Why your emojis are getting lost in translation and what you can do about it

Meet Tina and Shelby.

Tina and Shelby, or the snail and turtle emoji

They crop up from time to time in mobile conversations between me and my partner Alex. They are facing each other like good companions should. At smaller sizes, they sort of look like they are kissing.

Cute message! 😍

Except, this is how they appear on my phone:

Tina and Shelby, as they appear on Android

They’re not facing each other — they’re on a walk (slow but steady, of course)! I was beginning to wonder why I could never work out where they were going. 😒

Your emojis may have been getting lost in translation too. You see, an emoji can look radically different depending on what platform you are on. Slowly, more people are beginning to realise — but it often comes to a shock when they do.

That face probably doesn’t mean what you think it means (if you’re an Apple user)

A study has found that people’s perceptions of emojis can vary massively from platform to platform. 😲

Same emoji + different smartphone platform = different emotion (chart shows people's perceptions of the same emoji on different platforms)

Image from GroupLens

Researcher Hannah Miller illustrated their findings with this chart showing people’s perceptions of the same emoji — grinning face with smiling eyes — on different platforms.

What is interesting is just how far away Apple’s design in particular is from any other platform’s. In fact, Apple’s designers really ought to be ashamed of themselves for managing to make an emoji called grinning face with smiling eyes look negative. 🙄

Emojipedia is not impressed with the confusion:

A version of the grinning face, which looks closers to a grimacing face [its own separate emoji] on many platforms.

Due to the popularity of the Apple emoji artwork, this is commonly used as a grimacing face, instead of a grinning (smiling) face with smiling eyes. Google and Microsoft’s artwork for this emoji most closely represents how this should be represented on all platforms.

The original study on emoji interpretations highlighted the problem starkly:

…participants described the Google rendering as “blissfully happy” while the exact same Unicode character, but rendered for Apple, was described as “ready to fight.”

Apple’s inconsistent animal emojis

A selection of Apple animal emojis

That’s not the only strange thing going on with Apple’s emoji. Going back to Tina and Shelby, our snail and turtle friends, why is the snail facing right but the turtle facing left?

The directions aren’t defined in the emoji descriptions. But for some reason Apple decided that the snail goes right, whereas most other animals go left. Meanwhile a few others go straight ahead and the crab faces up the way. Where’s the consistency? 😞

The researchers also found that Apple users were most likely to be confused by emojis on their own platform:

Apple has the highest average within-platform sentiment misconstrual (1.96); Google has the lowest (1.79).

But Google are at it too

Google's information desk person emoji

It’s not as if Google’s emojis are all that consistent either. In fact, some of them are downright weird. I mean, what on earth is going on with information desk person here?

What has it got on its head? Why is it wearing gloves? Why are its eyes closed? If you asked me, I would have guessed this emoji was called “sleeping snooker referee who lost the plot and put the cue ball in a bowl on its head”. 🎱

Accessibility with emojis

Because emojis are described in the Unicode Standard, they already have adequate text descriptions baked in. That’s exciting. It means emojis have amazing potential to be accessible straight out of the box, with no additional effort required on the part of the author. 🎆

But big problems can come when people use emoji in a more creative way, as explored in this entertaining BBC Disability Talk radio programme. In it, the presenter demonstrates how he uses accessibility tools in his smartphone to read out emoji. His co-presenter’s text message about being in the doghouse — 🐶🏡 — came out as “dog face, house with yard”.

Some of Apple’s emojis are fundamentally wrong

This is why it is actually quite worrying that Apple’s emojis do not closely match their descriptions. Anyone who cares about making digital communications accessible must be aware that how it looks is not really what matters. The text description of the emoji is the only way many users have of knowing what is meant.

Making a grinning person with smiling eyes look like it is in fact grimacing is just the tip of the iceberg. Take woman with bunny ears, which somehow Apple have interpreted as this:

Apple's woman with bunny ears shows two women wearing bunny ears

Clearly plurals and/or counting are not Apple’s strong point. But what it means is that Apple users the world over are sending this image of two women in leotards wearing bunny ears, while the supposed actual meaning is one woman wearing bunny ears.

There are a range of other emojis that — as Wired noted last year — are just plain wrong.

(If there was a facepalm emoji, I’d use that here.)

What you can do about it

Licensing issues and corporate egos prevent different platforms from using each others’ emoji designs.

In an effort to end all the confusion, Emoji One was created as an independent, open source alternative to the big vendors’ disparate designs. 😎

By supporting this effort, we can try to make OS vendors listen to us, unify emojis and bring an end to this madness. 🌈

Emoji designers must resist mimicking Apple’s broken approach

However, there is a problem with Emoji One’s noble effort. Many of their designs appear to be clearly based on Apple’s flawed emojis. In fact, looking through previous versions of some of Emoji One’s emojis, it seems as though they are slowly drifting in that direction, having originally stayed true to the Unicode descriptions.

Two versions of woman with bunny ears from Emoji One

Take woman with bunny ears. In this image, the emoji on the left comes from Emoji One version 2.0, and it accurately matches the description. To its right, the update for version 2.1 — clearly taking its cue from Apple’s approach.

Two versions of grinning face with simling eyes from EmojiOne

It’s a similar story with that contentious grinning face with smiling eyes. On the left, the old version clearly shows a smiling face. On the right, something more closely resembling Apple’s design, which looks rather like someone struggling on the toilet.

You know what I think of that? 💩

It’s not just for accessibility that we should avoid this. And I am not having a pop at Apple just because. Remember, the research showed that Apple’s own users were the most confused about the emoji they were using. In short, these are the last emojis other designers ought to be mimicking.

It’s easy to see why other emoji suppliers feel the need to follow the lead of Apple. They did popularise emoji in western culture, after all. But we must not fall into the trap of letting one company control emoji, particularly when so many of their designs are fundamentally wrong.

Emoji designers ought instead to follow the Unicode descriptions more closely — for the sake of our sanity, and for the sake of accessibility.

4 comments

  1. I love the mix up between platforms, it just adds an extra element of fun, plus it gives you something else to chat and laugh about.

  2. Why are you describing Apple’s emojis as a pinkish triangles with a cartoon face on? (Or: even when an image is probably using its Unicode distinction, things are apt to get lost in translation from user to user due to perceptual differences). And then people wonder why I stick to the sort of emoticons recognisable last decade.

    As it happens, the Apple “smiley eyes and face” emoticon would probably work better than, say, the Microsoft one, in Japan – because the Microsoft icon has barely any curve to the eyes. Why Apple thought their design was more compliant with the description than Google is a mystery.

    This is important, because emoticons are rapidly becoming a cipher bordering on language, and if a code/language is controlled by a provider, then that provider is able to subtly influence how the people using the platform can communicate.

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