As an Australian, you can’t escape colloquial language. Whether you have ‘no worries’ or ‘heaps’ of worries that make you ‘mad as a cut snake’, some of our slang phrases can be difficult to decipher for non-Australians. As conversational interfaces become common aspects of UX, designers will have to be conscious of communication barriers caused by cultural identity or risk alienating users.
It’s estimated that only 5% of the world’s population speak English natively and only a fraction of these are familiar with Australian English. Although we’re strongly multicultural, many Australians still identify with our unique identity and deplore anything that threatens it. Our identity is so important to us that our government even documents what it is to be Australian. Dozens of languages are spoken in Australia but our take on traditional English has contributed to who we are.
Conversational interfaces are popular because they’re built on a foundation of trust. Just look at a chatbot. It’s easy to trust because it’s familiar and aims to resolve user needs through natural communication. A good chatbot talks and reacts like a living person. The only expectation from a chatbot is a user can interact with it using everyday language, however even simple interactions like a greeting can be vastly different among English speakers.
A few years ago, my partner and I were travelling through Japan and decided to grab a burger to ease my homesickness. Two Japanese students completely fluent in American English asked to sit with us so they could talk to us in English. I mindlessly said “no worries” and asked them “how’s it going?”. Both students didn’t know how to respond as they didn’t understand these Australian phrases. They awkwardly glanced at each other and apologised for the confusion. I returned their apology and asked how they were, which they immediately responded to in clear English. We sat with the guys for hours talking about their dreams of becoming hotel concierges but our conversation started off on the wrong foot because I used a confusing Australian greeting.
The language used in designed experiences has a major impact on comprehension and can be the cause of severe anxiety for users, especially when personal information and money is being transacted. When users experience anxiety from misunderstanding a task, they’re more likely to seek help or abandon the interaction completely. A chatbot using casual language can increase the comfort levels of some users but could also put unnecessary stress on other users if the messages use confusing language. An informal chatbot could even anger users who mistake it for being condescending.
Building a positive relationship with users is the sole purpose of conversational interfaces and relationships are only developed through a mutual understanding. Designers can’t ignore the impact language has on users – at least until technology catches up and becomes emotionally and culturally intelligent enough to find the right balance of casual and formal language.