Preparation before cross-cultural user research: Gain local perspectives

How can someone new to the United States know the differences between T-mobile and AT&T? Is a box of blueberries that costs $7 considered cheap or expensive? What are people’s impressions when hearing someone is from San Francisco versus from New York?

High-end, low-end, hipster, sketchy…local people have their own perceptions about brands, areas, and products around them. It is hard for those who just arrive to instantly form the same perceptions and see the world from similar perspectives as locals.

One of the challenges in cross-cultural or cross-country user research is that we only have limited time in a country, and we head to the next country soon after we are done in the previous one. How can we create a lens to see things through locals’ eyes quickly, even before the research starts?

People might ask, why do we need to do this prior to the research? Aren’t we going to interview locals and learn from them already?

One, gathering more cultural context and nuance can make a significant difference in calibrating the findings and interpreting what you hear or observe from research participants.

Here is an example. Japanese casual wear store, UNIQLO, is considered a lower-end brand with limited quality. Most white collared Japanese workers tend not to wear it at work as they are afraid that they might be perceived as penniless. Whereas in other East Asian countries, due to scarcity and different brand positioning and pricing, having clothes from UNIQLO is a sign of being fashionable, different, and wealthy. Before UNIQLO opened its first stores in Taiwan, some people would even fly to Hong Kong for their clothes.

If your interviewee tells you that he usually buys clothes at UNIQLO, without having a sense of what that refers to in a specific cultural context, it is hard to deeply understand the meaning behind his response, and sometimes it might even lead to misunderstandings.

Another reason is to avoid asking basic questions. Say you are running a research in China and a participant tells you that she scans a QR code at the gasoline station to access the “mini-program” in WeChat to top up her card. This could sound really confusing if you don’t have a basic idea of how people use WeChat, QR code, and mini-programs in China. You might end up asking a lot of clarifying questions and waste the precious session time.

Women scanning QR code to get a mini-program

Following are some tips that helped me grasp the situation in a new place and build local perspectives in a fairly short time. They are not as exact and strict as a proper ethnographic approach, but they are definitely easier, quicker and more affordable.

1. Call whoever lives/used to live in that country

Before you go, make informal calls to your friends or friends’ friends who live in the country where you are going to conduct user research. It doesn’t matter whether they are your target user or not.

Especially for the countries that you are not familiar with, it would be much better to get some information from people there instead of assuming everything yourself.

There was one time I needed to know more about the online shopping market in the United Arab Emirates. I started by identifying some major e-Commerce sites through online searches, and then called my friends there to ask questions like what e-Commerce sites they usually use, and which one they choose in a particular situation. In the short conversation, I got to know that there is no clear address system in UAE, thus people have a lot of trouble receiving the goods they ordered. This fact gave me a clearer image of the online shopping situation there, and if necessary, I could ask more in the formal research.

2. Gain wisdom from taxi drivers

There is a high chance you would take a taxi (or a Uber/Lyft) at least once during a cross-cultural research trip. Usually it’s from the airport. Therefore, the taxi driver would be the first local you get to spend a while with. Utilize this chance to ask some general questions, but don’t make drivers feel like you are interviewing them.

Questions like “I wonder what websites Australians use for online shopping? What do you think is the difference between that website and Amazon?” in a friendly tone would create a relaxed atmosphere for taxi drivers to share their thoughts.

3. Take public transportation

While taxi is comfortable, don’t solely rely on it. If you want to get closer to local people’s life, taking a ride on public transportation will give you a lot more additional information. If applicable, you can also choose a particular time, such as morning rush hours when people are going to work, to see what apps they are using during the commute, or what kind of advertisements get more attention in the train station.

In one of my recent research trips to Tokyo, while some of my colleagues decided to take the taxi all the time to avoid the crowd, I took trains and noticed the advertisement of Line Work, one of our biggest competitors in Japan. In our research, many participants mentioned they knew Line Work through its advertisement on trains. Seeing it in person and reading into its marking messages helped me understand where the participants were coming from.

Line Work ad on the train in Tokyo

You might not always get straightforward insights by taking public transportation. However, observing things like the surroundings, the pace of passengers, their attires, or their behaviors on trains, will give you a sense of the society’s atmosphere.

Here is another example. Metro stations in Paris put high doors at the ticket gate to prevent people from getting inside without buying tickets. Ticket inspectors show up all of a sudden from the corner to check if you are being honest. Based on this you can assume that there are plenty of people not following the law and therefore more countermeasures were developed.

Whereas in Tokyo, the doors at the ticket gates are open by default. They close only when the ticket is not being sensed. On one hand, this increases the efficiency (so that passengers can come in faster without having to wait for the gate to close first and open again). On the other hand, it indicates that there is a higher sense of trust between people.

Tokyo metro. Image source:

4. Shop at convenience stores

Convenience stores are a good place to build a sense of price. When you see all the things you are familiar with — bottled water, chewing gum, chocolate bars being placed together and marked with local prices, you get a sense of what are cheap and what are expensive in a country. Meanwhile, you can compare the price of the product you are researching (e.g. a printer) with the necessities, to have a better idea about whether it is expensive or affordable to local people.

In Japan, Häagen-Dazs is not as high-class as in Taiwan, as its price is not that different from other ice-cream brands. Image source:

Becoming a mystery shopper at the stores where people buy the product you are researching is another way to put yourself in locals’ shoes. Once I was in Hong Kong for a research project about printer, taking a walk inside the Golden Computer Center in Hong Kong made me realize how hard it was to buy genuine ink cartridges — the salesperson aggressively recommended customers the fake cartridges that were “as good as real one, never leak and are 5 times cheaper”.

Next day when my research participant told me he bought his printer at Golden Computer Center instead of a major chain electronics appliance store, I could imagine what kind of situation he was in, and what factors might have influenced his buying decision.

Golden Computer Center in Hong Kong. Image source:

Based on my personal experience of moving to four different countries, it really takes time to develop a “local sense”. You know you have it when you know the tiny difference between brands (e.g. QFC vs. Safeway), the characteristics of each area (e.g. Mission Bay vs. Hayes Valley), and where to buy cheaper stuff. As researchers, we want to do whatever we can to put ourselves in users’ shoes, especially when it comes to a culture or place we are not familiar with. All the tips mentioned above help build local perspectives in a faster way, and contribute to getting more context and nuance about a foreign place, which leads to a more enriching experience and deeper insights.

Research@ DoorDash. Ex- Facebook, Uber, Microsoft, and strategy consulting. San Francisco based. Worked in Tokyo, Singapore, Seattle, Taipei, and Shanghai.

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