On Chimpanzees, Translators, and Technology: #Haterzgonnahate

User experience (UX) is about understanding everything a user encounters along the journey to completing a task. Working in UX means observing the people, places and things that surround a user as they work and understanding the context. We UX types rely on techniques such as ethnography and are familiar with Jane Goodall‘s grounding study of chimpanzees as we seek to surface the ways that real people do real work in the real world.

Researchers in the wild, so the story goes, noticed how, one day, a chimpanzee used a stick to ferret out some tasty ants from their nest. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the era of understanding the use of tools for work had arrived.

But, has the translation industry been paying attention to their own wildlife more recently? I was drawn to the Huffington Post blog article Why So Many Translators Hate Translation Technology by Nataly Kelly (@natalykelly).

Nataly writes about translation technology, but touches on why technology used for work fails generally: a poor user experience traced back to leaving out the real end user from the design and development process.

We all know it. The term crapplication has entered the Urban Dictionary.

Now, consider what many translators actually consider to be a translation “tool” or “technology”.

Your New Fancy Translation Technology is Here!  Microsoft Excel
Your New Fancy Translation Technology is Here! Microsoft Excel

Microsoft Excel probably (no, I haven’t done the research or care to, either) remains the most widely used piece of translation toolkit today. Sure, only 10% of the application’s functionality is used by 90% of translators, 90% of the time (sounds familiar?), but that’s what they want, it works, it’s available, and it’s relatively easy to use.

But, do translators associate the term translation technology with Microsoft Excel? I suspect not.

The purpose of technology used in work should be to augment the things that users love to do, and to automate the crap they hate and have to do. Such realization shouldn’t involve a self-conscious thought of “Hey, I’m using technology!” but just feeling great about getting stuff done simply and easily, finishing early, collecting the kids, hitting the pub, and getting paid promptly.

User experience is about empathizing with users so they’ll feel good about using tech in work sure, but it’s also about delivering real productivity, so there’s a return on investment when buying that expensive “solution”.

This stuff ain’t cheap.

This lack of empathy or understanding of real users exists in the translation industry with this “translation technology” stuff too, though not always. At times tools get it right, the tech is taken to, and is loved.

And then the upgrade or an acquisition comes along…

While I don’t agree with everything in the Huffington Post article, and I don’t agree that many translators hate technology, I am glad that Nataly Kelly has offered up some provocative points for consideration and debate, especially the UX-related one.

It’ll be a mark of industry professionalism as to how that debate unfolds. 

As to why translators are left out of the requirements gathering side of technology development is another question, but the answer is not unique. Oh, did I mention that I teach a course about that?

For too long, real end users have just had to “get on with it.” 

A bit like with those crapplications.

Ultan Ó Broin
Ultan Ó Broin (@localization), is an independent UX consultant. With three decades of UX and L10n experience and outreach, he specializes in helping people ensure their global digital transformation makes sense culturally and also reflects how users behave locally. Any views expressed are his own. Especially the ones you agree with.

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