Clever Capitalisation

October 28, 2014

A small victory for simple design.

I want to take a moment to write about something that at first glance might not seem very important: the capitalisation of items in shopping lists.

Actually it might not seem important on second glance either, but perhaps you’ll humour me.

Soon after Shopi launched, we got our first feedback from someone who didn’t like how it auto-formats shopping items. During Shopi’s design and mockup phase I had decided on title case (each word capitalised) for shopping items:

Title case example

The feedback was from a customer in Eastern Europe, who said that it was much more likely that sentence case (capitalised first letter only) would be preferred by most people there:1

Sentence case example

And as another data point, we noticed that a significant number of people prefer their items in to be in all lower case:

Lower case example

In these two cases, people were having to fight the auto-capitalisation feature in the item entry field. Rather then helping them with this core task, we were continually frustrating them. The foundation stone of Shopi’s design is to streamline making and using lists, so this really had to be addressed even if it initially seemed trivial.

At first I simply added logic that switched capitalisation to sentence case when the primary language for the phone was anything but English.2 But this didn’t cover the “no capitalisation at all” contingent, and of course it was also possible that any given person might prefer any given style, regardless of cultural norms.

Was there a better way? The idea to simply add a preference item for it popped into my head, and was promptly shot down with prejudice by my inner designer. Preference options are almost always a cop out, visual evidence of a designer’s abdication of responsibility to make the right choice, and instead foisting it on the user.

And almost no one actually looks at preferences, so this wouldn’t have solved the problem anyway.

In the end, it came to me that we should simply do what we do everywhere else in Shopi: start with some decent defaults, and learn from the user.3 Start with the language-based default as a decent guess. Then, if the user goes to the trouble of entering something like “Large bin bags” against the current default, change to using sentence case in future. Equally, if they enter “large bin bags” change to lower case.

It was one of those little realisations where, in retrospect the answer is so obvious that you feel like kicking yourself.4

So there’s no “Auto Capitalisation” option in the Shopi settings panel, proudly announcing its existence for the feature checklist. It’s one of the many small details that I hope nobody notices, but which collectively contribute to the sense of polish that we hope will keep people using Shopi.

  1. It also seems that people in most Western European countries would probably prefer sentence case also. We’d love any feedback from native French, German or other people in Western Europe about what you prefer. ↩︎

  2. I honestly have no idea if this has any effect on languages not based on the roman character set. I’d be interested to know what the options are, if any, for Arabic, Chinese, Hiragana, Kanji, etc. ↩︎

  3. Shopi has over 15 preference variables, with only four of them exposed in the preferences panel. The rest are inferred from the user’s behaviour. ↩︎

  4. I’m not going to rule out the possibility that I am in fact an idiot. ↩︎