The third and final fascinating article in our series of 'The Culture of Techology' blogs from our Head of Digital Innovation, Hadrien Jouet, details Hadrien's move to Vancouver from South Korea and how, from his experiences, he envisages technology developing to better cater for cultural differences.

Canada Calling

"Fast-forward a few months, and I’m now in the great city of Vancouver, Canada. My stay in South Korea was an eye opener in more ways than one, and if there’s anything I’ve learnt it’s that you can’t take certain services for granted, be them online or off. I came here with the false perception that Vancouver would be very similar to San Francisco, and in a lot of ways I’m glad I was proven wrong. Where’s the fun otherwise eh?

"Although you wouldn’t exactly feel out of place either, people speak English, the franchises you see in the streets are pretty much the same ones you’d expect in North America, they make amazing burgers and their beer isn’t half-bad either. But if there’s one thing that really stands out here it’s the fact that practically nobody is from the area. I’d say that less than 10% of the people I’ve met are actually from British Columbia, maybe 75% of them are from other parts of Canada, and the remaining 15% from just about anywhere else in the world. Canada is renowned for its relatively lax immigration laws and Vancouver itself clearly attracts a diverse mix of people.

"To understand why this is important, I’ll quickly put this into perspective with where I’m from. I come from a rather small, industrial town in the west of France. Both sides of my family have lived in that area for generations and in general people rarely move far from the nest.  While foreigners are welcome there, they definitely stand out, they’re a bit of a rarity, and if they don’t speak French, chances are people will have difficulty communicating with them.

"This is neither a good nor a bad thing, but it does show a very important point. A community that is not accustomed to foreigners, or is not really expecting them, only has to concern itself with rather local problems. The language and the culture are in no way a barrier because the vast majority of people in such areas share them. On the other hand in a strongly metropolitan city such as Vancouver, large communities of people speaking different languages and sharing different cultures all live within a common space, share facilities and end up having to use some of the same services.

"This to me highlights a very interesting usability issue. How do you cater for a widely diversified community on a day-to-day basis? How do you make sure a certain minority within your community doesn’t feel lost or even excluded?

"Unfortunately I don’t think the answer is simple, and most solutions are fairly costly or a bit over the top. Take for instance the fact that Canada has two official languages: English and French. What’s rather surprising is that nearly everything is labeled in both languages: road signs, products in shops, even every single label against each dial of your washing machine or cooker. Then take the Chinatown area, where a lot of people don’t speak either of those languages, and you occasionally end up with street signs written in all three languages.

"So, this gives you an idea of the expanse of the situation.

"The current state of things in the real world isn’t nearly as adaptable as we’d like it to be. This is what I call the ‘shirt label principle’ - those labels that have to be irritatingly big so that they can translate the word “cotton” into twelve different languages. This sort of carpet bombing approach is inefficient, costly and in the end, still doesn’t cater for nearly as many people as you’d like it to. In a world that has been rapidly growing towards more interdependent cultures over the past 60 years in particular, it does seem like we need a more viable solution to the problem.

"You’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this... Have digital technologies not solved this problem already? I believe they have, but only to an extent.

"Offering a digital product in different languages (without having to display all other languages) is already very common place. But to go back to a point I made earlier about South Korea, language is one thing, whilst culture and habits are another completely. Some cultures prefer content-heavy web pages, while others will expect a minimalistic approach. You’re likely thinking this is the point where compromises have to be made, where people will have to be happy with the common interface you provide them and accept the trade-offs relative to their own cultures. Multiple interface designs can be very costly and hard to maintain, and you probably still won’t satisfy everybody.

"This is essentially about translating more than just text, but also behaviour (or patterns of behaviour). An approach I particularly like is to consider the different layers of an application as separate entities. In an ideal world, the functionality offered at the core of an application should be a really broken down version of all your requirements. The interface for your application would then trigger a string of events (each of which would correspond to core functionality within the application). On a simplistic level, you could think of it as a ‘register’ or ‘log/in’ button showing on different sections of the page. Although the interface looks different, the actions behind it remain the same.

"One such popular approach to tackling this is to create an API, essentially a system which doesn’t have an interface at all but can carry out all the heavy lifting with a simple call or a series of calls. The interface itself then simply becomes “just another client application” to your core system. Going back to what I was saying about not easily being able to cater for everybody, this offers two big advantages: 

  1. You can still build a fully-fledged system on fairly limited resources, and start with a modest interface for your application which you can build on with very little (or even no) work required on your core application. It basically makes it easier to iterate and cater for new requirements.
  2. The other advantage is that you can make your API available to anybody, so depending on the nature of your application, you can actually rely on other people to make client applications the way they like it. This of course isn’t only limited to creating an interface in different languages with a slightly different layout, it also means that somebody can potentially create a mobile app, a plugin for your browser, even an interface for fridges that interacts with your application.

"Another approach which is still very much being “tried and tested”, and which works even better when used along the approach described in the previous paragraph, are learning interfaces. They are substantially more costly at first but can offer tremendous results in the long-term. Some of you may remember when Twitter first started and a lot of people were surprised to see elements of the interface moving around as they reloaded the page. What Twitter did was to gather usage statistics on different interfaces, trying to see which layouts worked better for people and which converted the best (i.e. people would be most likely to use). By adding usage filters, i.e. localisation parameters in our case (region, language, etc), we can create an interface that is better adapted to the user groups we wish to target. What we’re doing here basically is to spend more time creating one very modular interface and let the users implicitly do the work.

"This kind of interface doesn’t prevent users from also explicitly stating their preferences, on top of being offered a statistically satisfactory layout. In fact, this approach could allow for certain sections of your interface to be entirely toggleable, e.g. letting the user add or remove elements from the interface like “recent news”.

"The rise of button-less devices in the real-world (read touch screens, voice control and the like) makes the two approaches described above a perfect fit for increasingly complex digital environments. This means that the interface for your device could be completely independent from the device itself. We can develop entirely virtual interfaces which separate intrinsic functionality from perceived functionality. Therefore, you could go to China and use a local microwave oven like back home.

"To go back to the example about road signs mentioned earlier, you could imagine signs that are simply a chip somewhere on the side of the road. You wouldn’t even need to be able to see it in the real world, but your car’s windshield (e.g. BMW’s HUDs) or your glasses (e.g. Google Glass project) would show you what you need to see, in whichever way you feel more comfortable seeing, consuming and using this information. The possibilities in this respect are nearly endless, and as a technology lover, I’m really excited to be part of this movement.

"I imagine these concepts to not only be applicable to different places or cultures, but also to support those with disabilities, help children to use complex devices with limited sets of functionality, or even, in extreme circumstances, adapt device interfaces for use by animals.

"All this boils down to investing as much time as possible understanding what we build, why we build it and who we build it for.

"It’s understanding what the most essential requirements are, i.e. what requirements apply to all your users regardless of their backgrounds, and what requirements may vary. Educate your users about your system, but also let your users educate your system in return (or at least the makers of your system). It’s also wise to remember that no matter how good the technology is, some people will be reluctant to adopt, and your main goal is to make your target audience (however few or many of them) swallow the pill without even realising they did.

"I believe that educating your users about technology is not just about showing them how to use it. It’s showing them how said technology can be beneficial on individual, societal and cultural levels, and it’s fundamentally catering for both individuality as well as group behaviour, allowing one to benefit from the other."