Archive for December, 2012

I’m OK, but your interface is NOT OK!

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Remember this? It was popular in the 70′s, before websites started replacing people. But I think about it all the time (see fig. 1) as I design human-computer interactions.

Book cover - Games People Play by Eric Berne, M.B. Paperback.

Transactional analysis broke down interactions using a three-part model of the human ego. The above explanation is my own rough take on it.

Fig. 1: The diagram on the cover shows (top to bottom) the Parent, Adult and Child parts of an individual’s mind. Berne saw interactions between people as ‘transactions’ in which these parts connect in right or wrong ways to one another. When designing a ‘dialogue’ between your users and an interactive product, it’s worth considering how much of each part of them you’re appealing to. Many of the missed chances I see in my practice are due to a too one-dimensional view of the user. For example, even the most fact-oriented, task-oriented users – medical personnel looking up information on medications – can be put in a better state of mind by a small appeal to the ‘child’ in them – pictograms that show some humor, or the occasional outright playful touch (consider how attached people have become to emoticons!)

Case study: Facebook’s face, seen by three cultures

Facebook recently put a more direct, personal statement into the comment field, in the form of a question addressed directly to the user in English. So instead of ‘type your comment here’, for example, it became: ‘How’s it going, James?’

IMHO, this translates badly to the two cultures I know well enough to judge (Dutch and Russian). The virulent ranting among many of my Dutch friends would seem to confirm this. (See fig. 2).

Collage of comments made by Facebook user, showing hatred for the new 'How are you?' message in the comment field

The above comments by a Dutch user had many, many counterparts among other Dutch users.

Fig 2. Use reacts allergically to Facebook’s Dutch translation of ‘How’s it going?’ She wasn’t the only one.

Let’s visualize the P-A-C diagram differently: as a human face, before we look more closely.(Fig. 3)

Diagram of transactional analysis components Parent, Adult, Child using Eyes, Nose and Mouth of face instead of the three vertically stacked balls.

A new way of visualizing Berne's model: P = eyes, A = nose, C = mouth.

Fig. 3 TA diagram visualized as human face.

So what expression was Facebook wearing for its US users (broadly speaking)? Pretty much an everyday, cordial one (see Fig 4.)

TA diagram of Facebook's 'expression' for its US users.

Facebook's new formula sounds like a pretty nice guy to a US user.

Fig. 4 TA diagram of Facebook, through the eyes of US culture

Here’s what it looks like to my Dutch colleagues, who have an entirely different idea of the importance and place of ‘personal’ conversations (one of the things I like most about Dutch culture, by the way!)

Facebook's expression for Dutch users, expressed in a Transactional Analysis diagram. Big eyes = slightly sinister adult pressuring you; Big nose = intrusive data sniffing; Tiny mouth = unconvincing happy smile.

Facebook's expression for Dutch users, expressed in a Transactional Analysis diagram.

Seen by a Russian, it goes from bad to disastrous. (See Fig. 5) The expression in Russian (‘Chto proiskhodit’, Sergey?’) (What’s going on, Sergey? has an entirely different connotation. It’s what you would expect someone to ask who arrived at work to find large burly men moving all the furniture out of the office. Not to mention the sinister history of decades of intrusive interrogation by authorities.

Diagram showing how Facebook's new folksy language style looks to Russians - like a big, mean organization trying to pressure you into giving it information.

To Russian's, it's time to clear out!

So what’s the lesson in this?

1. Localization is not the same thing as software translation of a few sentences. Translation isn’t even the same thing as software translation. If it’s critical, use real translators who understand the culture of the readers!
2. People treat computers / interfaces like they were other people (a good place to start reading about this is the research of Clifford Nass . In my experience, the tone of voice and text style has a huge impact (not surprising considering that the tone of voice implies the assumed relationship of product to person). So pay lots of attention to copy! It can mean the difference between users continuing or not.
3. Don’t be scared to experiment, as long as you have immediate feedback. It doesn’t matter if people don’t like Facebook’s new folksy tone of voice – they’ll keep using the product, and they’ll let Facebook know immediately what they think of it, too.
4. Establish open channels for feedback from users, and check them constantly. For one client, we’ve received nearly a thousand tips, questions, suggestions, critique from users – all of which lead to direct improvements. And to 10′s of percentage points increase in unique site visits and time on page. Really.
5. Engage the ‘child’, ‘adult’ and ‘parent’ in people with your product – a tiny bit of childish fun can be a powerful motivator.

Happy new year! May your interfaces all be OK!