Last month, I traveled to China for the first time in my life. When I arrived in Beijing full of excitement and joy, I encountered this ticket machine in the subway. First, I was just amused by the view: “Wow, they are color coding lines, nice!” The screen was also very chaotic and funny for me because of the Chinese labels. I couldn’t understand anything from them. Before instantly tapping the “English” button, I took a photo of the screen. A few hours later, when I scrolled through my images in the hostel, I realized that it had been a long time since I wasn’t able to actually read an interface.
Sitting in our own little “language bubble”
For most of us, understanding our usual, everyday environment is not a challenge. We feel very comfortable because we can easily decode our culture’s signs and methods of communication. Reading plays a big role in this. This is an ability which most of us take for granted. In China, I experienced how I can live without the help of reading. And it was tough sometimes. Being unable to fully understand your surroundings is frustrating; however, a lot of people are used to feeling this. For instance, 17% of the world’s adult population can’t read at all.
How do our brains analyze text-free interfaces?
During my trip, I encountered more and more Chinese interfaces where I had to play a guessing game. I tried to figure out what to write in certain input fields or what a button might do if I click on it. Sometimes this was a bit frustrating, but I also found it very interesting and challenging (after all, I’m a UI designer). I was eagerly looking for visual clues which could help me to identify the purpose and the functions of the interface. Numbers and icons were my biggest rescuers; color, visual hierarchies and usual interface patterns helped me a lot as well.
Test yourself with these text-free interfaces!
After coming home, I could not stop. I had to continue the “game” and keep thinking about how we interpret and analyze text-free interfaces. I assembled a little game for you to try out by yourselves. Through this game, we can learn to discover some useful visual clues, patterns and we can also try out how a five-year-old child might feel when opening their mother’s iPhone. (Well okay, we won’t have the exact same experience, but at least we will have a slight hint).
What I learned from not being understood
Did you enjoy the game? How did you feel while guessing? For me, this experience taught me to be aware that I’m in a very lucky situation. Being understood and understanding our surroundings is something we take granted; however, for many people in the world, it’s not given. Even right now, as I’m writing this blogpost, I struggle with my English (since I am not a native speaker). This is a handicap for sure, but this is still extremely far from the experience when you can’t read or understand anything around you.
That’s why I think it’s very important to be open, not to be stuck in our “tech savvy, educated bubble” when designing a product. Try to empathize more with others, explore new methods to get closer to your users’ point of view. We have to step out of our cozy, English-speaking comfort zones if we want to make something valuable for everyone. Maybe in this way, we can make our world a more comprehensible place.
And what is your experience? When was the last time you couldn’t read or understand an interface? What do you think about this topic? I’m eagerly looking forward to your opinion, feel free to add your comments below!