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Moving to UX – What have I learnt from language?

Moving to UX – What have I learnt from language?

A year ago I had never heard of UX. My background is in languages – studying and teaching Spanish, French and English (albeit the Northern Irish variant). I recently left teaching to do a postgraduate marketing degree, with no experience in design or tech. I discovered UX when the opportunity arose to apply for a marketing internship at Fathom. I’d been interested in branding and copywriting for a while and knew that the look and feel of a website could have massive effects on user behaviour and conversions. But it wasn’t until then that I became aware of the role that research and design play in other aspects of experience, such as navigation, usability and cognitive load. 

There’s obvious crossover between marketing and UX, such as the importance of research, analytics and customer–centricity in successful brands. But what I’ve found interesting is how aspects of language acquisition translate to the world of UX.

It’s ALWAYS about the experience of the end user 

man reading newspaperKraft, R. (Photographer). Man sitting on bench reading newspaper [digital image]. Retrieved from Unsplash.

Have you ever read an article that addresses your exact issue, uses plenty of appropriate terminology and has no obvious spelling or grammar mistakes, but it just doesn’t read right? Sometimes that’s because it was meant for you, but not written for you. This can happen when an article is written in one language and translated to another. The translator may do a great job using rich vocabulary and familiar idioms, but more subtle elements can remain foreign. For example, in English it’s advisable to keep sentences below 25 words in length. However, in Spanish, it’s perfectly normal to read sentences over 40 words long that feel like a never–ending list of clauses and commas. This is a reflection of cultural differences in face–to–face conversation – Spanish people tend not to pause for consideration as often as people from the UK and Ireland, so they’re ok with reading longer sentences. But write a sentence like that in English and your reader will feel like they’ve been verbally assaulted.

A good translator researches the finer details of what their target audience expects in a text, so that a translation is not only accurate but it feels like it was originally written in the reader’s own language – specifically for them. This may mean removing some of the ‘flair’ of the original language in order to create a far better experience for the reader.

UX is similar. A digital product can look great, be built on robust technology and be filled with relevant content and functions. The designer might have looked at market research to make sure they are targeting defined customer segments. However, the user can still feel like it wasn’t designed for them; for example, is it intuitive? Does the user feel in control at all times? Does it meet accessibility standards? You have to thoroughly know your users if you want to create a user–centred experience, and the only way do this is to study how they naturally behave with your product.

Don’t assume anything

facepalm statue

Tsygonkova, K. (Photographer). The fragment statue of Cain [digital image]. Retrieved from

I spent a year teaching English in a secondary school in Madrid. A great part of teaching is hearing all the weird stuff kids come off with. Add in a language barrier and this gets even better. I’ll never forget one of my bachillerato (A–level) pupils raising their hand in class one day and saying with the utmost sincerity “I can’t speak well today, I’m constipated.” Obviously being the empathetic professional I am, I laughed my head off. This is a classic example of a ‘false friend’, which is where a word in one language looks nearly identical to one in another language, but the meaning is very different. In Spanish, being constipado means you have a cold. The application of grammar was good: in Spanish, adding –ado to the end of a verb is the same as adding –ated in English. Unfortunately the assumption that constipated means constipado led to quite an embarrassing outcome.

UX design is the antidote to assumptions. People can assume that they know their users, that an aesthetic design aspect matters more than functionality or that good marketing can compensate for a product that’s not nice to use. Sometimes assumptions are based on good intentions, like relying on industry ‘best practice’ with the assumption that that by itself is enough. But just because something has worked before, doesn’t mean it will always work out in every context. A deep understanding of the unique needs of both the user and the business is so important. There’s a wealth of great online resources to learn about best practice, but nothing can substitute the insights gained from studying the behaviour of real users. This isn’t to say that designs should (or even can) be flawless. What matters is that we strive for accuracy and take every mistake as a chance to learn, reiterate and optimise.

Everything in context

siesta in a wheelbarrow

Mika (Photographer). Man taking a nap in a cart [digital image]. Retrieved from Unsplash.

A well–known aspect of Spanish culture is the siesta. The custom of taking an extended break in the middle of the day (normally 2pm–5pm) is intrinsically tied to Spanish life; in the past, outdoor workers would come in from the fields to shelter from the sun, allowing them to have a leisurely meal, get refreshed and return to work long into the evening. Lunch is an important meal for Spanish people; traditionally, and even to this day in some households, Spanish mothers would prepare a big meal for their families (including their adult children). This could last over 2 hours and often involves alcohol, meaning an afternoon nap naturally became customary. Another reason for commercial zones to shut down in the afternoon was a previous legal cap of 72 hours on weekly trading times, meaning it made sense to close shops in off–peak times (when it’s too hot for shoppers to be out and about).

Translators should be wary of trying to substitute siesta for an English equivalent; you might try afternoon nap or long lunch, but knowing the context above makes it obvious that any attempt at translation dilutes the meaning and risks misleading the reader. A siesta is a siesta.

Sometimes the language used in meeting rooms can be wildly misleading when detached from context. A common culprit is ‘bounce rate.’ One might translate ‘landing page bounce rate down 10%’ as ‘our visitors love our content this month.’ But what if people are just having to needlessly hunt around your site for information that could be easily displayed on the homepage? Never interpret a metric in isolation, even (especially) if it allows you to steer the narrative of a report in your favour. The onus is on the UX researcher to constantly ask questions and look for truth amidst the noise of data.

Start with discovery

start with discovery

Kraus, E. (Photographer). People walking inside food market [digital image]. Retrieved from Unsplash.

New language learners have a huge amount to discover: new words, new sounds, maybe even a new alphabet. In the same way that infants spend many months absorbing their first language before uttering a word, second language learners have to start off by assimilating the new language through immersive reading and listening. This is most effective when they have access to authentic materials and native (or fluent) speakers because they have an accurate target to aim for. Something that often puts people off learning languages is that they are made to speak publicly before they have really assimilated any of the language (the horrors of school speaking exams spring to mind). This is in stark contrast to how children learn their first language: the first few months or more are spent listening without being pressured to say anything.

When you begin a UX project, you need to get immersed in the problem. Researching competitors, comparators and the market alongside the behaviours, attitudes and expectations of real users takes time but it allows you to start building a holistic view of the problem and start to generate viable solutions. Jumping straight into outputs is stressful and unlikely to deliver anything useful for a client.

Looking for true north

true north

Goroziya, D. (Photographer). Compass [digital image]. Retrieved from Pixabay.

‘Children are like sponges’ is perhaps a clichéd statement, but it has its roots in science. In the 1960s Noam Chomsky’s ‘universal grammar’ proposed that people from all countries and cultures are born with an inherent aptitude to acquire language. While this theory has developed over the past half century and isn’t held by all linguists, there is a lot of evidence that suggests we are born, to some extent, with a ‘language–ready’ brain. When we acquire our first language we begin by absorbing words spoken to us and in our environment, but soon we start to instinctively look for systems and rules to enable us to make sense of the language and construct our own communication. Language teachers often try to get learners to replicate this process; early lessons tend to focus on passive exposure, allowing students to get accustomed to the sounds, phonemes and prosody of the new language, but learners will struggle to make sense of a sentence taken out of the context of a lesson, or to form their own sentences, without being taught the grammatical rules that govern the language. 

I find the UX process works in a similar way. You need to spend time watching users, writing about their behaviours and recording metrics that describe their interactions with a product. But then you need to apply robust analysis to understand what the data is really saying and what the correct output actually looks like. The insights you gain from research and best practice work a bit like grammar rules: they enable you to make progress with the confidence that you are solving the right problem and speaking the right language (the user’s).

Final thoughts

Successful UX teams often consist of a multitude of different backgrounds. Such a team’s strength lies in its ability to understand human experiences through multiple lenses, from design and psychology through to business and language. Being able to adapt your individual skills and competencies to empathise with users helps your team to learn from one another, and leads to better human experiences.

By Andy Robinson

Andy was a UX Researcher with Fathom until July 2021, when he moved on to take up a role at Rapid7.

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