La próxima vez, ¡empieza en español! (Next time, start in Spanish!)

In January of this year, a fertilizer plant caught fire in Winston-Salem, N.C. Over 35 city blocks were at risk of decimation if the plant’s 600 pounds of ammonium nitrate exploded. The City notified residents within the immediate blast zone to evacuate.

The English-speaking residents, that is.

Program designers did not build the City’s emergency alert system to push automatic warning notifications in languages other than English, despite more than 25% of the residents closest to the flames being of Hispanic origin.

Communication gaps in social services also affect Houston-area Spanish speakers. During the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Houston woman tested negative for COVID despite increasingly severe symptoms, only to find out later that the clinic administered the wrong type of test. She received an antibody test, not an antigen test. Of the two, only the latter can confirm whether or not a patient is currently infected.

In many social service programs, translating communications into Spanish and other common area languages is usually at the bottom of a finishing touches checklist. However, by treating Spanish as the default language, we can arrive at a better solution — one built for those who communicate at the margins but still works well for English speakers. In addition, designing tools from a Spanish-first perspective leads to more comprehensive and inclusive social services.

Create a familiar space for Spanish-speakers

Designing with Spanish speakers in mind will result in welcoming and inviting tools and programs. For example, during our work on Build With Us!, we learned:

  • Visual design can also communicate subtle messaging across languages. Gray, black, and white colors in design can feel institutional and uninviting. The use of bright colors makes the tool more inviting and increases visibility.
  • Illustrations that represent the people you serve can help the tool target increased community usage.
Connective, 2022.
  • The use of short videos to explain processes and program details creates a personal connection with the audience. Using a real or animated person that looks like your intended user will foster confidence that your tool is designed specifically for them.
  • Localize program language as much as possible. For example, we utilized Texas-specific court rules, a local FAQ page, and a list of local resources for our prototype. Ask yourself how to add more local context to your tool at every design step. We used Spanish as our primary language for this tool because it is our area’s most common non-English language, so consider which non-English language fits your community best.
  • Specifying dialects of the language you’re using makes a more significant impact than a neutral or plain version. Neutral Spanish won’t be as impactful to a specific community as Mexican or Honduran Spanish may. The growing use of Spanglish (an English/Spanish mixture) is also an additional tool to consider.

Build community trust

Building trust within the community you serve is foundational to a social services program’s success. Spanish-speaking communities often intersect with immigrant or undocumented communities, who often have strained relationships with government bodies and programs. During our work on Build With Us!, we also learned:

  • Prioritizing privacy and immigration status information can assure audiences that their immigration status is protected. In our prototype tool, we made sure to state which information would and wouldn’t be shareable with the government and whether or not their immigration status could disqualify them for services. Even mixed-status families (families with members of varying legal status) can be hesitant to apply for benefits if this information is unclear.
  • As program designers, we have a unique opportunity to foster trust in social services and help strengthen a community’s social fabric. We found that some populations in our community have fewer connections than others. When designing our prototype to help people fill out an eviction moratorium declaration form to halt an impending eviction, we provided a cordial explanatory letter to help tenants build trust with their landlords. This cover letter helps tenants who don’t have a strong social network communicate clearly and effectively to avoid mistranslations. You can see and build a better support network for those in need if you identify other parties involved in your program.
Connective, 2022.
  • Overcommunicate the purpose of each section or page of the application or tool with clear and direct language. This clear communication will encourage confidence in your organization and the intake process.

Design for multiple audiences

Technology tools for non-English speakers will always have two audiences: those seeking the services and those helping them access the application or program.

  • Defining your audience as narrowly as possible will help you make several design decisions. A large portion of the Spanish-speaking community won’t apply for social services without the support of a bilingual relative, neighbor, or trusted community leader. Consider those who are assisting Spanish speakers as another audience for your tool.
  • Partner with local nonprofit organizations and community navigators to tell you what works best for their neighborhoods. Getting to know your audience will better inform your tool design.

If program designers in Winston-Salem had applied a Spanish-first approach to the City’s emergency alert system, the Spanish-speaking community would have received notifications in the same timely manner that the English-speaking residents did.

Fortunately, all residents faced no lasting harm, and a dedicated community translator informed the Spanish-speaking community of any critical updates. By starting with Spanish as the default language and keeping an eye on the cultural approach to program design, we inevitably can build tools, intake systems, and programs designed to provide a comprehensive and informed experience for everybody in every language.

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