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¿Habla Español?: Testing and Designing for U.S. Latino Users

By Cliff Anderson

¿Habla Español? If you are a usability practitioner in the United States, you may want to learn. Spanish-speaking immigrants from Latin America represent a large and growing market. Though there is much literature on cross-cultural usability in general, there is very little on this particular group. This article discusses a series of studies we ran with users from this group, looking in particular at their special characteristics and challenges.

The Latino Market

Latinos (Latin Americans living in the USA) make up a very large market, representing the second largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, a larger population in the U.S. than that of African-Americans, and with $700 billion in buying power.

According to Latino Boom by Chiqui Cartagena, this market is also growing. With a current growth rate of 60 percent, Latinos will represent $2.5 trillion in buying power in 2020 and 25 percent of the U.S. population in 2050.

At the same time, however, this market is grossly underserved. For example, Cartagena reports that U.S. companies spend only 5 percent of their marketing and advertising budgets on Latinos, a third of what they should spend based on population figures. And in 2004, only 20 percent of Fortune 100 firms offered Spanish-language content on their websites.

A related problem exists in the usability field. Though there is no shortage of material on multi-cultural usability in general, there is very little on this particular audience. For example, of the forty-seven offerings at UPA’s 2005 conference—the theme of which was “bridging cultures”—none focused on Latinos.

The profile of Latinos in the U.S. is much more complex than the average American might imagine. On the one hand, Latinos do tend to conform to certain stereotypes. They tend to be less assimilated than other immigrants, have lower incomes and education levels, and are younger than other groups.

On the other hand, there are many stereotypes to which this group does (ital)not conform. Most are born in the U.S., not elsewhere. Most are English-dominant or truly bilingual. Most are U.S. citizens or documented aliens. They also typically identify themselves with their ancestral countries of origin, each of which has its own unique culture and dialect.

This contravention of stereotypes is especially the case relative to Internet and technology use. In fact, over half use the Internet, are more likely to be online than the average European, and spend more time online than non-Latino Americans.

Our Challenge

My company is a large U.S. bank. As such, it faces significant challenges—and opportunities—in addressing its Latino customers and potential customers.

Perhaps, most significantly, is that Latinos use financial services much less than other groups, with 35 percent being “unbanked,” that is, not using any bank services at all. These behaviors result largely from negative experiences with banks in their ancestral homeland.

This phenomenon, however, represents a huge, untapped market, and U.S. financial institutions have engaged in a recent “rush to market” to capture this significant market without fully understanding it.

My own company’s foray into this field involved the launch of a Spanish-language subset of its much larger English-language website. Though this effort was informed by several focus groups, the sub-site went live before being usability-tested. The project team approached me later to get some post-launch feedback.

Spanish-Language Site

One of the first challenges I had to deal with was the typical marketing segmentation for Latinos:

My team wanted to focus solely on the first two groups, arguing that the last one had neither the technological nor financial resources to be real prospects.

The team also wanted to test in different locations, explaining to me that Latinos are not a homogenous group. As a result, we decided on testing in Houston (for Mexicans), New York (for Dominicans and Puerto Ricans), and Miami (for Cubans and other nationalities). We ended up testing a total of thirteen users.

We identified some basic banking tasks (such as finding a branch) and some focused tasks (for particular issues, like switching between languages). We also used one self-directed task.

A final challenge was how to plan and execute the overall effort. Though I had been doing usability work for a number of years, I do not speak Spanish. At the same time, however, we had a number of Spanish speakers on our team, none of whom had ever done usability work. Our solution was to contract with a company that specialized in IT globalization and had done work with both Latinos and usability. This company engaged a facilitator for us, as well as labs in the cities we were interested in.


We found a number of issues with the bank’s Spanish-language website that were not unique to our Latino users, but that we had uncovered previously with others:

We also found some issues that were unique to this audience: (bulleted list)

In addition to what we learned about the site, we also learned a number of things about the testing process and about working with these users:

Another important lesson was that, although we definitely needed help on our first effort, we now had the resources to manage and run one of these tests ourselves.

Account Applications

An opportunity to do our own study occurred when the project team came to me with an interesting discrepancy between the completion rates on the Spanish and English versions of our online account applications.

For this test, however, the team did not have the budget it had previously. So we elected to test in our own lab, recruit from the local area, and train one of the Spanish speakers on the team to facilitate. Realizing the unique and valuable skills of a simultaneous interpreter from the previous tests, we did decide to contract with one.

We again saw a number of the same issues that our first test revealed, many having to do with language. Users were just as likely to use English as Spanish, but they still felt strongly about having all content in Spanish. We also found some new issues:

Going Forward

For each of these problems, we recommended engaging a seasoned translator. To deal with dialect, in particular, this individual should use Castilian or Mexican Spanish or, better yet, dialect-neutral language.

Some other issues, unrelated to language, included:

Some new issues surfaced. The marking of required fields and impatience with the length of the application, for example, were issues with other, non-Latino users as well. Finally, we were also able to test our new access point to the Spanish-language site, which performed quite well for the Latino users.

We also learned some important things about the testing process and about working with our users, the most important of which is that we can definitely do a bilingual test ourselves. And with a little help from your amigos, you can, too.


Cliff Anderson is a senior usability engineer at Wachovia Corp., the USA’s third largest bank.  He is responsible for testing and evaluation of Wachovia.com and of the bank’s award-winning intranet.  With degrees from Duke and Carnegie Mellon, Cliff has been doing usability work for twenty years.

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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 1, 2008.

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