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Why natural language interfaces suck

While I’m a fervid proposer of native language support in all kind of software, which includes not only being able to display and make use of native characters (like the ò character in my surname) but also user interface translation and adaptation for the user’s language, I have a huge beef with what I’ll call “natural language interfaces” in this post.

The most widely known natural language interface is the formula language used by spreadsheet software, like OpenOffice Calc and Microsoft Excel. Since both applications are designed to be used by accountants for the most part, they try not to require of them any kind of generic programming skill. Which seem to still include “no knowledge of English”, even though nowadays I’d expect all of them to know it at the tip of their fingers anyway.

At any rate, the language used for the formula is not independent from the language: it changes both function’s names and data formats depending on the selected language. So not only the SUM() function becomes SOMMA() in Italian, the decimal separator character changes from . to , with the obvious problems tied to that (if they are not obvious to you, comma is still the parameters’ separator as well!). I’m not sincerely sure whether internally the two spreadsheets save a generic ID of the function or the name in the local language; I sincerely hope the former, but either way the thing is already quite brain-damaged for me.

But you don’t have to go down the drain to the programming languages to find of places where natural language interfaces do suck. One other example is something so widespread one would probably not think of it: GMail, or Google Mail (and this will come obvious in a moment, why I do precise both names). I guess this also counts like a further example of Google’s mediocrity but I’m not stressing that out; it’s one (somewhat smaller) fault in a product that is, otherwise, great, especially for Google.

Now, you might not know – I didn’t either till a few months back – that GMail is not called GMail in Germany; Jürgen explained this to me when he wrote gmaillabelpurger (one heck of a magic tool for me; it saved me already so much time; especially load time for IMAP access): because of trademark issues they had to fold back to call it “Google Mail” there, thus creating one further domain (even though users are mapped 1:1 on both, which makes most of the point moot I guess). When the user has registered in Germany, it’s not only the web interface to change, but also the IMAP folder hierarchy: the [Gmail] prefix in the service folders’ names changes to [Google Mail].

This would only have mattered for the small error I got when I first tried Jürgen’s script (as he wrote it with the German interface in mind) if not for another issue. Using GMail with the default English language selects the “American” variant. And such variant also affects the dates shown in the web inteface; and since I don’t usually like dealing with stupid date formats (don’t try to say that mm/dd/yyyy is not stupid!) the other day, when I needed to use it to look up a timeline for work mail messages, I switched the interface to “English UK”, which solved the problem at the time for me.

Fast forward a couple of days and I notice that the script is not behaving as it should as messages are not deleted; a quick look has shown me the problem: Gmail’s IMAP interface is affected by the language settings in the web interface! What that comes down to be at that point is that the old Trash folder gets renamed into Bin; d’uh! And even worse, setting the UK variant for the language causes some quite large confusion with the trademarked names: the web interface still reports GMail, but on the other hand, [Google Mail] is used in the IMAP interface. And that’s with me still connecting from an Italian IP address.

Now, thanks to Jürgen the script works again and thus my problem is solved. But it really should show that writing interfaces that depend on the language of the user isn’t really an excessively smart move.

I also start to wonder how soon I’ll get used to move my mail to the bin, rather than trash it.

Comments 2
  1. Well it is really braindamaged to mangle their IMAP interface that way, maybe not enough people use it to have software interface with Gmail data or they should have gotten a mouthful already 😉

  2. I agree about the date formats. I started using the ISO date format standard about 2 years ago. It makes date interpretation very simple. Though some people do get confused by the format though.

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