English is excellent for many things, but user experience is not one of them

19 September 2019 | Experience Design

Unbeknownst to me at the time, one of my first experiences with UX design was learning the English language. Nearly all non-native speakers will tell you it is, frankly, a bit of a nightmare. Imagine you do not know English and you see this string of words. How would you logically think to pronounce them?

Through, though, thought, drought, cough, tough, plough, thorough… and hiccough.

The same four letters next to consonants and yet each single one is pronounced differently with no context. The sentence structure never changes to tell you this. There is no word that comes before or after to prompt you into the sound change. There is no symbol, accent or umlaut to tell you what sound you should be making. There is nothing (or sometimes there are rules with many instances it goes against the rule). For a non-native speaker, it’s a guessing game.

One of the things I still get wrong quite a bit in English is whether to use a hard or soft g or ch. If you spend a lot of time with me and listen closely enough it will be one of the small little flags that goes up suggesting English is indeed not my native voice.

Gesture. Guise. Finger. Fringe.

Chasm. School. Chef. Choir. Chicken. Chaos… Yacht.

The same goes with the letter C. I moved to Brisbane, listened to the chirping insects around me and read the word cicada on a forest sign. I assumed it was pronounced k-i-kay-da. Until I said it aloud and looked up to a bewildered face. I was wrong. Soft c followed by a hard c. Just like garage. How does one know?

You just know, they say.

That’s a terrible user experience. It’s terrible because there is absolutely nothing helping you there. It’s terrible because any small amount of UX research with people learning English – including native speakers as kids who have questions adults can’t answer – will show you it is confusing and could be vastly improved. It’s terrible because other languages do prompt you to use the right sound with a graphical element, have a symbol or letter combination that never changes pronunciation, or provide context to alert you of the change. It’s terrible because it’s frustrating without the need to be. Languages boards exist and language develops constantly; we could make the user experience of a language a lot better even when all the other rules fail.

No language is perfect, but it is an instance of UX we don’t think about so often. We tend to apply user experience only to companies, products and services but everything around us, everything we interact with, and everything we do is an experience. Languages are no exception.

It doesn’t end there of course. If you speak a couple of languages, you’ll notice issues frequently on translated websites. They tend to be fairly awful. Sentences don’t directly translate. Tone & brand voice simply don’t convert. Cultures are embedded in most languages that don’t make sense in another (just look at how many references to baseball there are in American English and try thinking of how that works in Danish). This too, is a user experience problem.

My all time favorite story in this realm is the AirBnB launch in China. Essentially, their Chinese name was interpreted as a Love Hotel; and love hotels in Asia are usually the by-the-hour type. It was apparently also difficult to pronounce and a slight tone change turned it into words that had nothing to do with the brand (like a certain male stimulant). Not exactly what they were hoping to go for with “welcome each other with love” and something good UX research and testing would have easily resolved.

English is excellent for many things, but user experience is not one of them. This is one small prompt to analyze the things we’re using beyond a website or product, understand the experience we’re having, and to look to where solutions already exist.

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