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Is the bar tender here?

6/9/09

Working out a joke from a punchline is something mobile phone users have to get used to. The punchline might be is the bar tender here he asks but of course the set-up is a woodpecker walks into a bar unless you know the joke as  a termite walks into a bar. So from the punchline you might have to reverse engineer the question an animal walks into a bar. Which doesn't work in most cases. If the animal is a horse the response it becomes  a horse walks into a bar, “why the long face” says the barman.

The phone equivalent of the punchline is the icon. Who really knows why two arrows mean call log. It might as well be a bit of tree. Log? Does a picture of a bell mean ringtone or alarm? The source of the problem is that the person designing the icon already knows the joke, so his punchline fits.

Sometimes you can rely on ingrained knowledge. A picture of a man and a woman on a door means a mixed toilet. You don't have a picture of a toilet. Sometimes it doesn't always work. A simple square might mean “stop” in context of a play and record, but otherwise you will use a hexagon as stop.

Unwrapping the problem means understanding the cognition of a user. It gets a lot worse when you have to design an icon for international effectiveness. Those that think icons transcend language barriers don't understand that cultural barriers are greater. What is obvious changes with time and place. The icon for 'save' on a PC is usually a floppy disc. When was the last time you saw a real floppy disc? Many teenage computer users have never seen one. An alternative icon might be a piggy bank but how does that translate internationally. Do halal countries use piggy banks?

Text is a much better solution. Even in countries with limited literacy. Mobile phone usage is taught, the world over, by peers. An illiterate user will learn to recognise the text in the same was as he or she will recognise an icon, by being told by someone what it does. It's a step towards literacy.

This however brings a new problem with it. How do you cater for thousands of languages. There are something like 7,000 languages in the world, some of them very local. A country might have 200 within its borders and that's before you start multiplying by dialects.

If only all the people who spoke all those languages had a communications device with which they could feed back what they want as a label for a function. Of course they do and the solution is crowdsourcing. Nokia has a project in Africa which asks people using their phones to send translations by text message.

It gives them culturally and locally accurate translation but the process could be automated. If the user changed the translation in their phone and the result shared on a central server you could have central voting on the translation and automatically build phones that spoke the right language. The server could track cell ID for the translations and you'd have translations that were correct in terms of region and time.

Samsung has just launched a phone with Welsh as one of its languages, and it must have been a lot of effort for a dedicated customer base, but give the users the ability to change the text and build fonts and you could have a phone that spoke Klingon or Latin.

Whatever the language it’s got to be more understandable than icons.

Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com you can read the column  the previous Friday by subscribing here. Follow me on Twitter here.

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