Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah is a Ghanaian engineer working for Lotus at their facility in Cambridge, MA. His blog, Koranteng’s Toli, currently features one of the best essays I’ve ever read on cultural sensitivity and software localization. (Koranteng’s blog is so much fun because he’s a consistently strong commenter both on tech and African issues – his account of Ghanaian president Kufour’s second inauguration – through a filter of absurdist playwright Ionesco – is a great introduction to his Africa reporting.)
As a software designer, Koranteng understands how hard it is to get the details of localization right – full support for different character sets and text that reads right to left instead of left to right. But he’s also interested in the cultural details of software design, which can be so subtle that you’re unlikely to detect them unless you’re directly effected by them:
The first thing I very quickly noticed: somehow all the photos that I uploaded to Yahoo Photos turned out darker than on Flickr (the services both resize uploaded photos). The photo-resizing algorithm used by Yahoo Photos was giving worse results. This was noticeable to me because a large number of photos featured darker-skinned people such as myself. The originals were fine and where there were lighter skin tones everything looked good, but with darker skintones, the resized photos were not so good.
Koranteng found similar problems with Flickr’s flash plug-in and slideshow feature, as well as with Adobe Photoshops “Quick Fix” and “Auto Correct” options:
the Quick Fix or Auto Correct options in Photoshop seemed tailored for lighter skintones so I was constantly having to do manual tweaking of my photos. Now this is not a big deal for a few photos and indeed it’s fun to fiddle with photos but after a couple of hundred images, it gets tiresome. I found mysef longing for “smarter” recognition by the software or for at least, a nice ‘dark skin’ option that I could set in a preferences dialog.
He points out that this is hardly a new problem – all technology needs to be able to adapt to the people who are using it. And technologies are more likely to succeed if they can be easily adapted to local needs.
…photographers in Africa over the past 150 years have had to deal with brighter sunshine, higher contrast as well as darker skintones when processing their photos as photography has gone through its various evolutions and has now moved into the digital realm. The people who install photo laboratory hardware in Ghana where I come from, always have to recalibrate their equipment to deal with the kind of skin tones that are present in the local market. The factory defaults simply won’t do. I’ve had better results developing film in Ghana than in the US because I often forget to tell the labs here that they should “watch for skintones”
(I can vouch for this – I look so pale in all the photos I’ve had developed in Ghana that I could pass for the undead. Or a goth who got really, really lost.)
It’s a must-read piece for anyone who develops technology for use in other countries and cultures.