Don’t geolocate me – it’s bad UX!

Software publishers, webmasters, listen up, and listen up carefully!

The fact that I happen to be in Finland doesn’t mean I need my software or web pages installed or served up in Finnish. That would be true even if I were Finnish. Many Finns speak Swedish as their native language, and the Saami people have their own languages, many of them endangered.

Just because I happen to be in Spain doesn’t mean I need my software or web pages installed or served up in Spanish. That would be true even if I were Spanish. People in Spain also have Catalan, Gallego, or Euskadi for native languages.

I live part of my life in Catalonia, and I speak both Spanish and Catalan, but English is my first language, and I prefer to read material written in English in the original version. All my computers but one have English operating systems installed, but many programmes and web sites insist on giving me the language of my IP address or GPS coordinates, or of the regional settings that I have installed on my system (in my case, French keyboard, date and time formats, currency, etc. – I also live part of my life in France). Worse, some of them don’t let you change even after the fact.

Get it? I’m an international person. My computer And I speak and use many languages. In many places. But we most like to function in English, except when the information is originally in a language I know or is culturally specific.

Here’s a real life experience with a web service many of us use, Survey Monkey. I set up an account using the English interface. If I type the general URL for the site in Barcelona, the interface comes up in Spanish. This is not necessarily bad usability, most people with IP addresses in Spain will prefer that language – except if they are in Catalonia. Except if they are in the Basque country. Except if they are in Galicia. OK, so I type in my user ID and password, but guess what? It doesn’t know me. Now what? Well, one of the things I do is look for a language selection. But would most users know to do that? Anyway, finding it on Survey Monkey’s login page is no easy feat. It’s way at the bottom. I changed the language to English, eventually, and tried again. Success this time, I got in.

Next time I went to Survey Monkey I was on the same (laptop) computer, but in France. Surprise, the French interface comes up, and it doesn’t know me! Change to English, success.

Frustrated, I searched the settings for a language preference. There is none. Come on, guys,
even Google lets you pick your interface language and set it, and they know who you are in any language. And they speak a lot more of them than you do.

In a fit of pique, I treated Survey Monkey to an email with my opinion. I got a terse reply from a French representative telling me that most people in France prefer to speak French and that I could switch languages. Thanks.

Oddly, another offender is Canon printers. If you install their software from a CD it gives you a nice language choice screen. But if you download their drivers or other software, you get what they give you, which is the language of your regional settings. Even from the English download site!

These are clearly examples of poor thinking, leading to poor user experience.

Just because we know how to geolocate someone doesn’t mean we should. I would rather you looked at what language my system is in. It seems to me, this gives you a better guess about what language I want to use.

What do you think?

Author: Ray

Ray Gallon is president and co-founder of The Transformation Society (, a research, training and consulting company focusing on building learning organisations that can manage complexity and the digital transformation. He has over 40 years as a communicator, first as an award-winning radio producer and journalist, then in the technical content industries. His management experience includes a stint as program manager of WNYC-FM, New York City’s public radio station. Ray is a self-described "humanist nerd," and has always been interested in the meeting point between technology and culture, and has used his broad experience to advantage with companies such as IBM, General Electric Health Care, Alcatel, 3M, and the OECD, as well as in smaller companies and startup enterprises. Ray recently helped co-found the Information 4.0 Consortium ( and serves as its current president. Ray is a university lecturer and a keynote speaker at events throughout the world. He has contributed articles and chapters to many books and periodicals and is the editor of the recently published “Language of Technical Communication” (XML Press).

3 thoughts on “Don’t geolocate me – it’s bad UX!”

  1. I had a related issue in Russia. The car organised by work did not pick me up to take me to the airport. I had to take a hotel car, and the traffic was horrendous. I was still in the car on the way to the airport at 3:50pm for a 4:50pm flight! I turned global roaming on my phone, and started trying to find local phone number for Cathay Pacific to inform them I was on my way. All the Russian contact details were in a page that was Russian-only. I couldn’t even find a Chinese version, but that wouldnt have helped me any more than Russian. I just had to hope I got to the checkin counter before the 45 minute checkin cutoff.
    I also phoned my husband in Australia, but he could not find any other listing for Catahy Russian details in Engilsh.

  2. Important points, brother mine. The passionate desire initiated by Bill Gates-world to anticipate one’s every desire and deliver it (above all to marketers, but also to you in the belief that this is what you want) leads to absurdities like the experiences you and Kirsty relate. The more we try to make our machines into wish-fulfilling instruments, the more these frustrations keep emerging. Let humans be humans, and control our own wishes, including how much privacy/revelation we choose to make to said marketers.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this notion that software vendors are ASS-U-ME ing what we want for a long time. Since Windows has been mentioned, one thing I notice is that while the Windows UI has gotten more and more user friendly over time, the number of things it does behind your back (with no possibility for you to access it, even if you want to) has increased. One of the most recent nuts things they’ve done is remove the indications that your network is sending/receiving from the network task bar icon. I consider this to be valuable information, especially if I don’t happen to be next to my DSL modem to see if there’s activity going on.

    MAC OSX has never had neither a network flow nor a disk access indicator. Since disks are now silent, or nearly so, I also find this annoying.

    Animated cursors continue being animated even if your system is frozen – the fact that they are moving does NOT tell you that the system is functioning. Disk access can mean that it is. Repeated rhythmic access can mean that the system is frozen in some sort of infinite loop. This is useful information that saves time and grief.

    Why don’t designers get it?

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