The Problem with Averages

If you’re interested in inclusive design, I’d recommend listening to “On Average” from the podcast 99% Invisible. From the episode:

So in 1926, when the army was designing its first-ever fighter plane cockpit, engineers measured the physical dimensions of hundreds of male pilots and used this data to standardize cockpit dimensions. Of course, the possibility of female pilots was never considered. Of course.

The size and shape of the seat, the distance to the pedals and the stick, the height of the windshield, even the shape of the flight helmets were all made to conform to the average 1920’s male pilot. Which changed the way the pilots were selected.

You basically then select people that fit into that and then exclude people that don’t.

Designing for the average and excluding anyone who doesn’t fit that average isn’t, well, inclusive. The episode goes on to discuss how design (including in the military) has become more inclusive — but it’s still something we struggle with.

From what I’ve seen in software design and development, one of the challenges is deciding which user personas and scenarios will be considered in your design, and which issues are only edge cases. Where and how do you draw that line? It’s also a matter of just remembering to think outside your own perspective, to consider cases that you haven’t thought of already. (As designer and fellow Automattician Mel Choyce pointed out, it’s about challenging your own biases by seeking out and really listening to users with different perspectives.)

As a linguaphile, I tend to notice when software design struggles or forgets to include non-English languages. For example, designs that aren’t responsive to languages that take up more space (ahemGermanahem) or that don’t consider right-to-left languages end up excluding entire populations of potential users in other parts of the world. It can be hard for monolingual designers and developers to know how their products work in other languages, and it’s always satisfying when I have a chance to test a product and suggest language-based enhancements, so people can use our products in any language. It’s one small way I can help democratize publishing for users around the world.


Accepting Thanks in a Remote Work Environment

As a remote worker, I get to know a lot of my coworkers by chatting with them on Slack. (It makes those years of using AIM feel like job training. Or at least I like to rationalize it that way!) As a result, I have a lot of conversations that go something like this:

  • Coworker: Rachel, I’m dealing with [this tricky issue]. Can you help me sort it out?
  • Me: Sure! You can learn more about that in [one of our knowledge bases] or try [this solution I’ve learned from experience].
  • Coworker: Thanks!
  • Me: [insert appropriate phrase for accepting thanks here]

The first part of the conversation is the easiest, really. It’s the part where I’m thinking and researching and teaching and guiding. It’s in the last part, where I have to figure out how to accept the thanks, that I overthink it. Why? Because I can never, ever decide if I should say, “No problem,” or “You’re welcome.” (Or sometimes just a quick “Sure thing!”)

This internal struggle was highlighted when I read the conversation about “No problem” vs. “you’re welcome” on All Things Linguistic, and even more when I got to the article on You’re welcome on Separated by a common language (a blog that compares American and British English). The basic issue is a divide between people who find “You’re welcome” acceptable and “No problem” rude, and people for whom “No problem” is the most natural response and “You’re welcome” sounds sarcastic or over the top. Add to that cultural differences in how to accept thanks, and you’re headed for a minefield any time you help someone out.

I realized that I fall into the generation of speakers who prefers “No problem,” although I try to avoid it in a lot of situations out of fear that I’ll be seen as rude or dismissive. I actually had to make a conscious decision to start using the phrase “You’re welcome” both online and offline, after I realized my habits could be offending people. That said, if you’re going to pick apart the meaning behind the words, I’d argue there isn’t a big difference between “No problem” and the ever-so-polite “It was no trouble at all.” (The latter is the sort of phrase that feels so proper I pull out a silly fake British accent as I say it, until I remember where I live and swallow the words before they can come out of my mouth.)

I could go on for ages with the intellectual exercise, mulling over the various ways everyone accepts thanks. At some point, though, I have to stop thinking and type out a reply to my coworker (because nothing feels as rude as an answered “thank you”). How do I do it? I’ve decided to try to use “You’re welcome” as much as possible, as a sort of standard polite American English response. But once I’ve done that a bit, or I’ve gotten to know the person I’m talking to, I’ll fall back to “No problem.” Or I’ll try to avoid the seriousness of the reply with a quick “yw” or “np” or — to avoid this dilemma altogether — just a quick thumbs up. 👍

Long Words (and the answer to the question, “What is i18n?”)

I was enjoying some of Tom Scott’s videos and came across this fun one about long words:

I’ll admit I mostly wanted to share it because I live near that town (whose name I still can’t pronounce properly). I also laughed at the point where he qualified his claim about long words:

Language doesn’t generally support—at least, the English language doesn’t generally support long words.

While learning German, I always enjoyed seeing how it could take many English words and turn them into a single word. If you’d like a funny example, I’d recommend watching Rhabarberbarbara (a Quatschgeschichte, or “nonsense story” — another good example of inventing long words in German).

However, I also enjoyed the bonus information about the abbreviation i18n. I learned that abbreviation while working as a translator and still use it a lot in my everyday work. Language is fun. Enjoy it! 🙂