Archive for May, 2008

Making the complicated simple

My motto as an information architect:

Making the complicated simple (quotation by Charles Mingus)

From inspireUX – thanks for the hint, Jan.


Multilingual Websites

I will not discuss the necessity of multilingual websites in this post. It is obvious in a multilingual environment like Switzerland. However, some providers of websites seem to be quite oblivious of their users. Last week, I stumbled over 2 websites using an automatic translation tool producing plain gibberish, and one website randomly mixing languages within its pages.

Air Malta, text supposedly translated into German

Translated back into English by Babelfish (quite adequately, as a matter of fact):

I repeated the flight details above. All possible changes, after they bought, depend on the applicable loading. I read and accepted the full price of transportation conditions and the designations and conditions.

The original English version:

Air Malta disclaimer in English

Most websites I found skimming a web search on multilingual websites treated the necessity, the costs and the benefits of maintaining multilingual (or multicultural) websites or how to effectively translate them. As the example above shows, these are important issues.

But so far, I haven’t found any tips on the information architecture of multilingual sites. We’ve been discussing this recently in several projects, because there are few «ideal» multilingual websites where each page in language A corresponds exactly to one page in language B. Usually, for reasons of frequency of use, cost, or cultural differences, only part of the pages exist in several languages, and the information architecture of each language is different. Does this matter to the user?

Let’s look at an example:

Tromso midnight marathon homepage in Norvegian

Even if you don’t speak Norvegian – as in my case – it is quite obvious you’re missing out on something:

Tromso midnight marathon homepage in English

So yes, I guess it does matter, at least to curious users. And it’s definitely confusing if you press the language button and the navigation bar is still in German, or it changes all together, as on the Berlin website:

Berlin Website, English version with German navigation

Berlin Website, English version with English and German navigation

Are there any solutions? I like two examples which address different questions.

Educa, the Swiss education server, has editorial staff for five different languages. Some of the basic information on the Swiss education system is analogous in all languages. When you select a different language, you will be pointed to the exact page in that language, i.e. each page is mapped to its sister pages. If there is no corresponding page available, you will be pointed to the homepage of the selected language where you get an overview of all contents available in that language.

The Canton of Berne (a Swiss state) has a page called «other languages». It’s very much hidden, and the label is not very helpful if your mother tongue is Albanian, but I like the idea of giving a central overview over all pages available in foreign languages. It’s a good approach for a site with a limited amount of foreign language content. Other than Educa’s solution, however, it does not show the user starting from a certain page if that specific page is available in other languages or not. Basically, it’s similar to the Norvegian marathon page above: it shows what’s there, not what isn’t.

From the usability (theoretical) point of view, not providing transparency is lousy. But I haven’t yet decided if it’s worth while investing much time and energy into finding a perfect (and costly?) solution. Maybe tagging could provide a pragmatic approach for the Canton of Bern case: Each page available in other languages receives the corresponding tag, and by selecting all pages with that language tag, you’d receive the overview. (To be precise, these are links and not tags, because they don’t describe the page itself but refer to  similar pages.  Still, it might be worthwhile thinking this through).

In the case of Educa, I believe the solution is completely adequate. It could be enhanced by giving the user feedback if a page is not available in another language and offer the choice of continuing to the homepage of the selected language or returning to the original page. But that’s just wishful thinking – in the first place, you need to get the translations right.

One of these things is not like the other

Recently, an ad campaign reminded me of the books which teach young children to cluster concepts. The kinds learn to find mutual characteristics of a number of objects, and to eliminate the object which is different.


Creating categories by naming a difference from the rest is popular, but in information architectue, it’s often not acceptable. All objects need to be located SOMEplace in the structure. They need to “live” somewhere, as a customer recently phrased it (very nicely adopting the information architecture metaphor). In archives, the most important files are usually classified under “general” or “miscellaneous” because no-one bothered to create an adequate category for something happening outside the daily routine. In web projects, naming the residue categories (or breaking them down to well-defined clusters) is usually a time-consuming challenge and for the most part not well solved.

This is where tags come in. They reverse the process:

  1. Instead of creating a category based on mutual features, and giving that category an understandable name, the object itself is described by its distinct features.
  2. Tags are attributed to the objects by the users, not by information architects.

In the example of the riddle shown above, the kangaroo is usually picked as the odd one out because it’s a marsupial. Finding this distinct feature is actually easier than finding the mutual category of the other animals and then having to find out if the category of marsupials is similar to that of mammals or not.

Also, as a discussion of the riddle shows, the solution is not entirely unambiguous. Deer and kangaroo are usually found wild, the kangaroo lives only in Australia (or in zoos) etc. Tags are convenient to describe these attributes without having to create an appropriate category. They can also be used to attach personal features, like that kangaroos remind me of my stay in Canberra in year 2000, and thus enhance findability, e.g. for a photo of a kangaroo I took at that time.

I’m saving more about tags, e.g. about tag clouds, creating categories from tags etc. for future posts.

Does information literacy require literacy?

I guess it does, due to its name. However, the ability to read and write is not a premise to successfully gathering and interpreting information. I remember a garment manufacturer in India explaining us how he bought textiles. He visited several producers and then checked and double-checked the information they gave him with other people.

In China, where people often prefer to give wrong information to loosing their face by not knowing the answer, it is essential to have many acquaintances in order to be able to verify information given by strangers.

Basically, this is no different to what Westerners do to to examine the reliability of information. But written, especially published, information has more context to it than oral information, and the trustworthiness of sources like newspapers or official institutions lightens the burden of scrutiny.

In our society, many people seem to rely too much on their literacy instead of checking information “bazaar style”.