Culture, gender, and why Kartoo’s interface isn’t inclusive.

I’m not going to write about Kartoo’s interface in general in this post, beyond saying that the clustering is poor, the seaqrch results are uninspiring, the visual cues are unhelpful at best (and an accessibility problem at worst–those little moving stars could trigger seizures in someone with a seizure disorder).  Basically, Kartoo isn’t a very good search engine, ad it doesn’t have a very good interface.  Many of my colleagues have said much the same thing, and I don’t need to re-hash it here.

Since the 23 Things has started, however, the interface has changed.  Many weeks ago, when I looked at Kartoo, there was a graphic of a windsurfing genie, which I found to be uncomfortable at best: It had no relation to anything else to do with the site, and played on cultural stereotypes, which potentially alienates large groups of users either by offending them, or by playing on a metaphor they do not understand and cannot engage with (in this case I think the metaphor was supposed to mean that this magical being could help you surf the web).

With the change in interface, however, the genie has been moved off his windsurf board and into the corner of the interface, and a new character has been introduced:

Kartoo's female character in skimpy clothing

Yes, that’s right, an exoticised image of a woman with a figure designed to be appealing to the male gaze, and wearing very little clothing.  What you can’t see from this still image is that the light behind her torso pulsates as you wait for your search results to load.  This is insensitive at best, and sexist and racist at worst.  It is likely to offend a wide range of users, from feminists to those who see the female body as sacred and something that should be covered modestly (as is the case in many religions). I’m sure it is supposed to be ‘fun’, but in fact a large number of users (including yours truly) will see it as a sign that Kartoo was not designed to appeal to them, and has little to offer them.  Given that it does not add anything helpful to the user experience (for example the pulsating light does not pulsate faster to tell you your results are nearly ready), this can be seen as a serious misstep by Kartoo in terms of the user experience (unless they only want to appeal to a certain demographic).

This example really highlights the risks involved in using metaphors, particularly culturally loaded ones.  Many cultures understand metaphors quite differently than one would expect, for example the Maori (minority indigenous gorup in New Zealand) understanding of a ‘library’ is quite different to the New Zealand European understanding, and acts as a barrier to Maori accessing useful, relevant information ind a digital library (as reported in Duncker, 2002).  Metaphor can be very useful if used carefully, for example the desktop metaphor was one of the driving factors behind usable personal computing.  However, if ill-used, metaphor and cultural artefacts can confuse, offend, and actively drive away users.  Have you ever been offended or confused by a metaphor that didn’t fit your understanding or cultural values?


6 Responses to “Culture, gender, and why Kartoo’s interface isn’t inclusive.”

  1. 1 Jane Wilson Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 9:26 am

    Hi Dana

    Following our email exchange, having read your post on culture/gender and the Kartoo interface, I understand more your position with respect to the Kartoo genie’s clothing. While I agree that libraries need to be culturally sensitive, it is difficult to imagine any culturally neutral icon that could be used on a globally used search engine. Everything humans do is done in a societal/cultural/gender context, what is acceptable in one environment is not in another.


  2. 2 Jane Wilson Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 10:08 am

    The KarToo genie has changed today.

  3. 3 danamckay Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    I’m afraid, Jane, that the new one is not any better in the current international political climate. I think we would do better to avoid using any icon or character that relies on racial/ethnic or gender stereotypes to make it engaging or entertaining. This is why the Google and Yahoo branding works so well. For a more personified example, the Microsoft Office help characters generally speaking are not representations of people but nonetheless are clearly interactive and personified (if frequently annoying).

  4. 4 maurie Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    Great piece, very intence but , also food for thought, especially the reference to the distinction between both the Google and the Yahoo systems .**

  5. 5 Malika Friday, April 3, 2009 at 5:19 pm


    Sales Manager at KartOO,I want to give you some important details about
    First of all, you have to know that It is difficult to create a mascot with universal humoristic references.
    Secondly,the woman is the genius’ wife and she’s dressed as he is. She does not want to look vulgar, and there is an history: she was appearing with KartOO and a baby…
    The users’ feedbacks are globally positive for this mascot, including in the women population
    Therefore, Kartoos’ interface is voluntarily specific: we do not want to compete with our partners Google and Yahoo, as we are sourcing our results on their tools. We just want to offer a new way to search for information on the web.
    To conclude, The interface will change in April. Many thanks for your comments which are really welcome, as they are helping us to progress…

  1. 1 Kartoo was clearly not for many users at all « Dana’s user experience blog Trackback on Monday, January 25, 2010 at 3:45 pm

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