing for ten years and is currently job hunting.


This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 1997 issue of the Boston Broadside


© 1997 by STC Boston Chapter of STC, Boston, Massachusetts, USA