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211.org: How User Experience Research Can Improve
Site Functionality and Drive More Traffic

by Megan Finaly | UX Designer
December 2011

211.org is a national organization that helps people in need find social services. This nonprofit is well positioned to be able to better serve its target audiences with some simple modifications to the design and navigation of its website. New immigrants represent a growing segment of 211’s users; changes to the website could address the different ways these immigrants are used to interacting with technology.

The rapid diffusion and adoption of internet and cell phone usage around the world has made them both indispensable tools. And now with the use of smartphones and widely available access to the web via wi-fi and computers at libraries, 211.org is positioned to serve even more people in need. 211 could even increase the number of users of its website dramatically and introduce relevant, targeted advertising. Based on ethnographic observations, surveys, and contextual interviews, this report provides some recommendations.

Method

Using the Rapid Contextual Design approach, by Holtzblatt, Wendell, & Wood (2005) along with data received from the 211 office, I evaluated how people are currently using 211.org. Then I chose a subset of what I believe should be 211’s key users: immigrants, specifically Nepali immigrants in King County and I observed how they live with technology. I met with twenty Nepalis and contextually interviewed five. Using my laptop and SurveyMonkey I asked nine questions about their gender, age, employment, living situation,  social networking tools, and how they get help, both in Nepal and in the U.S. This method created an atmosphere that encouraged the interviewees to talk more openly and to elaborate on the questions that were asked in the survey.

There are many factors to consider that were outside the scope of my research, such as;  an indepth study of cultural differences in perception, aesthetics, and interpretation, cultivating trust and acceptance through use of design elements (alignment, proximity, repetition, contrast, color palette). This report does not cover the process for translating and managing the localization of content.  However my study of these cultural differences and similarities (1995, Hoft. 2010, Hofstede) did provide guidance for the redesign of 211.org.

I did a task analysis of the current 211.org site with three female participants aged 17-29 years old. Using a paper prototype translated in to Nepali, they were asked to locate the Kent Food Bank & Emergency Services, which is where we conducted the test. The results are discussed on page three.

As found by Gould, “countries can be grouped together in useful typologies–democratic, socialist, authoritarian, and so forth. Within cultures, individuals cover a wide spectrum of belief and behavior but, in the aggregate, they cluster together and these clusters display a surprising amount of stability. Cultural anthropology can provide useful insights into designing interfaces for specific countries, but theories from the field of intercultural communication are generally better for culturally diverse audiences. Most designers do not have the mandate to develop entirely different products for each national or ethnic market. Intercultural communication theory makes it possible for them to focus on a few crucial variations” (2005, Gould).

With research using a model of culture, designers can identify;

•  Global information that can be put into the interface without requiring future translation.
•  Cultural bias in the existing site.
•  Parts of the site that should be localized for a specific culture.
•  Compelling cultural metaphors and cultural markers (2005, Aykin. 1995, Hoft.)

Background

In 2010, 2-1-1 services in the United States answered more than 16.4 million calls. 211 is an umbrella group that connects people to local groups in their county.  They provide quick and easy access to information for those relocating to a new community and not settled into their new residences. Services include help finding food, housing, employment or money to pay electric bills. The last major redesign of 211.org was done in April of 2009. Very little research is currently available on the site’s target audiences, personas or task flows.

The United States has the fifth largest population of Nepalis outside of Nepal. There are 110,616 Nepali immigrants living in the United States.  They share common language and culture with main stream Nepal. As of June 20, 2010, 27,926 Nepali-Bhutanese have been resettled in the USA. It is estimated that around 50,000 of the current worldwide Bhutanese refugees will eventually be in U.S. There are over 2,000 Nepalis living in the King County area. (2011, Wikipedia).

Audience Analysis: Nepali Immigrants 

Nepali people have a basic distrust of information that does not come from known sources such as from friends or family.  Nepali people come from a very tight culture meaning they “have many strong norms and a low tolerance of deviant behavior,” while “loose” cultures “have weak social norms and a high tolerance of deviant behavior”.  The neighboring country of Pakistan is the “tightest” nation which Gelfand sampled (2011, Gelfand).

The Nepali people have a collectivist mindset and a high context culture. Their nature is towards interdependence as opposed to the Americans who tend to be more independent in thought and action.  Along with the language barrier and difficulty understanding the American accents, this hesitancy makes it difficult for Nepalis to attain the basic services they need to thrive in their new country.

A survey done in 2010 in Kathmandu, found that 44.85 percent Nepali consumers were cheated due to their lack of awareness, and 39.83 percent have been victim of illegal activities. They come from a culture where crimes and injustices are rarely reported and therefore feel it is best to rely on recommendations from friends and family. (2011, Shreshta)

All of the people I interviewed did not have a laptop when they came to the U.S. All but two interviewees did not know about public access to computers at libraries. In 2005, there were 7 computers or laptops for every 100 people in the U.S. whereas in Nepal there were .48 computers or laptops for every 100 Nepalis (2011, Wikipedia). Instead, the vast majority of Nepali immigrants rely on their cell phone to stay connected and to get referrals for basic needs.

Many non-profits in the U.S. are not allowed to help illegal immigrants so this alienates them further. The organizations that the interviewees mentioned the most were Refuge Women’s Alliance,  Asian Counseling and Referral Service, NepalSeattle.org, and Northwestsherpa.org.

Nepali Findings;

It was apparent that the difference between American and Nepali cultures was creating a barrier to Nepali people finding and using 211.org.

Common Body of Knowledge
Knowing a country or culture’s common body of knowledge can be useful information when determining for example what to expect of internet users from that country. In the case of Nepalis, only one of the interview participants knew about 211.org, while all participants knew about 911. Two of the people I interviewed had used the library for accessing the internet. All of the interviewees listed Facebook as their first choice for the social networking site that they use the most.

Language and Literacy
Not all Nepalis were comfortable writing or reading Nepali since some of them did not complete their elementary schooling. It was explained to me also that the style of Nepali writing prevalent online is more formal than many of the immigrants were comfortable with in terms of reading and comprehending.

Technology and Computer Literacy
Regarding the results of the three paper prototype participants in locating the Kent Food Bank & Emergency Services, all three were unsuccessful. All had to use the back button and it was apparent they were not confident in their choices and were guessing.  Three of the interviewees had trouble understanding the meaning behind certain button functions such as “apply” or “submit” which caused them to hesitate. The same three also did not understand how to implement a multi-step search function that invovled choosing between two radio buttons and typing in a keyword. The sign in option was confusing for one participant who thought she had to sign in to use the search tool.

While this question was not in the survey, I noticed that most of the men had cell phones with text messaging, and a very few had smart phones that allowed for internet browsing. Most of the women had cell phones with text msging, but not smart phones. Nepalis aged 18 and younger were much more comfortable using the internet to get information or for social networking. Men spent more time on the computer (surfing the web, paying bills) than women.

The Nepali culture is a high-context culture which revolves around personal contacts and, as the internet is a relatively impersonal medium, attempts to automate processes and transactions are not likely to be well received” (1998, Samiee). Based on  Hall’s constructs (monochromic and polychromic, doing one thing at a time versus many things; proxemics, social use of space and context) in high-context societies, a message’s actual text is secondary.  This is the case with the Nepali people where they rely heavily on visual cues and photos. While in the U.S. a  low-context society, the information is explicitly expressed in the text of the message.

According to Gould, “the ‘architecture’ of a web page may differ in terms of color, mass, and balance between verbal and visual elements. Many American web sites currently sport subdued hues, arrange content in explicit hierarchies of indentation, and emphasize text over graphics. Web sites from other countries appear visually striking if they upset American expectations by using vivid colors, an asymmetric arrangement, or more graphics than text. Appropriate content may also vary. Text that lacks formal historical grounding will be unpersuasive to people who rely on tradition to justify their actions. Moreover, presentation and content may interact. Pictures that are read individually in one country can become part of an unintentional collage of meaning in another.” (2005, Gould)

What changes could be made to the site to cross the cultural divide? 

According to the Global Web Index (2011), more people are coming to trust online reviews, forums, and social media such as Blog Author and Consumer Review Online.  How does 211.org and its information fit into the lives of immigrants? It could become the virtual gateway for guiding immigrants through the United States’ infrastructure and ultimately could speed their adaptation to the American culture. According to research done by Nancy Hoft, localization helps overcome inherent resistance by making the interface secondary (hidden) to the user’s task of locating information or a service (1995, Hoft). Non-profits such as IRC and World Relief have an advantage here because they are recognised entities with existing offline and online relationships.

How to Drive More Traffic

I believe we can introduce a more entrepreneurial mindset to the non-profit arena. Any group that has a steady flow of users or that has built up a critical mass has created a ‘market’ just like any retail business. It is from this foundation that the directors of non-profits should be moving aggressively to help their customers in new and innovative ways. I don’t believe that these more corporate-like objectives weaken their potential impact on 211 as an organization. As the real estate motto has been “Location, location, location!” the internet motto is now “Information, information, information”, not just regurgitated reports or contact information, but current information about what services non-profits are providing. For example, which shelter has beds available tonight, which pantry is serving hot food, or where can I find a weekend job doing labor, child care or catering?

Please view online at: http://ashburydesigns.com/clients/211/redesign_proposal/index.html  The comp for the Nepali language page is in English for the purpose of understanding content and functionality.

Now that many non profit website use Twitter, WordPress or other Content Management Systems, 211.org could request RSS feeds or Tweets that publish regularly updated information from the various non profits. With a combination of fresh information and improved search engine optimization, 211.org could dramatically increase its traffic and eventually add some advertisements deeper in the architecture of their site which could bring in some revenue for the organization. Non-profits such as the International Rescue Committee (which has been in existence for 75 years) and World Relief have the resources and connections to develop rich content.

Suggested Site Changes

1) The biggest change would be to allow users to choose their language preference by creating a gateway page with all the main languages used by King County’s immigrant population (Spanish, Somalian, Bhutanese, Iraqi, Japanese, Chinese, Nepali, Ethiopian, Korean) From here each page can make culturally appropriate adjustment to icons, color, spacing, photo usage and so on.  Once the site switches to their native language, the primary difference would be that the search and navigation functions would be in their native language while much of the content would remain in English unless it is coming, for example, from a Nepali source.

2) Remove all competing nonprofit logos and branding except 211. 211 needs to build trust by showing a solid, singular and unified brand.

3) Create supplement visuals to the existing logo that explains what 211 delivers: 211 = (3 small icons –> icon of a bed, icon representing food such as a bowl of rice or a plate with knife and fork, icon of a worker or of two heads talking to each other). Just as we rely on the envelope icon to tell us that is the link to email and the red cross represents medical help, 211 can create icons that are more universally understood.

4) Drilling down to the Nepalese 211 homepage for King County, I would suggest adding audio recordings for directions on using the search tools.

5) The search tools should offer two main paths or tabs along with a permanent search box in the upper right of page;

• A to Z non-profit listing with the group’s logo for using as a visual cue
• Browse Topics options which would use the latin based A-Z alphabet

6) If possible, I would add the Devanagari-based (alphabet) translation to those non-profits that serve the Nepali or Sherpa community. The Devanagari will catch their eye and will be easier to scan the pages. Also previous users can tell their friends to look for the Devanagari on the page.

Conclusion

The United States with the cooperation of the government and non-profits could set the tone for how we welcome a diverse workforce, whether they start out unskilled or bring with them the skills we seek. The new global population seems to care less about their country of residence and more about the quality of their lives. I found that the Nepali people have an extremely strong work ethic, rarely get sick and would be an asset to any economy. Just as we created Foreign Service diplomats and trained them to work effectively overseas, the 211.org website should serve as the gateway to immigrants to the United States.

As stated by an Indian entrepreneur, Shibulal (2011), ‘We must remember that the consequences of economic disparity will not leave us alone. It will catch up with us through rising crime rates, violence, vandalism, social unrest and other desperate measures. The true success of Bangalore, lies not only in fuelling the dreams of visionaries but also fulfilling its responsibility to give hope to the underprivileged. This is where each one of us has to fulfill our unwritten social contract — to give back to the society in which we operate.’ The same applies to Seattle and the greater area. With the growing and ongoing economic downturn, there are a large number of not only Americans, but also immigrants who are in need of these services, yet are unaware of 211 and 211.org.

References

211.org. Caller Data for the month of July. pdf. 2011.

Aykin, Nuray. Usability and internationalization of information technology. 2005.

Easterling, Dana interview. 211 Manager. King County. 2011.

Gelfand Ph. D., Michele and colleagues,  Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study. May 2011 issue of      Science Magazine (sciencemag.org)

Hartley, Melissa interview. Partners For Our Children. 2011.

Hoft, Nancy L. International Technical Communication: How to Export Information about High Technology. New York: John Wiley and Sons. 1995.

Holtzblatt, Karen,  Burns Wendell, Jessamyn, Wood, Shelley. Rapid Contextual Design. 2005.

Hofstede, Geert, Hofstede, Gert Jan, Minkov, Michael. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. 2010.

Samiee, Saeed. Exporting and the Internet: a conceptual perspective. International Marketing Review, Vol. 15 Iss: 5, 1998.

Sherpa, Dawa interview. Asian Counseling and Referral Service. 2011.

Shresta, Ramesh. Consumer Survey in Kathmandu Valley. http://www.ekantipur.com/2011/09/29/headlines/Consumer-Survey- in-Kathmandu-Valley/341565/ . 2011.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nepal

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nepalese_American

Smith. http://globalwebindex.net/thinking/brands-are-a-positive-force-in-social-media-%E2%80%93-let%E2%80%99s- celebrate-that/ (Dec 2011)

Shibulal. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-04-27/news/29479059_1_global-city-bangalore-business- community . Bangalore: Hi-Tech city must meet needs of its lowest deck. 2011.

The Influence of High- and Low-Context Communication Styles On the Design, Content, and Language of Business-To-Business Web Sites. 2010. http://job.sagepub.com/content/47/2/189.

Khan, Razib. 2011 Loose vs. tight societies http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2011/05/loose-vs-tight-societies/

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