Cross Cultural Research

How not to treat your participants like they are the ‘other.’

Jul 17 · 4 min read

At Hopscotch Labs, like all other researchers, we ask our research participants to share their lives with us, in return they must trust that we’ll use that information to make their lives better.

If you don’t look like, sound like or feel like your research participants, it takes time to understand them and gain their trust and goodwill. As a design researcher, I’ve run into this within disciplines that I don’t spend time in—music, military, 911 centers, hospitals. Some topics are easier to get up to speed on faster. You can get rid of your biases, learn what it means to be a musician, to be a military spouse, to miss bathroom breaks because of the urgency of your work. You can even dress the part—buying scrubs or a 3 piece suit. What you can’t change is your own cultural bias, the tenor of your voice, or your read of a situation.

Your research participants need a champion—someone to communicate the nuance of their actions and beliefs and the meaning behind their words.

Finding your Champion

1. Who is your audience?

The first step we take at Hopscotch Labs is to know your intended audience.

Research on Motivation, pictured here are community college students in a Detroit-based fire fighter certificate program.

2. How do you best engage them?

Knowing them is about much more than knowing demographics. We purposefully start by trying to understand their experiences and mental models to best design our research study.

3. Finding your moderator.

Knowing whom you’re talking to and providing them a champion researcher who really understands the context and cultural ramifications of the information they share is invaluable.

With the majority of projects you should be able to moderate the research yourself with a little humor, humility and confidence — be honest with what you don’t know. Research support comes in handy when it’s another language or you’re in another culture. From my experience trying to research client challenges across a region (SoCal, New Delhi India, Shanghai China) it has been invaluable to hire someone from the neighborhoods/communities I’m researching.

A caveat: your target audiences should not be considered an ‘other’. Ask yourself, can I know what my participants are talking about? Will my own biases hinder my perspective? Will my own culture and experiences impact my perspective?

International research in Guangzhou, China

4. Natural connectors with moderate training

I recommend going to the local universities and hiring literature and (news) media majors. I’ve also found that the local ‘connectors’ are perfect for leading guerrilla research efforts. A little training goes a long way.

They do the interviews, I tag along and am the videographer/recorder if possible. And after each interview we discuss what took place and translate anything that is localized or has a cultural meaning.

It’s impossible to know local idioms, history or social dynamics. Having someone share the true meaning of what is conveyed really helps in the research and design process.

5. Build for a flexible process

I purposefully hire people who are naturally curious and often gregarious* to do the moderation. I realized long ago that an inflexible research process in a culture you don’t know equates to missed opportunities and stilted conversations.

*Note, by gregarious and curious I don’t mean overly happy. I want someone who is willing to ask questions, and comfortable enough in their own skin to ask the follow up question regardless of the cultural norms at play.

6. ‘Ethnic’ is not a monolithic group of people

Latinos, Blacks, Asian. None of these are monolithic groups in the US. Each ‘term’ covers broad geographic area and multiple originating countries with unique cultural heritages, and disparate characteristics and beliefs. With most topics you don’t need to hire someone with the ethnic makeup of the people you’ll encounter. It’s the 10% of projects where it truly matters.

Tip: At the end of an interview recap what you heard and include your assumptions. If you’re wrong they will let you know.

Tip: If I’m doing research and I don’t know who to recruit, I look for advertising research on cultural segmentations for better insight into the social groups within the US.

Hopscotch Labs is an innovation research firm. We help our clients better understand the lives of their customers and the job their products fulfill. Curious about how we might tackle your problem? Reach out to us to find out.

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