For some time I have worked with multi-ethnic websites for immigrants. At one point, I needed to know about the web use characteristics of Americans with Mexican heritage. The 2011 Pew Hispanic Trends Project reports that this group is a very important demographic, as Mexican-Americans comprise the majority of immigrants in the United States. In fact, two-thirds of all Latinos are people with Mexican heritage. And today, as the Pew study indicates, Mexican-American users have increased their online usage at a rate that compares favorably with other groups of Americans.
The Cultural Identity of Mexican-Americans
As part of a combined research and design project involving online communities, I needed to learn more about the online cultural identity of this group. Which cultural orientation would best meet their needs? Would they prefer sites written for Mexican-Americans? Or would they prefer sites with a primarily Mexican or American audience? How could I best apply cultural orientation to design?
I proceeded to study how Mexican-Americans use the web as they engaged in sites of topical interest to them. We paid 14 volunteer participants (seven male and seven female) to conduct various tasks on three cultural categories of web sites: those developed in Spanish with a primary Mexican orientation (www.df.gob.mx, cocinalamexicana.espaciolatino.com); in English by and for all U.S.-born users (www.allrecipes.com, www.denvergov.org); and in both Spanish and English, specifically for Mexican-Americans (www.hispanianews.com, www.mexgrocer.com). We tested two types of sites within each cultural group, with one site focusing on food and the other on sites providing government services. The topics of food and government services were selected because participants were familiar with these topics. Tasks assessed the three ISO areas of usability: effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction. Forms and surveys were provided in both English and Spanish.
Additional characteristics of the demographic include:
- Participants have lived in the U.S. for an average of 5.7 years with an average age of 25.7 years.
- 64% of participants were born in Mexico.
- 50% of participants regularly travel to Mexico, and all participants regularly participate in local community activities (festivals, religious events, and family celebrations) that connect them with Mexican culture.
- All participants are bilingual.
Participants’ top three most frequently visited sites are:
- Social networking sites (Facebook, Instagram, and MySpace).
- Email providers (Google and Yahoo) and sites related to school and/or work.
- Sites in Spanish or about Mexico or Latinos (Mediotiempo, Univision, Esmas, Terra and other sports, Mexican town pages, and news sites in Mexico).
We assessed the effectiveness of use by calculating how often users correctly completed a task. On this measure, user performance was best on the Mexican-American sites, with 96.4% of participants successfully completing tasks. In second place, the American sites had a completion rate of 92.9%, followed by the Mexican sites, with a successful completion rate of 85.7%.
Due to the lack of culturally comparable benchmarks in studies about Mexican-Americans online, measuring efficiency by completion time would not reliably indicate how quickly users completed tasks. Instead of time to completion, the ”lostness” metric was used. As detailed in Tom Tullis’ and Bill Albert’s book Measuring the User Experience, lostness provides a formula that measures the optimum number of pages needed to complete a task against the total number of pages a user actually visits. The efficiency of a task depends on the extent to which a user finds the optimal path to the information without getting lost. The lower the lostness score, the more efficiently users accessed the information.
With a lostness score of 0.12, users were most efficient with the Mexican-American websites, followed by 0.13 for the Mexican sites, and 0.16 for the American sites.
Users rated their satisfaction with the website by ranking it in comparison with the others they tested. As a preliminary step, and to make sure that users were working with legitimate websites, a web design expert of Mexican heritage was hired to evaluate sites according to the System Usability Scale, a measure that has been used widely in thousands of studies across different cultures. According to measuringusability.com, the average System Usability Score for all websites on the nternet is 68. The Mexican-American websites and American websites scored 76, with the Mexican sites scoring 66.
Users rated the American sites as their favorite (1.9 out of 3), followed by the Mexican (2.0), and in last place, the Mexican-American sites (2.1).
Participants provided open-ended comments about the sites. The top comments about the Mexican and American sites complimented the organization, particularly the clean, columnar arrangement of elements on the American sites, division of thematic elements and content into pods, and use of whitespace (pages were not ”cluttered”). Users were happiest with the relevance of content of the Mexican and Mexican-American sites, particularly the abundance of recipes in the Spanish language and the overviews about Mexican culinary traditions.
Making Sense of the Unexpected
In the performance areas of effectiveness and efficiency, the Mexican-American sites ranked the best. Asked to rate their satisfaction, users chose the American website first. That users rated the worst performing site the favorite may seem unexpected. Why would users be more satisfied with a website they had more difficulty using? Perhaps there are two explanations.
Explanation 1. Preference for stability
Like many multi-ethnic groups, Mexican-Americans have mixed feelings toward Mexico. Those who emigrate usually do so to escape the existential threats of corruption, gangs, violence, and poverty. Those who do not emigrate meet people close to them who tell stories about difficult socio-political conditions in Mexico. They admire the political and economic stability of and opportunities offered by the U.S., but they do not want to escape the Mexican culture, just the political uncertainties of the country. In the U.S., their identity as Mexican remains important, and most find communities to maintain a connection to it. They want to freely live and celebrate the part of themselves that is Mexican in a stable socio-political structure. The study results are indicative of this dichotomy: the desire for Mexican-American awareness online, but provided in an orderly and reliable manner.
Explanation 2. Technology, multi-ethnicity, and globalization
At no time in history have multi-ethnic people been more interconnected globally than the present era. People find themselves simultaneously connected to cultures in both distant and local places. On any given night, locals watch American football in Mexico, while Mexican wrestling finds its way onto Internet-connected televisions in U.S. living rooms. No longer do Mexican immigrants leave home completely behind. Today, the most common pattern is to continue a relationship with the homeland through electronically mediated transnational connections: online purchases, contacts with family and/or friends, and keeping up with events.
The distant culture feeds one kind of identity; life in the new place fosters a different one. Multi-ethnic users have at their disposal a wider array of cultural options than before the proliferation of global electronic media. In varying degrees and circumstances, people may prefer some things to be more Mexican and others to be more American. This ongoing interchange shifts the significance of what it means to be a Mexican-American. The identity is one less limited by the constraints of a specific territory and more focused toward flexibility and contingency.
Take-Away: Designing Local Multi-ethnic Websites
The results of this study show that Mexican-American users value culture, but also appreciate having it organized and structured in a way common to American websites. There may be a distinctly Mexican way to position elements on a page, but this group of users prefers an American style layout. Designers tasked with creating informational resources for this group (healthcare or business sites for example) can consider the following recommendations:
1. Explore local Mexican-American web sites
The Mexican-American websites analyzed by participants fall loosely into a genre known as local ethnic community or transnational websites. As an initial and exploratory step, developers would be wise to look for the ways that Mexican-Americans themselves have established their online presence through local ethnic websites. These sites typically assist transition to American culture while simultaneously helping maintain ties to Mexico (see L. Castro and V. Gonzalez, 2014, “Transnational Imagination and Social Practices: A Transnational Website in a Migrant Community” in Human-Computer Interaction, 29:1 pp.22-52). The sites provide links to local immigration lawyers, government institutions, where to buy certain things, recipes, a community discussion forum or other means to help people contact each other, and other features that help people maintain a Mexican identity while figuring out how to get along in a different culture.
2. Consider the cultural and community context
As you study the multi-ethnic site, ask yourself: what is it that draws users to check, for instance, healthcare data on that site and not the same information officially provided by the hospital? Consider that on a multi-ethnic virtual community, information is best provided through a context that places an emphasis on culture and community. Multi-ethnic sites for many groups emphasize these aspects, but Mexican-Americans have a comparatively heightened awareness of the role of community-driven information due to the cultural values of confianza, or trust, and personalismo, or personal connectedness. (See “Language Barriers in Healthcare Information: Communicating with Bilingual Users,” by Silvia Inez Salazar in UX Magazine 9.4 2010). Offering information through a communal framework increases its credibility. This probably means that you must invest a good deal of time into the project and use this time to generate authentic relationships with the people served by a site.
When working with multi-ethnic groups, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Don’t settle on a discount method for conducting user design for Mexican-Americans. Don’t assume that what goes for Latinos also goes for Mexican-Americans; not all Latino subgroups share the same values, use the same websites, and/or encounter the same cultural pressures. Mexican-Americans do not limit themselves to a particular culture online, but instead, use a plethora of online resources— American, Mexican, and Mexican-American—that collectively make up a Mexican-American transnational cyberspace. Goals are best accomplished through studying the unique character of the group, extensive involvement with people from the Mexican-American community, time taken to study their ways of doing things, and time to establish authentic relationships. Sincerity, trust, community, and personalization light the path to the best outcomes online, as they do in real life.
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