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Interface Hall of Shame

- Globalization -

As software producers expand their markets by introducing their products in other countries, they face a host of new interface considerations. The simplest problem is the accurate translation of their product to the target language. Other problems include sensitivity to cultural issues, such as the use of images and color.

We hope to provide a clearinghouse of these problems, and since we rarely have access to multi-lingual software (nor would we understand much of it if we did), we will rely heavily on contributions from our visitors. To submit an example, please drop us a line at, and include an image if at all possible.

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Globalization Tips

Last updated 23-November-1998

Oops, several times over

note This image was provided to us by an individual identified only by the name Phoenix, who received the message while attempting to install an Iomega Zip Drive onto a machine running the French version of Windows95 (note that the menu titles in the background window indicate a French version of Explorer). Given that the installation program was unable to determine the appropriate language to use, we are not a bit surprised that it was also unable to correctly identify the operating system. Unfortunately, there are probably many non-English-speaking individuals that will be unable to appreciate the erroneous error message.

Do as I mean...

note This image was also provided to us by the individual identified only by the name Phoenix. While many French-speaking individuals will able to abstract the correct meaning of the message, we suspect that many individuals will be feverishly searching for a floppy disk labeled 'Windows 95 CD-ROM'. Of course, the search will be fruitless, resulting in an almost guaranteed call to technical support.

Not convinced? Consider how your mother, grandmother, or boss would react to a message entitled "Insert Floppy - please insert the disk labeled "Windows 95 CD-ROM'.

Translation Difficulties

Alex Regenass wrote us to point out that Microsoft's translators made the German version of Find Applet even more difficult to use:
note I fully agree with your criticism of the find applet. But in the german version of Windows 95 Microsoft even managed to make it worse. The button "Browse" which is used to choose another starting directory is labeled "Durchsuchen" which you could translate as "search", "comb", or "scour". The button "Find now" is labelled "Starten" (obviously translated as "Start"). So guess how many people try to find a file by clicking on "Durchsuchen". It happens to me even I know about this mislabelling. Arrgh.

Never mind...

PMC for Windows 2.3 is a complex application for automating industrial maintenance management, and is available in several languages. While the application's user interface has been translated into a variety of languages, the user interface of its installation program has not. Thus, purchasers of the Spanish version of the application will see the exact warning message above, as will purchasers of the Dutch version, etc. The complex installation program is entirely written in English, regardless of the purchased version of the product.

The truly insidious aspect of this problem is that rather than investing in a multilingual installation toolkit, the company adopted the preposterous policy of telling its customers, "always choose the default option", regardless of the severity, impact, or even the content of the message. This has undoubtedly created a nightmare for the company's technical support department, and moreover, for the non-English speaking purchasers of the product.

The Americanization of the Web

Localizing an application is not simply a matter of translating the text of the interface to the target language. Thor Are Helge of Norway described a particularly problematic aspect of many "multi-cultural" applications, including this image taken from Time Magazine's web site:

note Most U.S. designed applications assume that every country in the world has the same address conventions and ask us to select U.S. states from drop down boxes, put the zip code in behind the state name etc. Using a U.S. designed form generally ensures that the mail will not be delivered. In Norway, we don't use state names in our address, and we put our zip codes in front of the address. Also the "City:" field is not correct for Norway. Because we are so few, we do not have many cities and do not need to address by city. Kolsås is one of several districts of the city where I live, but by no means a city in itself.

Thor provided a fictitious example of a typical Norwegian address:

Ola Nordmann
Brattøret 8
1352 Kolsås

According to Thor, the most frustrating forms are those that employ edit-checking, and tell the user they have "forgotten" to enter a state, or that the postal code is not properly formatted.

A more culturally flexible means of collecting address information is provided at Byte Magazine's web site:

Culture-sensitive alternative

A more usable alternative would be to simply provide a free-form text field and trust that the user has entered a valid address. This reduces any uncertainty associated with the various addresses (is 'Address 1' my home address, and 'Address 2' my work address, etc.?). While both of these approaches place the burden of organizing your data on you rather than on your users, it may be the only practical means of collecting such variable information.

Chris Herboth has put together a page describing various international address formats, appropriately entitled, International Mailing Address Formats.

Culturally-Insensitive SpellChecker

note Tim Jones of Australia provided this image and described the frustration of having to use word processors that only support spell checking in American English. While the spell checking functions of most major word processors support variants of English, such as "Proper English", many programs provide spell checking through culturally insensitive third-party add-ins that do not recognize archetypical spellings such as "Customise".

Americanization may impair sales

Visitor Peter van der Woude sent along this image from the registration form of Norton Anti-Virus 5.0. Peter, from the city of Sydney, in the state of New South Wales, in the country of Australia, filled in the form as best as it allowed. The form would not allow him to enter a state, and it disallowed his 4-digit postal code. Clicking on the Next button in the registration wizard caused a error message to be displayed: "Please enter your zip code to continue". Peter found that if he preceded his actual postal code with the letter 'Z', Norton would consider it a valid "zip" code, and thus allow him to submit his order.

Norton seems to be unaware that Austrailia does indeed have states. Norton also seems to be unaware that the phrase "zip code" may not be a familiar term outside of the United States. Norton further seems to be unaware that in some countries, postal codes may actually be less than 5 characters in length. Norton's most important failure however, is not recognizing that if you make it difficult or impossible for potential customers to purchase your software, potential customers will not purchase your software. It shouldn't come to anyone's surprise that Peter opted not to buy the software:

I would have to enter an invalid postcode in order to have software that I paid for sent to the wrong address".

If you sell software, you might want to take a moment to check your own registration methods for such foolishness.

Internationalization ProblemsAlvaro Vicario sent in a number of images from ScanExpress, an image scanning and retouching utility provided with Mustek scanners. The application is alleged to be the Spanish version of the program, but as is evident from the image, the translation encountered a number of problems.

The command button in the image also reveals a fundamental problem when translating applications across languages: some languages require much more physical space than others to convey the same meaning. What appears in the image as "ista prelimina" is a best effort to display "Vista preliminar". In many areas of ScanExpress, translations are often similarly truncated: "Tamaño de la imagen" appears as "Tamaño de l", and "Máscara de contraste" is displayed as "Máscara de contr".

A quick note to the developers of ScanExpress: "Scan" and "PreScan" are not really words in the Spanish language. Then again, neither are "Master", "User Manual", "User Guide", nor "Uninstall".

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