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Accessibility – it’s not enough that your website started off being accessible

The worst time to ask for feedback is the time immediately after you’ve annoyed someone!

Have you ever had that experience? You’ve been kept waiting on hold in a queue that went on for what feels like hours, or you’ve had the worst customer service ever, and then you get a request to give feedback about how satisfied you were with the service? Sometimes people are so annoyed, that they do in fact give feedback – and it’s rarely positive.

I had a similar experience yesterday evening. I’m not going to name and shame the site here. I do sometimes use social media or my personal blog to highlight problems and try and get them fixed, but this blog is more about good practice. I will however explained what happened, because I think it’s important.

The site is one that I’ve used before. It’s not the most accessible, but I can get most things done without too many work-arounds. Recently they decided to make some changes and update the page I wanted to use.

I wasn’t aware of any improvements. Maybe it does look nicer. As a blind user, I can’t comment on that. What I did notice however, was that only two of the buttons that I might want to use had graphic labels. As luck would have it, the one that I wanted to click had not been labelled correctly. So I had a 50% chance between unlabelled0 and unlabelled1.

Would you click unlabelled buttons if you didn’t know what they would do?

I didn’t want to take my chances, so I asked someone to take a look and tell me which one I needed. I can remember for next time if I need to use that page again, but I shouldn’t have to. Sighted visitors to the page know what the buttons do.

Apart from the obvious frustration, there are two issues here:

1. Inconsistency

Someone on the team clearly knows how to label buttons correctly, because the other two had graphic labels that my screenreader could read. In the same way that site owners want consistent branding and use of colour across their site, consistent web design and coding is important too, especially on the same page.

If none of the buttons had been labelled correctly, I might assume that the person designing it didn’t know how to. But that’s clearly not the case here.

2. Updates shouldn’t be a step backwards for accessibility

Previously, the buttons on this page did have correct graphics labels, and these somehow got lost or overlooked when the page was updated. This actually makes the experience worse for me now.

It’s easily done if you have more than one person working on a site, or if someone inherits a site that was designed by someone else, but it’s really important not to lose the accessibility features and basic good practice that were already built into the site.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you can’t see a problem as someone didn’t bother to label a page control properly that nobody will notice.

In terms of the site in question, it’s not the first time that I’ve flagged an accessibility issue, it’s been fixed, and then the changes were lost in the next update.

This is a strong argument for why accessible and inclusive design should be on the agenda as a matter of course, not an afterthought whereby people have to fix all the things that get broken with an update.

Then they wanted my feedback!

Directly under the unlabelled buttons was a request for user feedback about the new design. I was happy to oblige and I hope that my feedback will be acted upon. I’d still have preferred it if I hadn’t had to spend time tracking down someone who could help me with something that previously hadn’t been an issue.

I’m fortunate. I do have someone who helps me with visual tasks in my businesses, but it’s an unfair and unrealistic assumption that blind people always have someone close by that can help them out. I don’t have help full-time, and if I want to use your site in the middle of the night when nobody is around, I should have that freedom just as any other visitor does!

Take-away

People are creatures of habit and generally we’re not fans of change. This is even more so if you break someone’s user experience with your next update, so it’s worth making sure that anything you’re planning to do won’t have a negative impact on the accessibility of your site.

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Communication – what people really mean – when understanding the words isn’t enough

A couple of years ago I did some research into some of the linguistic challenges that German customers faced when moving to the UK. It wasn’t about the English language itself, and the kind of problems that non-native speakers have, but about the gap they sometimes faced between what the words meant and what the person saying them actually wanted to say.

I also wanted to use the examples here, to show that even though something may be clear to the person making the statement, there is room for interpretation on the part of the listener. That’s why it’s always so important to communicate clearly and to reduce the chance that someone may go away with a completely incorrect interpretation of what we thought or wanted.

So, in these examples I was talking to non-native speakers, but these misunderstandings can easily happen between native speakers too. Some people naturally interpret things more literally than others, which is why it’s always better to say what you mean and mean what you say.

Criticism can be less harsh, but you need to be able to spot it

Understating things

The typical English person doesn’t jump around with excitement or fling their arms round their friends in a warm embrace. Sometimes it’s not good to take their words literally.

“That’s not bad”, can actually be interpreted as “that’s quite good”. “I’m not doing too bad”, probably just means “I’m doing ok!”

According to Marco, people in Germany are more direct than they are in the UK. As a result, it’s important to listen out for the hidden or understated messages because people might not spell them out for you. “I am a bit disappointed that” probably means that the person is very disappointed. We sometimes use words like “a bit” or “quite” to soften the blow, but the key words in the sentence are “I’m disappointed”.

I know that I have been guilty of this as a teacher in the past. “I have A few minor corrections” does often mean exactly that, but sometimes it means “I’ve read your work and now I’m going to tell you about your mistakes. There were actually more than a few minor ones but I don’t want you to feel bad”.

Sometimes people don’t mean what they say

There are no definite rules. Sometimes, “I’ll bear it in mind” does mean exactly that. The person will take your comment on board and think about it going forward. However it can also mean “That’s a completely useless contribution, but I have to acknowledge it so as not to be impolite”.

In the same way, “that’s interesting” can mean any number of things from it’s indeed really interesting to it’s strange or it’s completely irrelevant, let’s move on. The key here is to think about what else the person is saying, how quickly they want to move on, whether they look bored or eager to learn more.

Let’s get to the point

This is what Angelika had to say: “British people seem to beat around the bush a lot before they get down to business instead of getting straight to the point. It frustrates me sometimes as I just want to get on with it.”

Sometimes English people are masters of conversation when it comes to superficial subjects such as the weather. It’s a way to break the ice. Everyone can have an opinion and it’s hard to get into a controversy unless you get into a heated debate about global warming. This may go on longer than you are used to, but plunging straight into the business details may leave people feeling that you’re not interested in them, but only the task at hand.

Some people will feel happy spending a whole evening with you without telling you much about themselves. They may choose to open up once they know you better, or they may not. And whatever you do, don’t expect people to be open about their age. Most won’t!

Being polite vs being honest

Anja shared quite openly about the difficulties she faced in this area. “I found there is a different culture in how people communicate and at the start I really struggled with people being polite but actually not meaning what they said in the same way I was used to from German friends. People are a lot more polite on the surface and less straightforward, which I think can be a struggle to start with; Not just in business.”

“It’s fine” or “it doesn’t matter” shouldn’t be taken literally if someone has a face like thunder or a scowl, or if the other person keeps going on about the thing that apparently doesn’t matter!

People who don’t do what you expect them to aren’t necessarily being rude

Particularly among colleagues, the salutation in emails is often dropped. So there’s no “kind regards”, “best wishes” or “have a good weekend”. Sometimes there’s just the person’s name at the bottom. Sometimes they just write your name at the top, with no “dear”, “hi” etc. Whilst I may be tempted to do that if someone is annoying me, many people do it out of habit and there is no hidden message at all. In this way, English people can offend colleagues from other parts of the world without even realising it.

Christina said “I noticed that it is not uncommon here that people don’t greet each other while in Germany we shake hands with every colleague in the morning.”

I would think it rude if I said “good morning” to a colleague and they didn’t answer, but I think that, generally, particularly in the big cities, we are less likely to greet people than in other parts of the world. I remember going to get a coffee in a hotel in Sweden and some people whom I didn’t know said good morning to me on the way past. I returned the greeting, but it took me by surprise because it’s not what I’m used to.

In terms of people that you know, greeting them is normal, but many English people only shake hands the first time that they meet someone. They wouldn’t do it every day.

Less formality

It’s not all bad! According to Christine, the atmosphere seems much more relaxed in the UK, people joke and are not very formal.

Christine is the second person to mention joking, and it’s true – we can be a less formal, relaxed bunch of people.

Anne-Marie pointed out that in the UK people usually start off on a first name basis, whereas in Germany, people happily work alongside each other for years before offering the “Du”. This is true. When I worked in a previous role, even the Directors were spoken to using their first names and this was completely normal. It’s just a different kind of working culture. It doesn’t mean that we respect them any less or that we are closer to our colleagues – it’s just a different way of doing things.

So, what does this mean for you?

For me, as an English person, I find direct communication refreshing. You don’t waste time promising to do things that you have no intention of doing. Yes means yes and no means no. I didn’t think that we, as English people, were particularly polite, but what my German contacts tell me suggests otherwise. Maybe I’m just not typically British!

It’s true that this article focussed on intercultural differences in communication, but I think there’s also a lesson to be learned about how we communicate with people in general. Is it really clear and obvious what we mean? Do we try to dress things up so that they sound friendly, but in doing so hide some of the core meaning? Could what we write or say be confusing to someone that doesn’t know us? If so, how can we fix it?

If you have any thoughts on this, let me know in the comments.

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Translation – 7 potential problems with translated texts

7 problems with translated texts that make potential customers go elsewhere
Have you ever clicked away from a website because the text was hard to understand or poorly written?
Many businesses spend a lot of time and money on their visual branding, but some forget that the message that they communicate through the text on their site is equally, if not more important. Here are some important questions to ask before hitting “publish” on a text:

1. Has the text been checked?

Some things are easy to fix – the mistakes came about because the person just didn’t check their work. I’ve seen plenty of hurried out-of-office responses that say things like “I’ll be back in the office on 219th August”, or references to the month of Julyne. It was originally June, but the extra letters weren’t taken away. I’ve also seen things that have clearly got through the spell-check, such as “click here to sign up for the curse” (not course), and even “lick here” instead of click here. Reading the text through once more could have prevented these errors. There’s no point spending ages on a text if you don’t give it one final read before publishing it!

2. Was the writer too familiar with the text?

This often happens with longer texts. If you’ve been working on something for a long time and you’ve read the text over and over again, sometimes you just don’t see the mistakes. Then it can help to have a fresh pair of eyes to look over the text and spot any mistakes that you have missed.
This is also a good opportunity to find words or phrases that may sound find to you, but which confuse potential readers or which a native speaker would just not express in that way. I recently did a quiz on a German site about “common English words” and hadn’t heard of half of them. They were definitely not words that had cropped up in any business conversations I’ve had. They may well have been adopted into international business culture in Germany, but that doesn’t make them commonly-understood business English terms.

3. Was an automatic translation tool used?

I was in Amsterdam when I wrote this and I used Google translate on occasions when I couldn’t work out what something was on a restaurant menu. That’s fine. But I’d never use it for a text on my website or a message to someone. I’d argue that if a company has used an automatic translation for the English version of its site, it would be better not to have an English version at all, or to have less information in better English. However good the content was originally, bad automatic translations are a massive turn-off and they don’t convey the message that the company is professional or trustworthy.

4. Did the translation follow the original text too closely?

Sometimes you can tell that someone has really tried. They didn’t go to Google translate, but they tried to translate the original text word for word, so the English translation sounds a bit strange. Maybe the sentence structure isn’t right. Maybe idioms have been translated that don’t make sense in English. Maybe new words have been created. For example, German is full of compound nouns that we don’t have in English, so you can’t just string a load of nouns together and get the same meaning across. Sometimes words need to be written separately – you can’t have a “birthdaycake”.
Sometimes the differences are more subtle – there are cases in English where we would use active sentences, whereas in German, it would be fine for the sentences to be in the passive voice. Sometimes we use verbs, whereas the German text uses nouns. If you’re aware of these differences, it’s easier to spot them and make sure that they don’t interrupt the flow of your text.

5. Is the Choice of language right?

Most people understand that they need to know whom the text is for and what language would be appropriate for the audience. The problem is that sometimes it’s harder to get this right in another language. I’ve seen formal texts sprinkled with slang terms that are usually reserved for friends, and more chatty texts peppered with words that have obviously come straight from the dictionary and which most people wouldn’t understand. Neither of these texts succeed in creating a good impression. The first one looks unprofessional and the second one confuses people.

6. Is the text culturally appropriate?

This is more relevant for companies that are writing for an English market than those who are using English as an international way to communicate. If you’re writing for an English audience, you need to keep the text free of clichés and stereotypes, otherwise the reader will think “ok, this obviously isn’t for me” and leave the site. We don’t all have log fires in our homes, as I was once told, most of us don’t have time for afternoon tea on a daily basis, there are actually days when the sun shines and we don’t all eagerly follow what’s going on in the royal household. Downton Abbey is not a representation of life in England today!
On a more general note, part of being culturally appropriate is also making sure that the language is up-to-date and not past its linguistic sell-by date! There are some really good business English resources out there, but there are also ones that were good maybe 30 or 50 years ago. If people use the vocabulary in these resources, readers may wonder if they’ve just come out of a time machine. This doesn’t create a good, authentic impression for the reader.

7. False friends

English words are often used in other languages, particularly those related to technology or new social media trends. However, an English speaker won’t know what a handy is, and if you say you want a beamer for your meeting, they’ll wonder why you want a BMW in the meeting room. The request for a projector will make much more sense to them. The word handicapped has been adopted into the German language, even though it’s a word that informed English people try to avoid, preferring the more objective term “disabled”. Body bags are for dead bodies, not for the living.
Those are just some examples to show why you should watch out for words that look familiar. Some of them have a completely different meaning for native speakers!

How about you?

I hope that has given you some ideas and things to consider when you’re translating texts into English.
If you’d like some help, either with ongoing work or specific projects, I offer both translation and proofreading services.

If you’d like to contact me or sign up for the monthly EwK Services newsletter, please use this contact form: