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The problem with regional settings/formatting from an expat's viewpoint

sarafian profile image Alex Sarafian ・6 min read

I'm from Greece which means non latin alphabet in the local language. Like many other Greek people who grew up in the 80s with a passion for technology before it became mainstream, we dislike and often hate Greek in any technology product as often the translations were and still are funny and it was also a safer option before the wide adoption of Unicode. This is not a unique attribute to the Greek technology forum but something quite common especially to countries with non-latin based alphabets.

Before everything became an online SAAS, this was not such a big problem. Install Windows with English (United States), add the Greek language and the change the date formatting to dd/mm/yyyy. Only problem was with Office applications and especially Excel with numerical values. Depending on the active language there was a problem with . and , when enterring numerical values.

Now that everything's online, location in the operating system is important because it drives the online services and content. We also use the online variant of applications like Excel from different devices and sometimes from different locations.

In 2011 I've moved to Belgium which has French, Dutch and a bit of German as local languages (Yes I know, oversimplified analysis). I've spoken with many Flemish (the Dutch speaking population) and those with similar age to mine also preferred English as their technology language. It wasn't as intense as with nationalities with non-latin alphabets but it is still recognizable. During the same period I transitioned into smartphones. First it was Windows Phone, then Android 4, then Windows Phone and finally Android.

To summarize: I live in a country with multiple languages (mainly Dutch and French), prefer all technology stuff in a non local language (English) and I often mix content with a non-latin alphabet language (English+Greek).

On my Android phone I've never had issues with regions etc. Very simple to be honest. I find the experience on Android a much better one than Windows and Windows Phone mostly because I find that Microsoft tries too much to derive settings and takes control from the user. You see this difference when accessing an excel file from your home and work computer either on the browser or with the location application. Compared to Android app experience, it is so confusing and unproductive especially when I need to switch languages. For example, when openning the same excel file from the Android app, it just works. No mix up with . and , for the decimal point. It just works as with many other things that kind of make the Windows desktop OS feel like buggy.

Numerical entries should work with the numeric pad but when the decimal function changes all the time then mistakes happen often. To be fair to Microsoft, Android usage doesn't include a numeric pad nor have I used Google OS with a full desktop keyboard. So the "my just works" could be incorrect but my point is still that it should still work everywhere this simple.

The above example with Excel is one of the problems. I focused on it because it is the easiest one to explain especially to people who are used to only one language in their life in technology products. Let's go over a more complicated example which is derived by a mix of being expat and IT organizational policies.

Let's take Office 365 as an example. First time you login with your professional account it needs to initialize to the profile. Part of the initialization is about localization and regions for which the user is not asked. My current employer utilizes a sort of a randomization for proxies that have IPs from different countries. You can immediately recognize this from the first access to google.com or maps.google.com. My proxy is one with a French IP.

Let's compare the Google and Microsoft experience.

Google search:

  1. Browse to google.com and you get redirected to google's french website.
  2. Scroll down and choose English. Easy to recognize. It is not even written in French.
  3. Done. That's it.

Office 365:

  1. Browse to any of their services.
  2. Authenticate with organization account.
  3. Profile gets initialized and everything is in French.
  4. Go to Outlook and change language relatively easily to English.
  5. Go to any office app or onedrive and get mixes toolbars with french and english.
  6. Wonder why the setting I've already changed in step 4 isn't working.
  7. Go home, access the same account and it is still in French.
  8. Navigate in settings that are all in French? Not easy if you don't know French.
  9. Ask IT. They haven't thought about it.
  10. Google it. Yes it is in English.
  11. Follow the instructions here

OneDrive

Every action within each of the Word, Excel, Powerpoint, OneNote etc applications of the Office 365 has the same behavior.

Here is another problem which is also the reason I decided to write about this. I recently formatted my Windows OS. I wanted to play nice and be accurate with the information I provided. I usually set all the English United States and add the Greek language but I though maybe things have changed. This is what I did:

  • Chose Belgium as region instead of United States that I usually do
  • Added English (International), Greek and removed French and Dutch keyboards
  • Chose English (UK) for the formatting, because it matches better the date and metric and it is in English compared to the Belgium counterparts.

Somehow the Windows OS adds a third language (English UK) no matter how many times I've removed it just because the formatting is English UK. But I don't want another entry in my keyboard. I need to rotate between an English and Greek and an additional English language creates problems because you often end up switching from English to English but from international layout to UK layout.

I'm not saying that Google is perfect but considering the user experience it is much better, less confusing and less frustrating than the experience with Microsoft. It is not about which product is better or not but how much and how hard the system tries to help the user and instead ends up working against him or her. It seems to me that Google has better realized their global customer reach than Microsoft and has chosen to leave some UX aspects to manual or I could be mistaken because an android phone is much simpler compared to a desktop keyboard. Still, the small device makes the big device look like buggy.

Why is this important? Because movement for work is ever increasing in the world without staying within the boundaries of one country. Take the European Union for example which combined is a much bigger population than USA with incredible variety. To help understand non-EU citizens, this is EU again over simplified.

  • Each member country has a strong history and is very opinionated about regional things.
  • None of the remaining member countries (BREXIT) has English as official language.
  • English is the professional language because the rest of the world speaks English as well and because the French, Germans, Spanish and Italians had no intention of speaking of anything else and English is a global necessity.
  • There is a freedom of movement to live and work, kind of similar to the EU area being one country.

In this trillion dollar economy there is a problem which technology doesn't seem to have solved. I understand that it is not easy because localization and regional support is not an easy problem to tackle. Most of us take this for granted but like date/time it is much more of a challenge than we most understand. DateTime has to function otherwise things break but regional settings don't, like I've experienced. Date/Time related solutions are focused on functional accuracy and got it mostly correct where regional settings solutions are focused on UX and it depends on who you ask if they got it correctly. In a world that seems to globalize, until we all agree into one English international language, settings and metric system, it seems to me that something is being done wrongly.

My proposals:

  • Let the user specify independently the location, region and input methods. Don't derive any conclusions and don't take any actions on behalf of the user.
  • Drive this with a smaller scope. Give the user control per application or even better per resource. Do it like the portable applications have been doing.
  • If possible, do this with an override settings not to upset the status quo.
  • Most importantly, make it easy to find or control.

I'm aware that this could be similar to the feature requests to the Microsoft Office team before the introduction of the ribbon bar. 90% of them were already available but users didn't know where they were. I'm sure that some of the solutions issues are like this and there is already a solution through some option somewhere, like the one explained for office 365. Regardless, I stand by making it easy to find or control.

I'm really interested into your opinions about this topic. Do you face similar problems? If yes please mention origin, location and your tricks and tips in your comments?

Some explanations were over simplified to avoid losing focus into complicated issues in the European Union. I hope you understand.

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