Exclusion by generalization

How often do designers struggle when presented with a new user interface? It may take us a few moments to read it, but because our cognitive muscle is so developed for these tasks it takes far less time than an individual that doesn’t work in this industry. It’s even harder when an interface was designed using the standards of location foreign to the user.

I recently had an interesting experience while traveling in Japan. I had to use a ticket machine to charge my train card. Even though I could switch the language to English, the interface and terminology used were so alien to me that I started to feel nervous and ended up taking a lot longer than what is usual for me to perform a simple task like charging a card.

When we design a new interface we fall back on our knowledge of patterns and try to build something that will be suited for everyone. We care about how things will scale, choose typefaces that support many alphabets, and we make sure our strings are translatable. But that’s not enough.


When we write marketing copy we want to sound smart, unique and effective. Because of this, it’s common to fall back on cultural terms that are only understood by a fraction of the user base. Even if two countries speak the same language it is common to find words that have a completely different meaning between them. It’s customary to rely on third party services to translate our copy. While we can provide context for the translators, it’s sometimes hard to find terminology that has the exact same meaning as the original form. When that happens our voice is no longer clear like originally intended, and we confuse our users.

At Automattic we are lucky to have employees from over 50 countries, so we have all those extra sets of eyes to help out. Anyone can do a basic check to figure out if the layout is consistent in more languages. But we can ask someone that speaks other languages to make an editorial check and determine if the experience as a whole is acceptable.
Even if translators do their best sometimes it’s necessary to have a local pointing out what is the appropriate terminology for that use case. When it comes to marketing copy it’s even more important to have someone helping on adapting the words, so that we don’t risk embarrassing ourselves and our brand.

Visual Interface

When it comes to the interface we unconsciously design to a western audience and later fallback on tools that mirror our designs so that left-to-right direction designs can be adapted to right-to-left. But some countries can also read from top-to-bottom. So a design that performs well for a western audience can turn into a nightmare when used somewhere else. Mirroring tools also do not solve the issue of imagery and iconography that often depict situations in a way that is only perceived by westerners.

Checking the visual details in all the languages used to reach our users is vital to provide a good experience. It might be necessary to bump up or down the font size for a specific language, adjust line widths and heights, and make sure the copy is not breaking at weird places. Numeric values have different representations depending on the location, so it’s something that needs special attention when dealing with things like currency values and measuring units.


On the technical side, we always aim for the lightest experience possible, but that extra 10KB of CSS that make our animations look so smooth might take a few extra seconds to load for someone using an outdated smartphone with a poor data connection. We always want to deliver our visual assets at the best quality, but sometimes that might turn into the user not being able to see anything at all due to long loading times. So consider catering the experience to the location you are serving, keeping in mind what are the most commonly used devices and connection quality.

It’s common to only do user testing in one language and assume it’s going to work for everyone else. But there are a lot of insights that can extracted by running user tests with people from more countries. We fall back on re-using patterns to ensure a concise experience across our websites and apps. But what if user testing tells us that a custom interface for a specific language translates into a 10% engagement increase? Doesn’t that justify going the extra mile?

These are just a few examples of tasks that can be accomplished to ensure we don’t deliver a weaker experience than intended to a huge chunk of our users. If we want our user base to be global these are key aspects we need to stress about. Being inclusive and preparing to grow into more markets takes a lot more than translating text and doing minor design updates.

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