Winter 2004-2005

"Mi Computadora": Improving Computer Use for Non-English Speakers at CTCs
by Colin Bill

Community Technology Centers (CTCs) have played a key role in providing access to technology to the underserved population throughout the United States. The free or low-cost beginner computer classes that CTCs offer, whether at a library, YMCA, or local community center, are often the best opportunity for many low-income Americans to become computer literate (MANA, 1988). Overwhelmingly, the Operating Systems (OS) on computers at CTCs are English language ones. Although Microsoft does offer the Windows OS in many languages, most CTCs do not have the resources to provide them to their program participants. While computer classes may be taught in other languages, the OSs are usually in English (SRI, 2002).

Sample desktop configuration
Sample desktop configuration.

What’s the Problema?

When non-English speakers learn computer basics at a CTC on an English OS, there are both language and cultural barriers between them and the computer system (Lonergan, 2000). This article analyzes the problem from a performance-centered design (PCD) perspective, offers some simple remedies to break down these barriers, and aides the beginner to complete important elementary tasks on the computer. PCD takes a human approach to designing technology and strives to provide an “optimal environment for decision making and action, where many of the burdens of memory and computation are alleviated” (Greenberg and Dickelman, 2000). CTCs may be limited to English OSs, but within this system interface they can add, remove, and/or rearrange existing objects and artifacts to better suit the needs of their participants.


When a non-English speaker turns on a PC with an English OS at a CTC beginner computer class, he or she often sees a desktop with dozens of little images (icons) with small text below them in English. These icons, often referred to as shortcuts, are the first objects, hypertexts, and artifacts that the student encounters. They are most often randomly placed, some are copies of existing ones, and others do not open anything. This problem, which could be called “desktop icon overload,” often causes disorientation and confusion for the learner.

The performer is typically using the computer system to complete a task. In the case of the beginner computer user, some of the common tasks are: type a document in text editor, play a card game to practice mouse maneuvers, create an email account, use the calculator, and search the Internet. Since the disorganized and disorienting desktop does not help the new user complete a task, he or she must navigate an often long and confusing path to do so.

Let’s look at the task flow of a student who wants to use the calculator on an English OS. The student must find the all-important "Start" button on the bottom left, and then select three more options in order to complete the task by finding the calculator artifact (i.e., Start All Programs; Accessories; Calculator). With little or no English, and the inherent complexity of the Windows navigation, it is very unlikely that the student will be able to complete the task.


Clean Up Your Desk

According to the principles of PCD, one should match the task process to the learner, and provide the right amount of information at the right time (Dickelman, 1996). When a non-English speaker turns on the computer at a CTC, he or she should have direct access to information and artifacts that she readily understands and that represent the tasks at hand. Translating the language of the desktop icon text is perhaps the most obvious solution, which can be easily done by right clicking on the icon and selecting “Rename.” Moreover, CTCs should accommodate the user’s culture by providing content that is relevant and understandable (Degler and Battle, 2001).

Have Desktop Shortcuts to Appropriate Content

The desktop, therefore, should only have icons that directly link to a program, website, or document that helps the students to complete an essential task. If you work at a CTC, review the icons on your computer desktops. The goal here is to have icons that are appropriate for the learners, taking into account their language and culture. Delete unnecessary icons to remedy any “icon overload” problems. Then add or create new icons linking to information that is appropriate for and useful to the students.

Choose Appropriate Programs and Online Content

The desktop environment is very important because of its prominence, but keep in mind that the icons are just shortcuts to and representations of their respective programs, websites, or other content artifacts. What programs and websites should the desktop icons link to on the computers in your lab? Start by looking at the population that you serve. Ask them about their interests and needs. What tasks do they want to complete, and what information will they need to get it done? What language(s) do they speak and what culture do they most relate to?

For a beginner computer class, you may want to include icons that link to the following common programs (in the foreign language, if possible): text editor, calculator, and card game (to practice mouse maneuvers), and to the following websites (in that language): email, Internet search, news, and Internet guide/tutorial. See a sample configuration for Spanish speaking beginner computer users. If you have the most recent Windows OS, XP,at your CTC, you could set up several language environments on one computer. Just create “User Accounts” for the different languages that you might want (see “User Accounts” in the Control Panel).

Usability Tests and Implications

Participants in usability tests with the sample Spanish configuration said that “it is easier,” “helps beginners to understand faster,” and “helps me to understand.” As for suggestions, they wanted information about job searching, lawyers, immigration, the library, recipes, and a Spanish dictionary (note: icons could be set up to link to these). Their responses, which were positive overall, suggest that the configuration helped them to complete the task(s) faster and more efficiently, while at the same time providing localized, relevant content. This new OS interface, configured with a few simple changes, helps to counter the four significant content deficiencies of underserved communities: lack of local information, literacy barriers, language barriers, and lack of cultural diversity in Internet material (Lonergan, 2000).

Customization is the Conclusion

Making a few simple changes to the arrangement of the icons and adding a few localized programs, CTCs can create a more useful and friendly environment in which their students can perform more efficiently. They are essentially customizing the computer interface to the needs and interests of their students. For a beginner user, minimizing the desktop icons to a small number that link to key programs and websites in their language creates a simple interface where she can feel comfortable and connected.

The interface should be simple because “computers are complex, difficult to learn, difficult to use, difficult to maintain” (Norman, 1988). To create a good user experience, it is important that the learner does not have a “feeling of puzzlement, nor loss of control” (Norman, 1988). The solutions offered in this paper strive to create a simple and understandable environment for non-English speaker on an English OS. There is little to no cost to make these changes to computers, and it can be done on a grass roots level by the CTC center director or class instructor. Perhaps a few intermediate level students could design the environment, using these principles, which new students who speak their language and share their culture might like.


Delger, D. & Battle, L (2001). “Around the Interface in 80 Clicks.”Performance Improvement, 40 (7).

Dickelman, Gary (1996). “Gershom’s law: Principles for the Design of Performance Support Systems intended for use by human beings.”CBT Solutions.

Greenberg, J.D. & Dickelman, GJ. (2000). “Distributed Cognition and Performance Support.”

Performance Improvement, 39 (6). Lonergan, James M. (2000). “Internet Access and Content for Urban Schools and Communities.”

ERIC Digest: Urban Education.

MANA: A National Latina Organization (1996). The Latinas’ Guide to the Information Superhighway.

Norman, D.A. (1988). The Invisible Computer. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

SRI International (July 2002). Summary of Findings from Annual Performance Reports of FY99 and FY00 Grantees of Community Technology Centers Program.

Colin Bill received a master degree in instructional technology from George Mason University and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras. He designs practical training solutions, such as eLearning simulations, that support and enhance student learning and performance.

Post a comment

Remember personal info?

* Denotes required field.