e-Gobierno, en Español

As the Hispanic population grows, agencies create separate Web sites to help reach out

The Hispanic population in the United States is more than 43 million and is expected to keep growing. The mangers of the General Services Administration's FirstGov en Espaol Web site are gearing up to ensure the government can reach out to them.

Like its English-language counterpart, FirstGov en Espaol offers a search capability and directory of government resources. But the site, which GSA devotes two full-time employees to maintaining, also offers original content tailored to the specific needs of the country's growing Hispanic population.

Thus far, say those involved, the site has been a significant success, perhaps even more so than its English namesake. Launched in 2003, FirstGov en Espaol currently receives about 200,000 visits a month. This fall, the agency plans to relaunch the site, armed with a greater knowledge of its Hispanic users' surfing habits. The site's managers want to further customize the experience.

“You need to research who your audience is, what their needs are and what their challenges are,” said Leilani Martinez, GSA's Web content manager overseeing FirstGov en Espaol.

GSA is not alone in its efforts. Other agencies have been progressive in addressing the country's growing Hispanic citizenry as well. Some of this has come about in response to a 2000 White House Executive Order which mandated that agencies provide resources for individuals with limited English proficiency. Much as Section 508 ensures that individuals with physical disabilities have unhindered access to data, EO 13166 calls on agencies to provide that same level of access to those with limited English-language skills.

Beyond simply complying with policy, Hispanic-oriented sites can help agencies better reach their constituents, a fact sometimes lost on agencies. Over the course of our reporting, several officials voiced disapproval of the idea of spending money on Hispanic sites. (“If you come to this country, you should learn the language,” one said.) But experts say that's shortsighted. Building such sites can actually be cost-effective, because they're cheaper than fielding the growing number of phone and e-mail inquiries from Hispanic constituents.

However, developing a multilingual Web site requires more than simply running some text through a computer translator. Agencies that do it right will be further along in delivering service to all citizens.

“It's more than a language thing,” Martinez said. “It's a cultural thing.”

Growing population

In 2004, the Census Bureau predicted the nation's Hispanic population would triple over the next half-century. According to Census, the overall population will grow a projected 49 percent, while the Hispanic population will grow 188 percent, to an estimated 102.6 million by 2050.

Agencies can assume that kind of demographic explosion in the cybernation as well.

“The Hispanic online population is really reaching critical mass. The growth online is outpacing general market growth,” said Michelle Moscona, co-founder of the San Diego-based Captura Group, during a talk at the FedWeb conference in San Diego last spring. Captura Group, which specializes in Hispanic online solutions, is part of the FirstGov en Espaol refresh team, led by Laurel, Md.-based Aquilent.

Many Hispanics, though not all, are bilingual. And experts say most prefer to read material in their native language. Some online users like to toggle between the English and Spanish versions of the same text.

Captura surveyed over 100 federal agency Web sites to assess how many had Spanish content. More than half had Hispanics sites, some of which were quite sophisticated. The Health and Human Services Department runs a Hispanic version of Medline Plus, which provides relevant stories online for the Hispanic audience. The Navy and the Housing and Urban Development Department also have thorough sites, Moscona said.

Multilingual sites generally come in three types, Moscona pointed out. Many simply have translations of the material in their English editions. The Small Business Administration, for instance, uses this approach. Other agencies take what Moscona calls the “trans-creation” approach, which includes reusing material from the English-language counterpart, but tweaking it in a way that's specific to the audience. The Internal Revenue Service uses this approach. Other sites, such as those run by the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency, feature entirely original material specific to the Hispanic audience.

The importance of such sites can go far beyond the simple conveyance of information—it can be essential to the agency's very mission. The State Department has set up a series of sites to act as virtual embassies for cities around the world. Each uses the language of that country. At the Interagency Knowledge Management Working Group meeting last July, Thomas Niblock, director of e-diplomacy at State, outlined how the agency is using these sites for diplomatic relations with other countries.

These days, more than 412 cities outside the United States have populations of a million or more. U.S. businesses and citizens conduct transactions in almost all these locales, yet the U.S. has embassies in less than half of them, Niblock said. State is therefore taking a bits-for-bricks approach, setting up what Niblock calls Virtual Presence Posts for many of these locations. These are Web sites that cover many of the basic embassy functions, such as consular services, commercial support and security management.

“You can't issue visas from a virtual service, but you can do a lot else,” Niblock said. Today 24 VPPs are up and running and secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is said to be interested in establishing more virtual outposts around the world.

At GSA, officials wanted to overhaul FirstGov en Espaol for a number of reasons, Martinez said. The site's general usability needed improvement. Branding and FirstGov recognition also needed a boost, and the management team wanted to reformat some of the language to meet the particular needs of the audience.

In order to prepare the new site, the agency did three rounds of usability testing, bringing in volunteers to look over the FirstGov portals and offer their opinions. From this research, Captura Group and Aquilent created personas, or profiles, of nine different types of users likely to use FirstGov and FirstGov en Espaol. “They are really valuable tools in redesigning and managing the site,” Moscona said.

The profiles were based on wider demographic testing in addition to the characteristics of the individuals at usability testing. One persona, for instance, was that of a recent immigrant who is a father and a construction worker. This level of detail allows content managers to ask themselves what the individual would need in a portal.

One of the things GSA and its contractors found was that FirstGov en Espaol had to look more like an official government site. Captura Group tests have found the Hispanic population particularly wary of commercial sites disguised as government sites.

“In the research we've done with FirstGov en Espaol, there is a lot of doubt as to what is considered official government information and what is fake government information,” Moscona said.

To address this concern, the revamped FirstGov en Espaol pages will be stamped with the word Oficial to convey to users that the site is a government site. The site will also include photos of the White House and the American flag, as well as the official U.S. seal. “People want to make sure this site is official, that this is credible information,” Martinez said.

(Looking around the Web, you can see that other government sites might suffer from this credibility problem. The Federal Trade Commission's Spanish site, Ojo (www.ftc.gov/ojo), looks almost like a children's site, with its bold blue and yellow colors, large typeface and animation. It does bear the FTC seal, though.)

The language at FirstGov en Espaol is also being reviewed to ensure the Spanish version says what the English version intended. For translation purposes, Moscona finds that machine-assisted human translation is the best value. A professional, human translator leverages translation memory technology to enable content reuse and increase consistency, while reducing costs and translation time. (There are many different regional dialects of the Spanish language, so Moscona advises going with Pan-Regional Spanish, a Spanish that avoids colloquialism.) Using software can cut the cost of human translation considerably.

In this approach, the text the software produces is carefully reviewed for appropriate usage, preferably by someone familiar with Hispanic culture. For instance, the earlier version of FirstGov made many references to resources being “on-line.” While the Spanish translation was correct, the term was unfamiliar to most Hispanics. “People thought, ‘I have to be in a line? I have to wait somewhere?'” Moscona said. For the new site, “on-line” has been replaced by “Internet services.”

Stop making sense

GSA is not alone in trying to effectively adapt its Web site for Hispanic users. Take the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which had to translate the term “Quick Links.” FDIC's translation, Enclase Rapidos, literally means “fast links,” which, as Moscona points out, may not make much sense to users.

“If I'm a Spanish-dominant Hispanic user, such mistakes may lead me to doubt the credibility of the information and believe that these people aren't taking me seriously. They can't even get the basics right,” Moscona said.

Web designers working on Spanish-language sites must also address issues of type size. It's difficult to use templates from English-language sites, because in some Spanish translations, the new words can be up to 25 percent longer than their English counterparts. Therefore, a design rendered in Spanish could look cramped and less readable. “So we had to take those things into account, and we had to be flexible,” Martinez said.

Long-term management is another issue. As the content changes on the English site, agencies must clearly define what the process will be for changing the Spanish-language version.

The good news is that the majority of federal sites are translating their Web sites for non-English-speaking users. Now they must plan funding for upkeep, or they could be forced to take them down. The State Department, for instance, pulled its Hispanic sites earlier this year.

“It is really critical that, before you launch something, you have the resources and the budget and the plan to maintain and evolve it. If you can't support it, we strongly encourage you to think about not doing it in Spanish. It is a liability to provide incorrect information,” Moscona said.

Cultural issues

Beyond content, design and maintenance issues, a successful Spanish-language Web site is simply well-informed. By studying the cultural issues of their Hispanic users, the FirstGov team was able to better understand a great segment of their audience.

For instance, the Hispanic market is generally 10 years younger than the non-Hispanic market and tends to have more novice Internet users. “So we make sure that our content and our navigation is geared towards novice Internet users,” Martinez said.

At the same time, these users spend more time on the Web, using it heavily as a communication tool via e-mail and chat functions.

Hispanic individuals also tend to be more family oriented than the public at large. FirstGov en Espaol sought to incorporate images of families using a computer together. “It's important you show imagery that will connect with this audience,” Moscona said.

The FirstGov staff plans to share the lessons it has learned in building a new Spanish-language portal. In addition to a style guide that federal agencies can adapt to their own purposes, Martinez started the Federal Bilingual Web Site Committee to help federal Web managers working on the same issues. [See GCN.com, Quickfind 689 for more information about adapting your Web sites to other languages.]

In the end, the most important thing to keep in mind is the user. “If you don't address the cultural needs of the audience,” Moscona said, “you will fail to connect with them.”


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