Personal names around the world and their Implications in Web design

W3 has an interesting paper on personal names and the problems that arise with the west-centric design of web forms, databases and more.

Names form one of the basic components of any information storage and exchange on the web. From Comments on blogs to filing your tax returns, there is no escaping the centrality of your name. If you are from India and have a traditional sounding name, then there is a good chance that you have been frustrated and flummoxed at some point in time, figuring out which of your names is “sur name” ” second name” and “family name”. If your name is Jesudas Sankaran Achuthanandan, and are called “unni”, not only do you declare a mixed religious background, but also pose a serious challenge for the web-form designer.

Quoted below are some interesting parts of the paper.

Question:How do people’s names differ around the world, and what are the implications of those differences on the design of forms, databases, ontologies, etc. for the Web?

Key scenarios to consider.

  • You are designing a form in a single language (let’s assume English) that people from around the world will be filling in.
  • You are designing a form in one language but the form will be adapted to suit the cultural differences of a given locale when the site is translated.

Examples of differences

Given name and patronymic

In the Icelandic name Björk Guðmundsdóttir Björk is the given name. The second part of the name indicates the father’s (or sometimes the mother’s) name, followed by -sson for a male and -sdóttir for a female, and is more of a description than a family name in the Western sense. Björk’s father, Guðmundur, was the son of Gunnar, so is known as Guðmundur Gunnarsson.

In the Chinese name 毛泽东 (Mao Ze Dong) the family name is Mao, ie. the first name when reading (left to right). The given name is Dong. The middle character, Ze, is a generational name, and is common to all his siblings (such as his brothers and sister, 毛泽民 (Mao Ze Min), 毛泽覃 (Mao Ze Tan), and 毛泽紅 (Mao Ze Hong)).

Spanish-speaking people will commonly have two family names. For example, María-Jose Carreño Quiñones may be the daughter of Antonio Carreño Rodríguez and María Quiñones Marqués.

You would refer to her as Señorita Carreño, not Señorita Quiñones.

Mixing it up

Many cultures mix and match these differences in personal names, and add their own novelties.

For example, Velikkakathu Sankaran Achuthanandan is a Kerala name from Southern India, usually written V. S. Achuthanandan which follows the order familyName-fathersName-givenName.

In many parts of the world, parts of names are derived from titles, locations, genealogical information, caste, religious references, and so on,  the Indian name Kogaddu Birappa Timappa Nair follows the order villageName-fathersName-givenName-lastName. In another part of India the name Madurai Mani Iyer represents townName-givenName-casteName.

Implications for field design

One possible approach is to localize forms for a particular culture, Unfortunately, there may still be a number of possible disadvantages to this approach:

  • If you need to centralise data from several locales within a single database, using localized form layouts will simply defer the difficulties of synthesizing the information across cultures until the time when you need to store the data.
  • Even within a single country people will typically have different ways of forming personal names. For example there may be foreigners living in the country, there may be different cultural elements within the country (eg. Singaporeans have names of Chinese, Malay and South Indian origin), or there may just be more than one way of using names. Therefore your forms will often need to allow for some flexibility.

When Designing Forms

  • ask yourself whether you really need to have separate fields for given name and family name.
  • Make input fields long enough to enter long names, and ensure that if the name is displayed on a web page later there is enough space for it.
  • Avoid limiting the field size for names in your database.

Read the full paper at Personal names around the world