Have you ever been told that your name is incorrect?

Diversity, Inclusion, Equity2 Comments on Have you ever been told that your name is incorrect?

Have you ever been told that your name is incorrect?

Your name is one of the first things you say to people you meet, it is how you present yourself to the world. It is personal and special. But what if you are told that your name is incorrect due to lazy or thoughtless programming every time you try to book an airline ticket, access banking, healthcare, or any number of services online? This is all too often the case for people around the world, due to lazy or inconsiderate programming.

What’s a fada?

Diacritical marks are the marks which guide pronunciation, and they appear in numerous languages – if you’re a native english speaker, you might not use them frequently, but they can change not just the sound, but the meaning of a word. A fada changes the word “sean” (meaning old, pronounced shan) to the name Seán (pronounced shawn), changing the a sound to an aw sound. And if it is your given name, then to include the fada is correct. It is as crucial a part of the spelling of your name as any of the letters. Yet, all over the internet, people who try to include the fadas, accents, umlauts (or other diacritical marks) in their names are told their name is incorrect, invalid, or wrong.

When it comes to including these diacritical marks on online forms, we too often hear the refrain that it’s a “technical issue”, but that doesn’t quite get to the heart of it, and also implies that it is very difficult to fix or perhaps not even possible. That’s not really true though.

Back when people were first defining how computers would speak to each other, a character set was agreed upon, so that communication would be consistent. This character set was ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) and due to memory limitations of the time, ASCII could (and still can) only fit 128 characters. This is enough for all the letters, numbers, and punctuations marks used in english, but not nearly enough to include all of the “special” characters used by other languages (such as a letter with an accent, á). But these characters aren’t special, they are a part of the language, as much as any other character.

Competing standards and character sets exist, such as Unicode, and they have done for decades, and these character sets support all the characters in different languages. So why aren’t we using them? Well, it’s probably two reasons:

  • Many older systems continue to use ASCII (such as legacy internal systems at banks and airlines) because they were designed when other character sets weren’t available, and many companies are running much older software than you would imagine at the core of their operations
  • Many things, such as databases and development platforms, default to non-inclusive character sets when you install them, and people don’t bother to change them before moving code into production because it doesn’t occur to them, and then it becomes a larger issue to fix because the system is already in use

I don’t think either of these reasons are a good enough excuse. Legacy systems should be updated, and when you are developing a new system, there is absolutely no good reason to not begin your architecture with support for other languages.

Irish has the status as the national and first official language of Ireland, and whether or not you speak it frequently, it is a common feature of our road signs, official documents, and yes, our names. And yet Irish people have had to battle national/state bodies for refusing to accept fadas in their names, and our own Data Protection Commission has decided decided against them. Gearóidín McEvoy points out that fadas aren’t exactly a new invention, so why should we have to fight for their inclusion?

Your name is too long, too short

How long is too long? And how can a name even be too long? Well, if you’re going to take part in a census in Ireland, you might be surprised to find how short the space is for a name on the form. The sample form for the 2016 census is available here and you can see that there is space for just 22 characters, including any spaces you might need. If you have a long name, you’re out of luck. And this is far from just an Irish problem. In Hawaii, Janice “Lokelani” Keihanaikukauakahihulihe’ekahaunaele had to fight the government to have her full name displayed on her official ID cards, and she spoke of her dismay at her name being treated like “mumbo-jumbo” and the disrespect she felt when a policeman told her to change her name back to her maiden name to have it fit on her license.

Patrick McKenzie lives in Japan, and forms there accommodate typically Japanese names, but with 8 characters in his surname, and most Japanese surnames rarely exceeding 4 characters, Patrick routinely can’t fill in his name properly. Inspired by this, Patrick has also written a blog which notes falsehoods that programmers believe about names, which I highly recommend you read.

I have also known friends with shorter surnames (e.g. two character surnames) to have significant difficulties with online forms, with their legal surname declared “too short”.

The reality is that, particularly when you think globally, there is no “too short” or “too long” surname, and arbitrary character limits on form fields cause unnecessary difficulties for people who have to butcher their name to make it fit, and then face questioning from others when the name on the ticket doesn’t match the name they put into the form.

First name and last name please

If you have ever filled out an online form, chances are you have been asked to split your name, filling out your first name in one box, and your surname/second name/last name in a second box. But what if that is not how your name is structured? Around the world, names are structured in a number of ways that far exceed the constraint of “first” and “last” name. Many countries have names that contain multiple family names, part of a mother or father’s name, different endings depending on the sex of the child being named, etc. Moreover, the idea of a “first” name simply doesn’t translate to a number of cultures, who order parts of the name differently as a matter of course, or depending on the situation. For example, in the Chinese name Mao Ze Dong, the “first” piece of this name (reading left to right) appears to be Mao, but this is in fact the family name. Dong is the given or “first” name.

The W3 has an excellent blog which discusses the issues with forms and personal names, which includes a number of clear examples of the ways in which the idea of a “first” name breaks down, and it should be mandatory reading for anyone who is designing a form. They note a key question that form designers should be asking themselves before writing a single line of code – do you actually need to have separate fields for given name and family name? If so, why? Could you not simply ask for a user’s full name as they would typically write it, and then if necessary, ask what they prefer to be called in communications so that you can still auto-populate your “Hey <name>” email?

Inclusive form fundamentals

A multitude of online forms fail to support diacritical marks, or declare that names are too short or too long based on simple biases and the incorrect assumption that everyone has a first and last name that looks like our own (or considers their name in terms of first and last).

Beyond the frustration that this causes people, it is also dehumanising, insulting, and demeaning. Instead of telling the person “sorry, our system doesn’t handle this and that is our fault” the error messages tell people that their name is wrong, that they are wrong. It tells them they don’t know how to spell their name, or that their name is invalid. It makes people feel like their name or their culture is disrespected. It underlines the idea that this system is not built with everyone in mind, just with people who look like those who built it.

It presents a barrier for someone every time they use your system, every time they are told they are wrong. It is an unfriendly user experience that turns users away.

It might require extra work in development, to retrofit existing systems to support extra characters, or to ensure that inputs are validated so that special characters are processed and stored correctly in the underlying databases, but the alternative is unacceptable. The time to begin this work is long overdue.

Your name is not invalid, our form is.

Key points

  • Inclusive form design makes your product better
  • Inclusive error messages should focus on the system, not the user – if your system can’t handle a character, the character is not invalid, your system needs to be improved.
  • Not everyone considers their name in terms as simple as “first” and “last”
  • And you should ask yourself if you even need a name split this way, or are you just defaulting to the forms you recognise from elsewhere?
  • Special characters should be supported from the very beginning. They aren’t an edge case, they are critical.

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