Home > Developers, Menues, User Testing > All look same, eh?

All look same, eh?

I must have been an elephant in another life, given how much time I seem to spend these days shaking my head over “avoidable stupidity”. Or maybe I’m just becoming a grumpy old man. That might be it – I’m losing the ability of youth to look at a slice of cold pizza and go “yummmm”. These days, I look at it and think “The cheese is hard, the cat sniffed it, I can’t even remember when I ordered it” and chuck it out. Ah but I digress.

This week’s headshaker is the way we seem to be loosing control to the developers, control over things that should not be in the remit of developers. Things like letting some algorithm “identify” the language of web content and adjusting my search results based on that. Who dreamt that up? No idea but I bet he was white, monolingual and only had the faintest notion that apart from English, there’s that thing the people making tacos speak and then maybe the thing the Chinese takeaway people use. Choice of three – easy, if L does not equal English, check for non-Latin. If it’s non-Latin in must be Chinese, if it is, it’s Spanish. At least that’s the way it comes across.

The problem is, dear developer, that there’s a great many languages out there and there’s quite a few which are fairly close to each other. Like Irish and Scottish Gaelic for example. So if you’re decide to automatically identify content by language and modify my search results based on that, then bloody well make sure you get it right! Anything else is just seriously annoying unless you give me the option of manually tweaking it.

Given that it’s not like it’s impossible to teach a computer to figure out the difference (for one, Irish uses acutes, Gaelic graves… the one goes up, the other one down, see?) it also raises the question of exactly whom they’re getting to program this stuff? High school students?

Probably not actually, I suspect they’re all really good at code. But listening to my other half, a business consultant with his very own set of why-oh-why’s, I suspect the problem actually is NOT the ability to do code. It’s lack of guidance at all levels. The way big companies hire folk these days goes something like this:

  1. Company A identifies an apparent problem. Without making sure they identify the root cause, they call for a Fixer-of-Problem-A. First mistake. You’re granny breaking her ankle may be the apparent problem but without checking, you don’t know if the problem is actually osteoporosis.
  2. So, having rightly or wrongly identified the problem, these days, a job spec gets sent to an agency. Second mistake. They usually get the wrong person to write the job spec, which means the agency is already at the receiving end of a potential mis-diagnosis and a badly written job spec. I’ve seen some of these… the really bad ones are the equivalent of needing a plumber and calling for someone with a proven track record in “the physical aspects of interior decoration as relates to waste disposal”. Yes. THAT bad.
  3. So we move onto mistake four. The agency usually adds its own flavour of inane, if not misleading, waffle. Using the plumber again, they add something about needing an end-to-end CV showing more than 20 years of experience in toilet seat lifting in blue-chip companies.
  4. Because it’s an IT related job everyone on this daisy chain assumes that the fixer and/or overseer of the fixing have to be IT people. Wrong. Fifth mistake. Of course you need IT folk to do the black magic but the overseer of the circus does not have to be one. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that they shouldn’t be one. Developers, when left to their own devices, tend to lose themselves in coding “fun” stuff. A failing I guess we all suffer from in our respective domains but for some reason, we let developers get away with policing themselves. In other words, a herd of sheep needs a sheepdog and a shepherd for guidance and direction, not another sheep. The sheepdog and shepherd should have a track record of having dealt with sheep but they don’t have to be sheep themselves.

I reckon it’s this nauseating daisy-chain of mistakes which blesses us with nonsense like the above. We need the coder to do the fancy stuff which, for example, helps identify the content of web pages. Jolly good, I can see the use of that if well done. But it should not be left to the developers to decide that is what’s needed right now, what it will do, how it gets tested, how it gets implemented and how to make sure the user has the necessary control over it if they need it. For that, we need a shepherd who’s not a sheep. If we manage that, I suspect we’d see fewer Siris, fewer counter-intuitive user interfaces, better language in the interfaces and a way of stopping Google from asking me every two seconds if I want to translate this damn page. No, I’m multilingual, and besides, running Irish machine translation over Gaelic won’t work anyway, dammit!

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  1. Thrissel
    15/09/2012 at 10:32 am

    They can be annoying even when they get the language “right” by insisting on it. I switched from Firefox to Opera when they began automatically switching me from English to the local language interface/service (usually when Google was involved as well). Now I knew that language and I suppose it was meant to be “smart”, but what’s smart about not having a choice?

    • 16/09/2012 at 11:44 am

      Very true. There’s this silly assumption that we *want* everything to be automated. Mind, that goes way beyond software. I’m not sure I want to live in a world where computers make all the decisions by default. It’s all getting a bit Terminator-esque.

  2. 03/02/2013 at 8:06 pm

    “Of course you need IT folk to do the black magic but the overseer of the circus does not have to be one. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that they shouldn’t be one.”

    Could. Not. Agree. More.

    I.T. is supposed to be about the INFORMATION, not the TECHNOLOGY, excuse the capitals, but, yes, I would shout that.

  3. 04/02/2013 at 1:39 pm

    In my experience, most language technology artefacts (spellcheckers, machine translation, localized software, keyboard layouts) tend to be directed at users who are only prepared to consume and produce content in *one* language. If you are functionally multilingual, if you are able and willing to read and write in more than one language, then the user experience tends to be quite frustrating.

    • 04/02/2013 at 2:00 pm

      Even multilingual developers aren’t always aware or even willing to consider these issues. You wouldn’t believe some of the debates I’m having with the developers of Opera Mini/Mobile regarding force-locale issues – and they’re all up in Norway and at least fluent in Norwegian plus one other language… the operative comment being “once you’re a desktop language these problems will go away” …

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