Tips and tricks for UX people researching in China

We also did a touch of R&R. Interviewing is hard work. Walking the Great Wall of China is also hard, but different.

Recently, a UX team from Springer Nature went to China to speak to and learn from scientists about how they work. In the process, we learned a lot about how to organise a research trip in China. Here are a collection of things we’d like to pass on.

We’re coming from the perspective of a group of five people: we were extremely fortunate to have a native Chinese speaker.

Get an interpreter organised early

This is the most solid advice we can offer you, and the one we nearly screwed up with by not organising it early enough. We had a steer that many scientists could and would speak English. This was broadly true and the standard of spoken English was generally good. However, there were moments when you realised you couldn’t ask the question in a way that made sense, and having an interpreter there to help was invaluable. (And, of course, essential when the interview needs to be conducted in Chinese).

A typical campus at a large university in China. Good luck! Photo: Alastair Jardine

But there’s another reason: finding your way–especially on large university campuses–is quite tricky. Many signs are in english, but finding the right place often required speaking to non-english speakers.

Final tip: if it’s clear that English is a challenge, switch the interview to Chinese. It’ll be more productive.

Brief your interpreter

Brief as much as possible to your interpreter on what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and what kinds of information you are trying to obtain so they can be of help to your research. In conversation, many sentences and information can get lost if an interpreter is only there to interpret the idea of what they’ve said. Make sure they are able to translate each sentence as much as possible and collaborate to find out the best way to ask questions that may sometimes not come across through pure translation.

We should aim to avoid this anyway, but colloqualisms and idioms do have a habit of rearing their ugly head (see what I did there) when asking questions. Be vigilant, and try to follow the questions as you’ve pre-written them. Whilst in our experience spoken and written english is good, concepts and ideas are harder to translate. A classic: tell us about what’s innovative and new in your field. We had visions of them imagining themselves in an actual field.

General advice

Be really clear about your purpose. Ultimately we found this difficult as we’re seen as a publisher: it’ll be different for your industry. Coming in as UX designers interested in their process will get you confused looks (and in our case not so hidden intentions to want to publish in Nature). Be specific on what you’re asking and how you might apply the interviews into the work you do, it will also make them more relaxed when you ask them more personal questions regarding their processes and ways of working.

Get business cards! Use both hands when you pass them over.

Even getting a SIM card in Chinese is a challenge, as the telecom network was set up slightly differently. In China you can’t just purchase a travel sim in any location. So, having a native speaker smooths over all the hassle.

Use your company contacts on the ground

  • In China, reaching out to potential interviewees through company contacts is probably your strongest way of lining people up. We had lists of researchers we could get in touch with from previous research work based in London. We contacted colleagues in China to make additional suggestions, and made sure we could use recognisable names in our messages to researchers. We also did more research on each person we wrote to, framing what we wanted to learn in the light of their own personal experience (as was publically available).
  • Office space. We had the option of meeting researchers at our company offices, which some researchers preferred.

Taxis are your friend

Our experience with taxis in Beijing and Shanghai was great. They’re cheap, and plentiful. If you can figure out how to use Didi, you’ll be sorted (See: Get an interpreter organised early). Traffic is bad in the main cities though, so if you’re doing interviews at multiple locations, pad your schedule to take this into account. And the university campuses are huge: campus buildings can sometimes take 20 minutes to get from one to another so allow time for travel between each interview.

Thanking people

Give gifts, not money. Something unique, ideally company branded and useful were much appreciated. We were almost burned by legal constraints when we wanted to provide money incentives we were unaware of which was rectified at the last minute, with just enough time for us to enlist help to organise the swag. We also bought some delicacies from the UK and India for a more personal touch, too. (Caveat: check your company policy!)

Don’t rely on Google; use local apps like Baidu maps and WeChat

Local apps are much better, but the caveat is that they’re mostly in Chinese! We found Google struggled with addresses, often required a VPN, and were generally unusable. Interestingly, you’re unable to cache maps for the China for use offline in the Google Maps app. Baidu maps app is easy to use and quick to load when you’re around.

Baidu maps are your friend

Everyone is on WeChat. Download it in advance, as everyone, including your interpreter, uses it to communicate for everything. It’s also another way to connect and build relationships with the local researchers before you meet them.

Internet: get a VPN before you travel

Get your VPN sorted before heading out there, as many web services you rely on probably won’t work without a VPN. Get it set up before you travel, because the VPN providers websites are blocked by the Great Firewall of China. We used OpenVPN and Vypr, and were happy with both. Try to get a VPN that: has good worldwide coverage; can connect to servers around the world; cares about performance (they do slow things down).