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¿Patacones o Tostones?

How Spanish-speaking site visitors navigate a site may vary significantly based on dialect, culture, and the region they are from. 

Do all Spanish-speaking countries and regions have the same words and terms? Does everyone agree on these terms across the board, or are there barriers? Business Development Representative Annie Schow shares her experience on navigating the diverse landscape of the Spanish language and Web Strategist Michelle Jackson provides some tips on how to better understand the language and culture of the audiences you are targeting.

photo of Annie Schow as a kid
Annie in Colombia as a young, biz-dev-rep in training.

Growing up in Colombia, my first language was Spanish. Eventually, my family made the move back to the United States, but while in Bogota I attended an American school and had American parents, so the move to an English-speaking country when I was 10 was not a huge transition. The biggest transition I experienced was getting accustomed to what seemed like a completely new Spanish language that was being spoken in Texas. Camioneta was now troca, torta was now pastel, and patacones were now tostones.

It may not seem like a huge adjustment to learn some of these terms, but what happens when you take the examples of trucks, cakes, and fried plantains and put these changes into the context of web design? How Spanish-speaking site visitors navigate a site may vary significantly based on dialect, culture, and the region they are from. Some words may even have a negative connotation. Mexican Spanish may not make the most sense for a site that is targeting multilingual audiences from different regions in Latin America. 

So what does this mean for your next project that focuses on a Spanish-speaking demographic as one of your audiences?

Michelle's recommendations:

When in Roma …

Is the homepage portada (Chile) or inicio (Panama)? Will the navigation item for news say prensa (Spain) or noticias (Miami)? The answer depends on whom you are speaking with, where your client is based, and which audiences they serve. If the team is going to provide strategy or design expertise in Spanish or any language, use authentic idioms and terms consistent with the culture to build trust with clients.

  1. Review and take cues from the actual Spanish language site (if there already is one).
  2. If your client has members of the team that speak the language, take advantage of their expertise and seek advice on which terms to use in the navigation.
  3. Review websites in the region that target the same demographic. These can be competitor sites or other sites that people visiting your site might use in parallel markets. This will give you a sense of the actual lingo and what terms visitors may expect on your site.
  4. Run user tests on the menu and the actual site once it is built. Test with real visitors to see if the terms you and the client have selected make sense to the people who will be visiting the site.

Know your audience and avoid sweeping generalizations 

User experience practitioners sometimes make the mistake of creating a generic Spanish speaking persona. Building any site based on one individual and the language he or she speaks to guide the content strategy, design, and build of the site is risky. If one is building a Spanish language site or a site in another language, having multiple personas is best. Knowing the basics of the demographic the site are reaching out to is essential. This knowledge will ensure the site integrates cultural context into the content strategy, design, and technical build of the site. Here are some questions to better understand your audience:

  1. Who are the users (i.e. exchange students, U.S. citizens, etc.,.)?
  2. How old are they?
  3. Where were they born?
  4. What is their education level?
  5. Are they helping their parents or peers?
  6. Can they read English and Spanish?
  7. Can their parents read English and Spanish?
  8. Do their parents speak Spanish or a local dialect?
  9. If they can’t read Spanish, can they understand Spanish?
  10. Do they primarily access the web on their mobile phone or desktop?

This type of nuanced information not only plays a key role in shaping the direction of the project, but also leads to the development of accessible content that can lead to increased visitor engagement with the site. For example, leveraging video might be a solution for visitors with low literacy or for visitors who are reluctant to read a lot of text.

Lost in translation

Write the primary content in Spanish with the audience in mind. Avoid translating the English site word for word. Rather than using Google translate to engage visitors who speak another language, interpret the website goals and content and reflect these to the audiences you are targeting through the site design, content, and technical architecture. Design and build the site so it is authentic and frame content messaging in a way that speaks to them.

Consistency across sites

What do users get out of going to your website? Focus on the universal goals for the site and core user needs before focusing on language. Once you have a sense of what visitors want the most (i.e. apply for a Master’s degree program), you can prioritize supporting content (i.e. getting a visa). Avoid creating separate navigations for versions of the site that are merely the same iteration in another language. Many visitors are multilingual and may toggle between English and Spanish pages. They may get frustrated if the navigation or key content is missing from one site or located in a different places on another.

The Takeaway

Whether you’re moving to a new country or building a website, language and culture will vary. The best thing you can do is listen and learn. Patacones or tostones? You’ll never really know until you submerge yourself in the culture!

There is existing research around cultural and language needs, but words and idioms constantly evolve. Cultural norms are fluid. The only way to validate Spanish terms that you decide to use in the navigation and for key website content is to speak with real site visitors and to test the content and words with them.


Are you attending Drupal Camp Costa Rica? Don't miss out on sessions by Palantir CEOs Tiffany Farriss and George DeMet (neither of whom are Spanish speakers).

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