A Dutch lesson in user interfaces

A recent experience during a trip to Holland reminded me that there is much to be said for familiar user interfaces.

One sunny day in July, a trip to Amsterdam from The Hague required I take a scenic streetcar ride to the train station. Once on the streetcar, I realized I must purchase a ticket from a machine mounted on the wall somewhere in the middle of the street car away from the driver. Beautiful Holland is a Dutch-speaking country and everything was in Dutch including the ticket machine.

I decided to face the challenge solo without asking for help from passengers. It turned out to be a five-step process, with options presented on the screen in Dutch at every stage. While none of the words on the screen resembled anything close to English (not that it should), I was quite surprised that the educated choices I made at each junction were correct. I didn’t have to think all that much either, quickly making a selection each time. In the end, I inserted my coins and the machine spat out my ticket, and off I happily went to Amsterdam.

Thinking back, I realized that the ticket machine’s interface was excellent because it was designed with user habits and experience in mind. Although speaking Dutch might have quickened the process by about 15 seconds, it was not necessarily a requirement to buying a ticket. The mere fact that I’d previously used automated processes on the Web or through kiosks to make purchases back home, lent itself so valuably to using an automated machine in a language foreign to me.

Software designers spend much effort designing interfaces that users will find both friendly and alluring. Often, they get it right making the user experience pleasant. But sometimes they get it wrong, frustrating the user and often ultimately chasing them away.

I have attempted, and sometimes failed without others’ help, to use automated processes on kiosks in other countries where the language was foreign to me. But I’ve also met with difficulty when the language was familiar to me.

This may not be possible for all interfaces, but in cases of limited functionality, perhaps the true test of a user-friendly interface is whether you are able to navigate through it in a foreign language.

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