Saturday, December 18, 2004


No simple recipe for internationalization

Been scanning a new volume edited by Nuray Aykin called Usability and the Internationalization of Information Technology. Like most people involved in human centered design, I am fascinated with international differences, both for practical reasons of needing to think how applications travel, and out of a more personal interest in global cultures (my first degree was in Asian studies.)

Aykin's book is the first substantive book on usability and internationalization in some while. Tony Fernandes wrote Global Interface Design a decade ago, when he worked at the now defunct Claris Corporation. Aykin's volume is more detailed, but really doesn't cover any more ground. It's another very general survey written by largely US-based authors for a largely US-based audience saying things that are a bit obvious to people who have worked in the field (e.g., date formats differ). The only really interesting material in either book is when the authors write about experiences with specific countries (Ferandes covers Japan a bit; the Aykin volume touches on China.)

What is needed is more case studies of usability for specific countries. Warning people that one's home conventions don't travel isn't sufficient guidance to how to design right for different markets. There is no formula to make software "global." It needs to be adapted and localized by teams in each market. General but detailed guidance on the needs of each market won't be enough to make it usable, but could help make the designs flexible enough to be adaptable.

Earlier this year I chatted with a usability specialist at BBC World News, which translates into dozens of languages. My mind raced with questions about such things as what button conventions one can use when text didn't read from left to right. The answer I left with was that there are no conventions yet for many things. People are getting exposed to a mix of Euro-American centric and localized designs, and one is never sure how a user group will react. It may depend not just on the nationality, but the education and travel experiences of the users.

Give me more case studies.

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