UX Research without borders

In my short but intense life as a UX Researcher I have had the possibility of planing and conducting design research across multiple cultures. I have been involved in sessions with potential users and stakeholders of a product/service that was being (re)designed.

The nature and maturity of each project varied and so did the methodologies used to uncover user’s needs, expectations, behaviours & desires. Despite many differences across topics, clients and cultures I can reflect on 5 learnings that come in handy when doing design research abroad or even outside your usual context:

1. Overcome the language barrier

In my experience, the first fear that pops into your head — and into your client’s head- when conducting research in a country where they don’t speak your mother language is: how are you going to deal with speaking with participants?

The most desired situation is to have a translator provided; preferably someone that somehow understands the topic, knows what design research is about and, if possible, has experience with it … The truth is: this is likely not happening!

You will probably have to work with someone from the local client’s team or from your main contact in the country to help with translating. This is tricky as they often don't see the point of user research on the first place. A helpful move is to invite them to other activities that you may be conducting within the client organisation, like workshops; this helps them experience some design research techniques and realise the potential through practice.

For the actual user sessions, and a personal favourite of mine, is to print all sorts of visual aid. Examples of the product/service, the competitors or even emotion cards can be helpful to ensure that participants can express themselves freely and somehow more directly to you. You want users to be able to communicate as much as possible using a language you both understand.

If you are lucky and you do get a translator plan to conduct one or two pilot sessions with this person, where you can see their style and they can understand what your key research goals are.

Using printed visuals to better communicate despite language differences

2. Spread the love for research

It is often the case that participants do not understand why you are sitting with them to talk about their lives and the products/services they use; but in some contexts be prepared to convince everyone, especially your main stakeholders.

I think as researchers we are often confronted with this situation; we all have heard the sentence "I know what my customers want". However, it may get harder when researching abroad because it adds the sentence: "We know our own culture better". It is often the case that people are not familiar with design research and definitly not comfortable with an “outsider” advising on which actions to be taken.

Simple but relevant actions to take are to spend sometime understanding where these concerns come from. Talk to people within the organisation, open to their point of view and share similar projects that have had a positive outcome. Most importantly involve key players into the planning and of course conduct sessions with them as participants. This way they can understand by witnessing your work. Plus, and let’s be honest, you should anyway do this to understand the big picture of the problem you are solving.

Conducting an ideation workshop with stakeholders both to understand business drives and illustrate the research methodology to be used with their customers

3. Keep calm and stay flexible

Ah yes, Flexibility: the ability to be easily modified, to change or compromise.

Having an open mind towards the difficulties along the way is a key factor when it comes to successful research driven projects. When conducting research abroad, you may find it more difficult to be flexible because you are not familiar with the context and do not know what to expect if you make an "uncalculated" move.

Side note: we all agree that no matter how much plans change and things don't work out, sessions need to be conducted as if everything had worked out perfectly; the change of plans, context and the chaotic feeling this may bring, shouldn't affect the outcome of the work we do.

From my experience there are always a couple of things to prevent being caught off guard. First one — most likely handy in developing countries is — to plan more time than you would normally plan. This will buy you some extra room to improvise on the go if something does not go as expected.

What I also find handy is having an overview of my possibilities; I once created some sort of card game with each of the participants types, research methodologies and goals of the sessions. Because planning was always changing, I could mix and match the cards on the go; even when I had to plan sessions out of the blue I could make sure to include each of the user profiles required while staying on track with the the research goals to be achieved.

Board with methods, participants and goals. Used for planning on the go.

4. Build trust

In many cases it is common that participants are comfortable with the research topic and that they are happy to chat and receive the incentives they have been told of. However, in many other scenarios you may need a more complex approach to make sure that participants are fully open and willing to share their experiences. I find the latter more common in contexts where participants are in a somewhat vulnerable situation, for instance people with economic difficulties or a medical condition.

Approaching people to ask about personal and complex scenarios is always hard, especially if you do not come from the same culture or situation. What I have found is that spending time with them, their group of peers and not jumping straight to the interview is a great way to build trust.

I once worked in a project for a community that had been forcedly displaced by violence. Even accessing the neighbourhoods where participants lived was a hard task because of the social tension and gang fights between different areas of the city. To gain trust we spent several days involved in events and group activities taking place in the community. Though they were not related with the sessions themselves, spending time with people in the area and joining them in regular activities served to show that we were genuinely interested in their situation. They got to know us as we got to know them. In the end we were even invited to homes and schools to do extra research sessions.

Session with school children

5. Embrace the culture

Unknown cultures are fascinating, but they can be shocking as well. There is not much you can do about how another culture thinks, expresses or behaves; the best to do is let yourself be surprised and go with it… when in rome!

When conducting research abroad it is important to embrace the context you are in, from the type of clothes to the toilets, the food and gender dynamics. Often, your contact in the target country will let you know some key aspects in advance. However, it is always good if you prepare yourself by reading about the place you will visit. Knowing more about the culture beforehand is handy even for planning the sessions you will conduct.

Right before interviewing a nurse in rural India I came to notice that the session needed to take place with her husband and almost the entire family & neighbours being present. This implied a change on the way questions were being asked, as a lot of her answers were only given once the husband would give an “agree look”. At that point I also realised that I had to get his perspective as well, for a lot of the decisions his wife made were based on his agreement. It became a goal of the research to also understand the dynamic of the genders and the role they both played when taking care of patients.

Interview with a nurse — and her whole family — in rural India

Keep your foreign eyes open

The greatest advantage a foreign researcher has is the ability to spot insights simply because "that's not how we do/behave/use that at home". What I mean is that since it is not your culture you are sensitive to behaviours that are known, familiar and often unnoticed by locals. The best you can do is avoid comparison with your own context but rather use that radar to pin point habits that that locals find irrelevant or common and go ahead and ask extra questions because they may hide that key insight.

I am curious to hear about people with interest in UX Research across cultures. What other tips and learnings have you found?