English Only: Barrier to Adoption [en]

*Foreword: this turned into a rather longer post than I had expected. The importance of language and localization online is one of my pet topics (I’ve just decided that it would be what I’d [talk about at BlogCamp](http://barcamp.ch/BlogCampSwitzerland#unAgenda), rather than teenagers and stuff), so I do tend to get carried away a little.*

I was surprised last night to realise that this wasn’t necessarily obvious — so I think it’s probably worth a blog post.

**The fact a service is in English only is a showstopper for many non-native speakers, hence a barrier to wider adoption in Europe.**

But doesn’t everybody speak English, more or less? Isn’t it the *lingua franca* of today that **everybody** speaks? It isn’t. At least not in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and I’m certain there are many other places in Europe where the situation is similar.

Come and spend a little time in Lausanne, for example, and try communicating in English with the man on the street. Even if many people have done a couple of years of English at school, most have never had any use for it after that and have promptly forgotten it. German is a way more important “foreign language” around here, as it is the linguistic majority in Switzerland, and most administrative centers of big companies (and the government) are in the German-speaking part of the country (which doesn’t mean that everybody speaks German, either).

The people who are reasonably comfortable with English around here will most often be those who have taken up higher academic studies, particularly in scientific subjects (“soft” and “hard” science alike).

And if I’m the person who comes to your mind when you think “Swiss”, think again — my father is British, I was born in England, went to an English medium school and spoke English at home until I was 8, conversed regularly with English-speaking grandparents during my growing years, and never stopped reading in English: all that gave me enough of a headstart that even though my English had become very rusty at the end of my teens, I dove into the English-speaking internet with a passion, and spent an anglophone [year in India](/logbook/). So, no. I’m not your average Lausanne-living French-speaker. I’m a strange bilingual beast.

Imagine somebody whose native language is not English, even though they may theoretically know enough English to get around if you parachuted them into London. (Let’s forget about the man on the street who barely understands you when you ask where the station is.) I like to think of [my (step-)sister](http://isablog.wordpress.com/) as a good test-case (not that I want to insist on the “step-“, but it explains why she isn’t bilingual). She took up the “modern languages” path at school, which means she did German, English, and Italian during her teenage years, and ended up being quite proficient in all three (she’s pretty good with languages). She went to university after that and used some English during her studies. But since then, she honestly hasn’t had much use for the language. She’ll read my blog in English, can converse reasonably comfortably, but will tend to watch the TV series I lend her in the dubbed French version.

I’m telling you this to help paint a picture of somebody which you might (legitimately) classify as “speaks English”, but for whom it represents an extra effort. And again, I’d like to insist, my sister would be very representative of most people around here who “speak English but don’t use it regularly at work”. That is already not representative of the general population, who “did a bit of English at school but forgot it all” and can barely communicate with the lost English-speaking tourist. Oh, and forget about the teenagers: they start English at school when they’re 13, and by the time they’re 15-16 they *might* (if they are lucky) have enough knowledge of it to converse on everyday topics (again: learning German starts a few years before that, and is more important in the business world). This is the state of “speaking English” around here.

A service or tool which is not available in French faces a barrier to adoption in the *Suisse Romande* on two levels:

– first of all, there are people who simply don’t know enough English to understand what’s written on the sign-up page;
– second, there are people who would understand most of what’s on the sign-up page, but for whom it represents and extra effort.

Let’s concentrate on the second batch. An *extra effort”?! Lazy people! Think of it. All this talk about making applications more usable, about optimizing the sign-up process to make it so painless that people can do it with their eyes closed? Well, throw a page in a foreign language at most normal people and they’ll perceive it as an extra difficulty. And it may very well be the one that just makes them navigate away from the page and never come back. Same goes for using the service or application once they have signed up: it makes everything more complicated, and people anticipate that.

Let’s look at some examples.

The first example isn’t exactly about a web service or application, but it shows how important language is for the adoption of new ideas (this isn’t anything groundbreaking if you look at human history, but sometimes the web seems to forget that the world hasn’t changed that much…). Thanks for bearing with me while I ramble on.

In February 2001, I briefly mentioned [the WaSP Browser Push](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2001/02/16/to-hell-with-bad-browsers/) and realised that the French-speaking web was really [“behind” on design and web standards ressources](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2001/02/13/poor-french-web/). I also realised that although [there was interest for web standards](http://mammouthland.free.fr/weblog/2001/fevrier_01.php3), many French-speaking people couldn’t read the original English material. This encouraged me to [blog in French about it](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2001/02/24/tableaux-ou-non/), [translate Zeldman’s article](http://pompage.net/pompe/paitre/), [launching](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2001/03/21/faire-part/) the translation site [pompage.net](http://pompage.net/) in the process. Pompage.net, and the [associated mailing-list](http://fr.groups.yahoo.com/group/pompeurs/), followed a year or so later by [OpenWeb](http://openweb.eu.org/), eventually became a hub for the budding francophone web standards community, which is still very active to this day.

([What happened with the Swiss Blog Awards](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2006/04/30/about-the-swiss-blog-awards-sbaw/) is in my opinion another example of how important language issues are.)

Back to web applications proper. [Flickr](http://flickr.com) is an application I love, but I have a hard time getting people to sign up and use it, even when I’ve walked them through the lengthy Yahoo-ID process. [WordPress.com](http://fr.wordpress.com), on the other hand, exists in French, and I can now easily persuade my friends and clients to open blogs there. There is a strong [French-speaking WordPress community](http://wordpress-fr.net/) too. A few years ago, when the translation and support were not what they are now, a very nice little blogging tool named [DotClear](http://www.dotclear.net/) became hugely popular amongst francophone bloggers (and it still is!) in part because it was in French when other major blogging solutions were insufficient in that respect.

Regarding WordPress, I’d like to point out the [community-driven translation effort](http://translate.wordpress.com/) to which everybody can contribute. Such an open way of doing things has its pitfalls (like dreadful, dreadful translations which linger on the home page until somebody comes along to correct them) but overall, I think the benefits outweigh the risks. In almost no time, dozens of localized versions can be made available, maintained by those who know the language best.

Let’s look at teenagers. When [MySpace](http://myspace.com) was all that was being talked about in the US, French-speaking teenagers were going wild on [skyblog](http://skyblog.com). MySpace is catching up a bit now because it [also exists in French](http://fr.myspace.com/). [Facebook](http://www.facebook.com/)? In English, nobody here has heard of it. [Live Messenger aka MSN](http://www.windowslive.fr/messenger/default.asp)? Very much in French, [unlike ICQ](http://icq.com/), which is only used here by anglophile early adopters.

[Skype](http://skype.com/intl/fr/) and [GMail](http://gmail.com)/[GTalk](http://www.google.com/talk/intl/fr/) are really taking off here now that they are available in French.

Learning to use a new service, or just trying out the latest toy, can be challenging enough an experience for the average user without adding the extra hurdle of having to struggle with an unfamiliar language. Even though a non-localized service like Flickr may be the home to [various linguistic groups](http://www.flickr.com/groups/topic/69039/), it’s important to keep in mind that their members will tend to be the more “anglophone” of this language group, and are not representative.

**The bottom line is that even with a lot of encouragement, most local people around here are not going to use a service which doesn’t talk to them in their language.**

***9:52 Afterthought credit:***

I just realised that this article on [why startups condense in America](http://www.paulgraham.com/america.html) was the little seed planted a few days ago which finally brought me to writing this post. I haven’t read all the article, but this little part of it struck me and has been working in the background ever since:

> What sustains a startup in the beginning is the prospect of getting their initial product out. The successful ones therefore make the first version as simple as possible. In the US they usually begin by making something just for the local market.

> This works in America, because the local market is 300 million people. It wouldn’t work so well in Sweden. In a small country, a startup has a harder task: they have to sell internationally from the start.

> The EU was designed partly to simulate a single, large domestic market. The problem is that the inhabitants still speak many different languages. So a software startup in Sweden is still at a disadvantage relative to one in the US, because they have to deal with internationalization from the beginning. It’s significant that the most famous recent startup in Europe, Skype, worked on a problem that was intrinsically international.

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Why I Got Lost in LeWeb3 Videos [en]

[fr] Petit tour des problèmes d'ergonomie qui ont été la source de mon billet précédent concernant vpod.tv.

Right, I’ve somewhat figured out how I managed to [get lost in the LeWeb3 videos](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/01/20/videos-leweb3/) and not find things like permalinks or slider bars.

When you’re on the [fullscreen page](http://my.vpod.tv/channel.html), no controls are clearly visible. Where is the pause button? There is “launch your TV” (tried that, but never go the answer to what it does, too slow to load for me) but that’s about it. When you click on individual videos, the URL never varies from http://my.vpod.tv/channel.html. Well, I poked around as I could, and gave up.

One thing I had overlooked was the four little icons near the bottom of the video which is playing (you can click on all the photos I’m showing here to access notes and extra info):

20070121-vpod-fullscreen-navigation

Which one would you click on? Well, after I really started to suspect there must be a way out, I tried them all. The third one was the most interesting to me:

20070121-vpod-fullscreen-menu-buttons

To be fair, when you mouseover the buttons, some text is displayed. For example, text for the four buttons in the first photograph is “Sound”, “Video Greeting”, “Menu”, “ShowHide”. Unfortunately, you **do** have to mouseover to get to that information, as the icons themselves are not all self-explanatory. I definitely do not expect to find a menu listing of useful stuff I might want to do under the vpod.tv logo.

One shouldn’t expect a site user to drag his mouse over every portion of the screen which might be clickable to see what it is. Scanning available options is a job meant for the eye, not the hand. To make matters worse here, the mouseover text takes roughly twice the time a normal “title” tooltip would take to appear (on my system). A good two seconds. Who knows — I might even have mouseovered those icons and come to the conclusion there were no tooltips, when they didn’t appear after the expected delay.

The problem repeats itself. Look at the vertical bar of icons in the screenshot above. Have a guess. What do you expect them to do? Well, here is what the tooltips say, from top to bottom: “Share”, “Get link”, “RSS feed”, “Info”, “Flag it”, “Help”, and “About us…” — you’ll notice that the same vpod.tv logo is used for the “About us…” link as for the “Menu” one. It makes much more sense for “About us…”

In short, [rather poor usability](http://www.webpagesthatsuck.com/mysterymeatnavigation.html) for essential navigation items and functionalities on a page like this.

Now, I’m still hunting for a permalink to the video I’m watching, remember? “Get link” sounds like a good one, though “Info” is tempting too (chances I’d click on that directly if I start mouseovering from the bottom, which would be logical as that is where my cursor was).

20070121-vpod-fullscreen-getlink-dialog

Bingo! There’s my permalink. Let’s click on it.

20070121-vpod-video-page-info

Well, that worked as expected. I get to see the video, I can display useful information about it, and I can even download it. Nice. The only sad part is that the URL in the address bar has changed from http://portal.vpod.tv/leweb3/69391 to http://portal.vpod.tv/#page:player. What a pity!

A slider bar appears when I put my mouse over the video, and there is a pause/play button. I’m still not sure if such features are available in the [fullscreen version](http://my.vpod.tv/) and I couldn’t find them, or simply not available. The slider works, but unfortunately doesn’t tell me which moment of the video I’m aiming for, so it’s a bit hit-and-miss if, say, you want to jump to minute 8 of my video to hear me try to talk (hint, hint).

So, I started watching [my panel](http://portal.vpod.tv/leweb3/69391). The sound is good, and that’s pretty cool (as I heard that it was almost unintelligable during the conference for people who were listening in on the stream). Unfortunately, somebody must have been a little overenthusiastic about compression and the small amount of key frames, because LeWeb3 speakers seem to all have contracted a really horrible skin disease which makes unsightly blemishes appear on their skin at regular intervals:

20070121-vpod-compression-illness 20070121-vpod-compression-illness-scott

Seems like [Scott Rafer](http://rafer.wirelessink.com/) and I should both go and see a dermatologist pretty quickly, doesn’t it?

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Vidéos LeWeb3 [fr]

[en] LeWeb3 videos are online. Can't use them. Gah.

Ah oui! j’oubliais. Parlant [LeWeb3](http://www.leweb3.com/), les [vidéos sont a disposition](http://www.loiclemeur.com/france/2007/01/toutes_les_vido.html) — mais arghl! je proteste:

pas possible de télécharger les vidéos pour les voir offline Si, on peut.
pas possible de faire un lien vers une vidéo particulière Sisi, on peut.
pas possible d’avancer ou de sauter à un point défini dans une vidéo Sisi.
– je ne trouve pas la vidéo de la [conférence de danah](http://steph.wordpress.com/2006/12/12/le-web-3-danah-boyd/)
– le plein écran, franchement, si ça veut dire “pixellisé et plein d’artefacts”, je m’en passe — je préfère petit et net à grand et flou (voir ce que fait [PodTech](http://podtech.net/home/) en comparaison)

Je suis peut-être bicle, hein…

*(Ma table ronde est la… 18ème vidéo environ, si j’ai bien compté: “Have communities replaced the Media”.)*

Edit 21.01: bon, donc, merci de m’avoir répondu. Je vais faire une petite enquête interne pour tenter de saisir pourquoi j’ai raté tout ça!

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Franchement, PostFinance! [fr]

[en] I tried to open a Post Office account online. Filled in a bunch of forms. Now, a few days later, I finally receive a letter telling me I need to go to the office itself and fill in the forms. Great. The website could have told me that. Had I known, my account would have been open by now.

Inspirée par l’exemple d'[Anne Dominique](http://annedominique.wordpress.com/), j’ai décidé d’ouvrir un [Compte Jaune](http://www.postfinance.ch/pf/content/fr/seg/priv/pay/account/chf.na_priv.html “Conservez précieusement ce lien, mettre la main dessus a été un parcours du combattant.”).

C’était samedi. D’abord, j’ai pensé que j’allais faire simple, et faire un saut à  la poste du quartier. Mais, doute. Quelles étaient les heures d’ouverture? Après avoir perdu près de quinze minutes sur le site à  chercher l’information (je sais qu’elle y est, je me souviens l’avoir trouvée il y a quelques mois), j’ai renoncé et appelé le numéro de service. Ouverture de 9h-11h, j’étais un peu tard.

“Tant pis!” me dis-je, je vais faire ça en ligne. J’ai donc [rempli des tas de formulaires](https://www.postfinance.ch/pf/content/fr/seg/priv/pay/account/chf/openaccount.na_priv.html) pour demander l’ouverture d’un compte.

Aujourd’hui, mercredi, je reçois un courrier de la poste. Génial, c’est sans doute le contrat à  signer et renvoyer! Que non. Un tas de documentation, et une très gentille lettre qui me remercie de mon intérêt et qui m’annonce qu’il n’y a rien de plus simple que d’ouvrir un Compte Jaune. Il suffit de compléter les documents d’ouverture (lesquels? je refais trois fois le tour du contenu du courrier, rien en vue) et de les remettre à  un guichet de poste en présentant une carte d’identité.

Ben franchement, pour qu’on me dise ça, il n’y avait pas besoin de me faire remplir trois formulaires. J’aurais préféré que le site me dise tout de go qu’il fallait que j’aille au guichet. Ce serait fait, maintenant, si j’avais su. Grmph.

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Je teste les blogs de Romandie.com [fr]

[en] Testing a Swiss blogging platform.

J’ai finalement [ouvert un blog chez Romandie.com](http://stephanie.romandie.com/) afin de jouer un peu avec la plate-forme, et de donner du feedback (pour autant qu’il soit entendu!) pour son amélioration. Il y a du bon, voire du très bon, et du moins bon, voire du franchement pas bon.

Vous trouverez mes [réflexions, conseils et aventures sur le blog lui-même](http://stephanie.romandie.com/).

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Video Complaints [en]

[fr] Souvent pas facile de voir les jolies choses vidéo qu'on nous met à  disposition sur le web. Je me plains un peu.

Stupid user or balkanisation?

I’m listening to a (http://www.freestudios.tv/?cdroite=tablo_lift06). First of all I got a pop-up window which looked like a “go no further, you don’t have what it takes to view this” message. Actually, there’s a RealPlayer link in there. OK, cool. They have a partial podcast of the event, but I can’t open it in iTunes. What a shame!

At LIFT’06, I learnt that part of [Robert Scoble](http://scobleizer.wordpress.com “Microsoft’s official blogger.”)’s job is barging into people’s offices with a camcorder and saying “hi there, what do you do at Microsoft?” So I headed off to [Channel9](http://channel9.msdn.com/) to try and listen to some. My first impression upon landing on the site, I have to say, was “ew, what a mess! Where do I find Robert’s stuff in there?” OK, I found one: [Jenny Lam – Designing Experiences at Microsoft](http://channel9.msdn.com/Showpost.aspx?postid=161254). Click, click. Launches VLC. Doesn’t work 🙁 Quicktime usually works. Ah, damn, Quicktime is an Apple thing, isn’t it?

Yep, I’m running OSX, Firefox, and I’m not exactly a Microsoft fan. I’ve been very positively impressed, though, from what I learnt that Microsoft was doing in the transparency department. Aren’t I precisely the kind of audience Channel9 could be interested in catering to? Make it easy for me, please 🙂

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Tags and Categories are not the Same! [en]

[fr] Les tags et les catégories, ce n'est pas la même chose. En bref, les catégories forment une structure hiérarchique, prédéfinie, qui régit l'architecture de notre contenu et aide autrui à s'y retrouver. Les tags sont spontanés, ad hoc, de granularité variable, tournés vers le partage et la recherche d'information.

Update, Sept. 2007: when I saw Matt in San Francisco this winter, he told me he had finally “seen the light” (his words!) about tags and categories. Six months later, it’s a reality for WordPress users. Thanks for listening.

I got a bit heated up last night between [Matt’s comment that tags and categories function the same](http://steph.wordpress.com/2006/02/09/give-us-real-tags-on-wordpresscom/#comment-182) and a discussion I was having with [Kevin](http://epeus.blogspot.com/) on IM at the same time, about the fact that [Technorati parses categories as tags](http://technorati.com/help/tags.html).

I went back to read two of my old posts: [Technorati Tagified](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2005/01/14/technorati-tagified/) and [Plugin Idea: Weighted Tags by Category](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2005/01/28/plugin-idea-weighted-tags-by-category/) which I wrote about a year ago. In both, it’s very clear that as a user, I don’t percieve tags to be the same thing as categories. Tags were something like “public keywords”. Is anybody here going to say that keywords and categories are the same thing? (There is a difference between keywords and tags, but this isn’t the topic here; keywords and tags are IMHO much closer in nature than tags and categories).

Here are, in my opinion, the main differences between tags and categories, from the “tagger” point of view.

– categories exist before the item I’m categorizing, whereas tags are created in reaction to the item, often in an ad hoc manner: I need to fit the item in a category, but I adapt tags to the item;
– categories should be few, tags many;
– categories are expected to have a pretty constant granularity, whereas tags can be very general like “[switzerland](http://technorati.com/tag/switzerland)” or very particular like “[bloggyfriday](http://technorati.com/tag/bloggyfriday)”;
– categories are planned, tags are spontanous, they have a brainstorm-like nature, as [Kevin explains very well](http://epeus.blogspot.com/2005_10_01_epeus_archive.html#113011082782089285): You look at the picture and type in the few words it makes you think of, move on to the next, and you’re done.
– relations between categories are tree-like, but those between tags are network-like;
– categories are something you choose, tags are generally something you gush out;
– categories help me classify what I’m talking about, and tags help me share or spread it;
– …

There’s nothing wrong with Technorati treating categories as tags. I’d say categories are a kind of tag. They are special tags you plan in advance to delimit zones of content, and that you display them on your blog to help your readers find their way through what you say or separate areas of interest (ie, my Grandma will be interested by my [Life and Ramblings](http://steph.wordpress.com/tag/life) category and subscribe to that if she has an RSS reader, but she knows she doesn’t care about anything in the [Geek](http://steph.wordpress.com/tag/geek/) category. (By the way, CTTS is not a good example of this, the categories are a real mess.)

So, let’s say categories are tags. I can agree with that. But tags are not categories! Tags help people going through a “search” process. Click on a tag to see related posts/photos. See things outside the world of this particular weblog which have the same label attached. Provide a handy label to [collect writings, photos, and stuff from a wide variety of people](http://technorati.com/tag/lift06 “The LIFT06 tag.”) without requiring them to change the architecture of their blog content (their categories). If you want to, yeah, you can drop categories and use only tags. It works on [http://del.icio.us/](del.icio.us). But have you noticed how most Flickr users have [http://flickr.com/photos/bunny/sets/](sets) in addition to tagging their photos? Sets aren’t categories, but they can be close. They are a way of presenting and organizing things for human beings rather than machines, search engines, database queries.

To get back to [my complaint that WordPress.com does not provide real tags](http://steph.wordpress.com/2006/02/09/give-us-real-tags-on-wordpresscom/), it’s mainly a question of user interface. I don’t care if from a software point of view, tags and categories are the same thing for WordPress. As a user, I need a field in which I can let my fingers gush out keyword-tags once I’ve finished writing my post. I also need someplace to define and structure category-tags. I need to be able to define how to display these two kids of tags (if you want to call them both that) on my blog, because they are ways of classifying or labeling information which I live very differently.

Am I a tag weirdo? Do you also perceive a difference between tags and categories? How would you express or define it? If categories and tags are the same, the new WP2.0 interface for categories should make [the Bunny Tags Plugin](http://dev.wp-plugins.org/wiki/BunnysTechnoratiTags) obsolete — does it?

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Testing Hosted Blog Solutions [en]

I’ve set up a few test blogs on various hosted blogging farms. Nasty feedback for some of them.

[fr] J'ai ouvert des blogs-tests à  divers endroits qui offrent blogs et hébergement. Voici une liste de mes blogs-tests avec quelques commentaires.

I’ve started setting up test blogs here and there to try out hosted blogging solutions, as I’m eager to encourage people to start blogging, but I’m aware that getting server space, a domain, and installing WordPress isn’t something the casual user will do.

So, very brief review here, more details on the blogs themselves (which tend to be lists of complaints and problems I ran into while functioning in my lazy-lambda-user mode).

ViaBloga

My test blog is Chez Steph. ViaBloga is a cousin of Joueb.com, minus the community emphasis, which appears repulsive to some. (Think LiveJournal.)

I’ve run into a few bugs and usability problems there, which have always been quickly responded to and addressed by the staff. I should add that I’ve known Delphine and Stéphane for quite some time now, and that the latter personally asked me if I was interested in testing ViaBloga when they were starting with it.

ViaBloga has got wiki-like features I haven’t really managed to get into. One thing that really has me enthusiastic (and I discovered that today) is the list management system. Just add the url, it fetches the title of the link, the rss feed, and creates a thumbnail. Here is an example of what it can look like — look at Delphine’s blogroll, too. I’d love to see something like this rolled into a plugin for WordPress — it makes me feel like adding all sorts of links to my blog.

Skyblog

I’ve decided to go public with my skyblog, and I hope you appreciate my courage. Skyblog is clearly aimed at a very young public (teens), and even the language in the admin interface reflects that. Many of my pupils have skyblogs on which they post photos of their friends and make brief comments in sms-talk.

I find the blogs themselves ugly, and the admin interface is kludgy, though it seems it works, because my pupils always complain that WordPress is so hard to use and that skyblog is so much better and easier. One thing to be said, skyblog makes it really easy to upload photographs, so many of these skyblogs ressemble a vaguely commented photo album.

I hardly posted anything to my test blog, and upon checking it out again today I was amazed at the amount of (a) visits (nearly 1000) it had had, and (b) nasty aggressive comments complete strangers had left me. I’ve added a photo of my cat, I wonder what the reaction to that will be.

Blogsome

Blogsome is clearly my favourite. Here is my Blogsome test blog, complete with a Pink Lilies theme. It took me less than 30 seconds to open my weblog (a username, an e-mail address, and a title for the weblog — done.)

It’s WordPress, so I’m in known territory, and I’ve been busy posting bugs and comments in the forums. Blogsome is still young, and my biggest gripe for the moment is the caching problems — for example, changes to the template or links are not immediately reflected on the blog (though “publishing” a post helps).

If you’re looking for a free hosted blogging solution right now, Blogsome is the one I would recommend, along with Blogger, of course. I used Blogger for years, before Blogspot existed. I left mainly because it lacked certain features I wanted (like categories) — and I’d say that still now, it’s a little bit poor on the feature side. But it’s a good, reliable service which has been around long enough to be trusted without too many second thoughts.

MSN Spaces

I just opened a test blog at MSN Spaces. My first two posts complain quite a bit (my biggest gripe for the moment being that it doesn’t convert line breaks into paragraphs — a showstopper, if you ask me). My positive experience was changing the template — that worked fine.

So, if you’re interested, keep an eye on those blogs. I’m always happy to try things out and complain about all the problems I run into.

Edit 06.12.04: Got another test blog at NRJ blogs — though in my opinion you can barely call it a blog. I had to log out to figure out what my blog address was, and it seems totally impossible to make outgoing links. Keep an eye on the individual test blogs for comments on the different systems.

Edit 2: OK, got one at CanalBlog too. The admin interface completely takes over the browser, but it seems really usable (I didn’t run into any problems!) and the default layout is clean enough. Just an ad banner on top. That’s enough for tonight, folks!

Edit 3, 07.12.04: Add a 20six.fr test blog to the list. Follow-up post coming.

Edit 4: HautEtFort, and I think I’m done with creating test blogs. Gah.

Edit 5, 08.12.04: Hopefully the last bunch, but you never know. I seem to be suffering from some obsessive-compulsive blog opening disorder. LiveJournal, BlogSpot, Joueb and U-blog. Have I forgotten someone? I count 12 test blogs. Now let me go and update all my blogrolls.

Edit 6: A fresh new French service, open since yesterday: Mon-Blog.org, based on DotClear.

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Keeping The Flat Clean: Living Space As User Interface [en]

How I applied what I have understood about designing user interfaces to organising my flat so that it too is ‘usable’ and remains clean.

One of my ongoing post-study projects is reorganising my flat from top to bottom, hopefully throwing out half my stuff in the process. I have been thinking a bit about the way I store things.

First of all, I tend to try to minimise waste of space. I will organise things into cupboards and drawers so that they occupy the less space possible. Second, I tend to organise things with taxonomy rather than function in mind. I will try to store objects of the same type together, regardless of their respective frequency of use.

The result is a perpetually messy flat, with whole areas that I never use (places I do not go, cupboards I never open).

I have therefore been rethinking my whole living environment in terms of function and process. What do I use this thing for, and when? How do I deal with common tasks like washing up or doing my mail? And most important, how does clutter arise? An environment where each thing has a place is not sufficient to prevent clutter. If clutter arises, it is not due to “laziness”. It is because the storage system is not usable enough. It was not designed with the user in mind.

I have switched to considering my living space as a user interface rather than as a library of categorised items.

If I catch myself dumping something on the table instead of putting it away, I’ll try to identify what is preventing me from putting it where it belongs. I’ll try to bring this “where it belongs” closer to where I am naturally tempted to put it. (Instead of thinking “ooh I’m a bad girl, I’m not putting things away as I should,” which we all agree does not help in the least.)

Here are a couple of examples of what I have been doing.

First, I identified the main sources of clutter in my flat: dirty kitchen things, clothes, papers and books. Then I tried to analyse how these things ended up lying about my whole flat. I know that I can clean my flat spotless, and that within a couple of weeks it will be messy again. So obviously, there are things I do mechanically which create clutter. Something which breaks the natural “keeping clean” flow.

Let’s take the dirty dishes to start with. (Not the most glamorous example, but I’m sure there are many of you out there who can relate.) Why do I leave cups, glasses, or even plates lying around in various places? A first reason for this, obviously, is that I do not only eat in my kitchen. That’s a fact we will just have to live with. But why don’t I bring things back to the kitchen? Well, more often than not, the kitchen is in such a state that there wouldn’t really be any place to put them. The sink, of course, is already full of dirty dishes. We have here are perfect example of how disorganisation in one area leads to clutter elsewhere.

One factor which helps stuff pile up in my sink (despite my “fool-proof” method for taming dirty dishes) is that I usually have to make space on the drainer before I start washing up. (I’m one of these people who don’t dry dishes but leave them on the drainer to put them away “later”.) And putting the dishes away is a pain because my cupboard is so crammed with stuff that I have to empty half of it before being able to put my plates were they belong. That is where the bottleneck is. Or the limiting factor, if you prefer.

I realised that out of my four kitchen cupboards, there are only two that I regularly open. I proceeded to empty all the junk out of the others and get rid of the most of it (if I never open the cupboards, then I can’t really need what’s inside them, can I?) I then reorganised the things I use on a regular basis in all the available cupboards, focusing on “how easy will it be to put it back there?” rather than “could I use less space for this?”

One significant result concerns plates. (Don’t worry, we’ll soon be done with the kitchen things.) I have big plates and small plates, four of each. I used to keep the small plates piled up on the big ones, which meant that each time I wanted to put a big plate back in the cupboard, I had to lift up all the small plates first (see what I mean?) That didn’t help prevent things from accumulating on the drainer. Now I have the small plates on one shelf, and big ones on another. I use up more storage space, but it’s easier to put things away. I have rearranged all my kitchen cupboards along the same principle, and the kitchen is now much more usable.

This post is getting much longer than what I expected. However, I don’t want to leave you without letting you know what I have come up with for dealing with my incoming mail. I have been using a tray-based system for sorting paperwork for a long time, but it has shown its limitations regularly over the past years. The new system still uses trays, that groups papers according to what I have to do with them instead of what they are. So now, this is what my trays look like; I’ll see as I use it if it needs any modifications:

  • to do (bills to pay, things to investigate or have a closer look at)
  • to do, ASAP (anything urgent)
  • to file, daily business (bank papers, medical papers, salary slips)
  • to file, important (tax stuff and other important things)
  • to look at (optional) before throwing out (various newspapers, information leaflets)
  • to throw out (envelopes and anything else I don’t keep; the bin is often not close at hand)
  • to sort (anything unopened; sometimes I fetch my mail and don’t deal with it straight away

In conclusion, here is my line of conduct:

  1. pay attention to cupboards that are never opened or shelves that are never reached at
  2. keep an eye on what I do automatically and try to adapt the environment
  3. think “actions”, “process”, and “frequency” instead of “categories” and “families”
  4. accept my limitations

The last point is important: there will always be clean washing waiting to be ironed, because no matter how hard I try, I’ll never get around to ironing and putting it away as soon as it’s dry. I therefore need to take this into account and explicitly plan a space for my huge pile of Clothes Waiting To Be Ironed, even if in an ideal world, Clothes Waiting To Be Ironed should not be around.

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