More lost in translation

Spotted on the packaging of a laptop shell made by Speck. According to their website, their offices are “…filled with a crew of dedicated (dare we say obsessed) folks who really know their stuff. Hmm.

How much can a malapropism weigh?

Lightweight=briquet. Huh?

Briquet is French for a lighter, as in cigarette lighter. Oh, and no need for the hyphen between très and mince. In fact, no need for mince. Why not just ultra fin et ultra léger.


When free isn’t free

It’s very trendy in France to pepper advertising and marketing with English words, especially when naming things. Here, for example, is a promotion from Hygena fitted kitchens called, in French, “Kitchen Weeks.”

How French

As amusing and/or grating as this can be on the ears of English speakers, and overlooking for a moment the way it gives some folks an overinflated sense of their command of English, few people think much about what happens when the borrowed words shift context.

Let me explain.

One of France’s leading telecos is a company named Free. It has equipped millions of homes with WiFi broadband routers. These routers are configured to let other Free subscribers connect wirelessly to the Internet. Imagine you have a laptop and Free broadband at home. If you take your laptop on vacation and find yourself within range of someone’s Free router, you can connect to the Net…for free.

Not a bad idea. Now imagine you are a foreign tourist desperately seeking to connect to the Internet. Your computer/smartphone tells you that there is FreeWiFi near you. There’s no padlock, so you connect, but it doesn’t work.

Wouldn't you click on it?

This happens daily throughout France. Now, the other telcos have similar systems, but their SSIDs are clearer.

You’d be surprised just how often FreeWiFi comes up in discussion. In one way or another, everyone says: “FreeWiFi, WTF?” And it’s not limited for foreigners. Even some French people don’t make the connection between the network name and the teleco.

I’ll bet thousands of people leave France every day, puzzled and a bit miffed. They go home saying “Nice city, but FreeWiFi in Paris is a scam.”

Here’s a suggestion to the people at Free: clarify your SSID, slap a padlock on it, or at least put a message in English on your log-in screen.

Buttons and patterns: The devil is in the details

I’m not going crazy. But I thought I was, because of appointment invitations.

I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I’d receive an invitation, click or tap the accept button (depending on the device), and then discover it wasn’t in my calendar. It was driving me crazy. Clients would call me to ask why I had declined their invitations. I was sure there was a software bug. I scoured the iCal knowledge base, but to no avail. Maybe it was the fault of those pesky Outlook users. It must be Microsoft’s fault, I thought.

Then the other day I found the problem. Here’s what the bottom of an invitation looks like in iCal.

iCal (Lion) invitation

Here it is on an iPad.

iPad invitation

And on an iPhone.

iPhone invitation

See the problem? The buttons aren’t in the same order. Every time I accepted an invitation on the iPhone I would automatically tap the button on the far right. It was force of habit, and since I was usually using the iPhone while on the go, I didn’t pay much attention to the interface. I was trusting a pattern. Like the one that says that the windshield wiper controls are on the righthand stalk. Doh.

I assumed that since all three applications were from the same company that the interface would be the same. I could understand the buttons having one pattern in iOS and another in MacOS, but oddly enough, it’s the two iOS applications that are different. Go figure.

It reminded me that as our digital ecosystems get larger and larger, spanning multiple platforms and devices, we need to be more careful than ever with ensuring a consistent experience across the board and at all levels.

Now if someone would just go and fix this, please.

Tale of two city maps

While wandering around London, where I’m attending CS Forum 11, I’ve got lost a couple times. So I’ve found myself consulting map signs on the sidewalk.

Here are close-ups of two that I used. They are very similar, but one was instantly more helpful than the other. Can you guess which one and why?


For me the second one is the winner, thanks to the line directly perpendicular to the “you are here” arrow.

That little line represents the street sign I was looking at, so I instantly knew which way I was facing. That information combined with my knowledge of where I wanted to go helped me get there faster.

Good navigation not only tells you where you are, but also give you orientation — it accounts for your context.

A plea for the inverted pyramid

Spotted this while waiting for an x-ray. It’s a poster explaining the risk of allergies to iodine used as a contrast agent in medical imaging.

Honestly, the graphic design and structure do nothing to reassure and inform. The most important message is in the conclusion, but you have to wade through a mess of words and jargon to get there. And don’t even get me started on the typography.


Does your content strategy have principles?

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of visual, UX and software designers recently. The practice of design has always fascinated me. It started early on, when I received a crash course on graphic design from the first art director I ever worked with. He taught me that I shouldn’t write or think in a bubble, disconnected from the design. He taught me that thanks to design the value of the whole was greater than the sum of the words and the pictures.

His early lessons clued me into the basic principles of design. Then, as my career took me into web content, I began hearing about design principles from the UX people I worked with.

Their design principles were different. They were like a manifesto for the project, steering design choices and serving as a litmus test for new features and developments. Here are some examples:

I discovered that what these design principles said – and how they said it – conveyed something much deeper than what you find in a set of boring technical specification or client brief (or a style guide for that matter).

Applicable to CS?

I think it would be a good idea if content strategy projects had their own set of content design principles.

Erin Kissane outlines seven basic principles of content strategy in the first chapter of her book The Elements of Content Strategy:

  • Good content is appropriate
  • Good content is useful
  • Good content is user-centered
  • Good content is clear
  • Good content is consistent
  • Good content is concise
  • Good content is supported

I totally agree with them; they are mandatories for all CS projects. But why not push the idea a step further and create design principles for your own project?

A marketing-driven project might have principles like:

  • When available, video content front and center
  • Demonstrates product benefits (show don’t tell)
  • Make content enjoyable on any device
  • Use questions as conversation starters
  • Digestible doses, not tedious screeds

While a customer service project might have these:

  • Write for your grandmother
  • Never talk down
  • Break answers into clear steps
  • Always ask if the content was helpful
  • English isn’t everyone’s mother tongue

I have found that writing design principles for a project’s content strategy can help:

  • Establish the tone of voice of the content before the creation begins
  • Obtain management buy-in (because they’re short)
  • Inform writers about style
  • Translate branding to content
  • Address business objectives
  • Guide UX
  • Clue in web designers to content requirements
  • Ward off backseat writers and grammarians

More deviously, they can also help battle my two pet peeves: best practices and the God Complex. Best practices are a good idea that has been perverted by laziness. They turn people into copiers and followers; they blunt ambition. Content strategy projects are typically too complex for one person to have all the answers. There’s no such thing as a right content strategy or a wrong strategy. You either have one or you don’t. Each one should be as original as your organization is.

In my experience, writing design principles helps move you from paying too much attention to what other people are doing and saying (and never making an original decision) to taking a clear first step towards full ownership of the content.

Playing with the truth

How not to endear yourself to weary travelers.

Don’t fib in English in the headline and tell the truth in French in the subhead.

15 minutes on complimentary Wi-Fi isn’t Wi-Fi For Free.



More underwear showing: The escape of the lorem ipsum

While wireframes with lorem ipsum raise the hackles of most content strategists, it’s even worse when it’s allowed to run wild in a production environment. Case in point: I stumbled across this piece of filler content (test bandeau) on the Château de Versailles home page this morning. Oops.

Don't let your lorem ipsum run wild


Contextualized targeting has limits

Trying to contextualize advertising on mobile devices has its limits.

I’m a regular users of the NYT iPhone app. Over the few months I’ve started seeing advertising for French products and services, which isn’t a bad idea.

But it’s important to get the demographics right. For example, trying to sell me a debit card for teenagers is a waste of money.


Lost in translation

Some translations are so bad that they have an almost surreal quality to them. I spotted this one yesterday in a Paris parking garage/car park.


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