Diving into cross-cultural research

Ricky Yu, Staff User Experience Researcher at Mozilla

Mozilla in Asia
Nov 6, 2019 · 11 min read

Previously in the article about cross-cultural user experience studies, we mentioned that one of Mozilla Taipei office’s goals is to develop products targeting the needs of users in Southeast Asia. To a team that is based in Taipei, it inevitably entails a tremendous challenge: How do we understand what it is like living in Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, India or other countries in the region? To do our job well, we know we must constantly remind ourselves to closely engage users living in these countries in addition to building and strengthening empathy in the team.

Through this post, you will learn:

● Mental models’ impact on research

● The mindset of cross-cultural researchers

● Some interesting observations about Southeast Asian countries

Mental models’ impact on research

Your mental models have a bearing on how you understand the world around you and may possibly obstruct you from forming empathy toward others. Hence, before conducting an interview, researchers must assume the perspectives of their interviewees and capture their worldviews from the outside, in order to really listen to their needs hidden in the context. There are methods that we can adopt to break the structure confining us. As shown in the image below, it is not easy to look past what a person is saying or behaving to understand their true intent. So, we need to utilize various research methods to delve into the real reasons and objectives before we can empathize.

Mozilla’s Taipei team frequently immerses ourselves in the life of the locals, talking to different groups of people and gradually exploring what lies deep within. Only when we seek to feel what they feel and understand what they expect can we deepen our insights about the differences among the communities as well as their differences with us.

For example, there are some common stereotypes about Thailand. We found the photo below on Google. Stunning, right? It makes one wonder: Is Thailand so beautiful everywhere? Does every building in the country look like it? Like this, one gradually forms a mental model, a preconceived notion, about Thailand, even before setting foot on the country.

However, what we want to stress is the real Thailand looks more like these photos, which more closely depict where they call home, the place they live and grow up in.

An interesting case in point: In Thailand, when we visited one of the interviewees at her place, we kept wondering where her house was — because it was very hard to tell at first. We did not enter her house later either. We just went right into the interview sitting on the stools around a table outside. During the interaction, she kept mentioning that she often found snakes and mice in the house, and a few days ago, she even had to call the police to catch a snake. It was stressful for her to live in a place infested with wild animals, especially when her husband was living far away from home for work, she said, and it made her long for talking to others or shopping online to reduce some of that stress. Through the interview, we got to know how much her real life differed from what we had imagined. If we had not been there, met her in person and talked to her face to face, we would not have been able to grasp how people in that environment use their phones or tackle everyday problems with the internet.

We are sharing this story because it opened up our imagination. A lot of things may be left unseen at first, and to uncover what’s buried underneath and see more, we need to adopt another perspective.

The user behaviors, their needs and challenges that we observed in the field will serve as important nutrients for our product development work. The team will also share what we have learned to other members of the company and keep the discussion flowing, to continue to shine a spotlight on the types of products we want to design for and opportunities in the respective markets.

The mindset of cross-cultural researchers

What are the traits of a good cross-cultural researcher?

First, humility. When doing field studies in Southeast Asia, it is not always easy for researchers from more advanced societies to shake off their sense of superiority, which prohibits them from “seeing” what really happens and what the residents really need. Sometimes, they may even look perplexed or stunned when encountering things beyond their day-to-day experiences, which is extremely inappropriate for any researcher. Undeniably, we may still fall into the same trap, so it is critical to constantly remind ourselves to empathize (see from the same perspective) with the locals. We must keep in mind — whomever we talk to, and of whichever age, profession or position the person is — that we are there to learn. Only when we are willing to learn can we seek to understand what’s happening to the people in the country or the city.

We interviewed with food vendor to understand how they use the Internet and cell phones in their daily lives

Second, curiosity and cultural sensitivity. As a researcher, one has to be innately curious, but there are always some people in every team that like to hide within their own bubbles and only see what they want to see. That’s why we need to spend some time on mental preparation or practice before moving out. Everyone needs to know that we are in the field as a team and each member is a sentinel on the lookout, bringing their observations to inspire the entire team. The diversity of how each and every member perceives the surroundings ultimately helps enrich the research findings.

We tried to find out why there were a bunch of people playing the same puzzle game

Cultural sensitivity can be fostered through training and preparatory work. The more knowledge you have to arm yourself with, the better you can immerse in the local environment. For instance, we visited a temple in Myanmar. Because we did some homework on Theravada Buddhism in advance, so we knew that we needed to take off our shoes and put on long skirts before entering the temple. Being attentive and observant to one’s surroundings can be instrumental too. Also in the temple that day, it was very uncomfortable for us walking barefoot because the sunlit ground was scorching. But the locals didn’t appear bothered at all. Why? If you watched closely, you’d find that local people walked in the shaded areas, so of course they were not fazed at all. Another example is about the praying ritual. Indonesian Muslims pray five times a day, facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia. But when exactly do they pray every day? If you do some research before heading out to the country, you’d appreciate why Indonesians have an app on their phone showing the time to pray and the direction of Mecca.

Adults in Myanmar who were sitting at the temple; an APP to remind Indonesian people of the time and direction to worship god.

Third, passion about sharing ideas and knowledge. An overseas research trip usually lasts 7–10 days. Excluding the time spent on interviews and street intercepts, there is not much time left. Thus, it is crucial that the members help one another out as they collaborate to collect data and uncover preliminary insights. More importantly, what’s learned and observed must also be shared among the team efficiently and systematically. To do so, the team needs to adopt a “mindset of sharing.” The members may embark on forming some preliminary thoughts about the culture through chatting and asking questions and talking about the impressions and perceptions they’ve gained. One tactic the Taipei team used was debriefing. Upon finishing up on field work, we gathered in a big room, white poster paper and markers in hand. We tried two-phase testing. In phase one, we picked four interviewees, finished the interviews quickly and did the debriefing, during which, we sorted out new product ideas and the products’ use scenarios and flows. Afterwards, we immediately started to make necessary tweaks. Thus, we were able to finish fixing the product prototype on the third day, based on the field observations gained on the first and second. Then, in phase two, we hit the road again to interview the other four participants, before further consolidating the feedback of all the interviewees. When we came back to Taipei, we already had some initial thoughts about what could be done to refine the product.

Besides working out in the field, sharing with our colleagues in the Taipei office our ideas and observations is also pivotal. To effectively convey and present the findings, the team taps a few techniques, including short videos and quiz cards.

Lastly, here are some insights and findings that we learned in our trips to several Southeast Asian countries.

Thailand Insights

The first thing we noticed was the popularity of LINE. When we first arrived in Thailand, we met LINE users from various countries, including Thailand and Japan. When we opened the app on our respective phones and talked about the features of LINE, we found many services that we’d never seen before in Taiwan. Two of such services are LINE JOB, which got us thinking about why and when Thai people use this feature, and LINE Dictionary, which is particularly popular among students there.

Another interesting finding came from shopping trips to local pharmacies and supermarkets. We noticed images of human faces were commonly shown on product packages, from pills to pain relieving patches, even to mangos, whose package featured a photo of a grandmother. We were intrigued. Does this mean that historical or seemingly historical figures are more likely to incite trust, thus triggering purchasing and consumption decisions?

Thirdly, we found Thai people were obsessed about “lucky numbers.” Just go to any telecom operator’s store, you’ll see a plethora of “lucky” phone numbers for sale. Some operators even set up kiosks that dispense a series of lucky numbers and provide horoscope predictions when users enter their birthdays in the Buddhist calendar. When we saw that, we wondered who would pay money to buy lucky numbers. But then we interviewed a woman who was a mother. She said she had paid big bucks online for an auspicious phone number and she truly believed it was worthwhile.

Myanmar Insights

The most memorable experience we had in Myanmar was the constant unexpected power outages. The power might just go off all of a sudden during an interview in the outdoor, but people on the street didn’t appear even slightly surprised and carried on with their business. We also experienced a blackout while conducting an interview in a house, and found the local residents had emergency lighting and fans at home.

Second, the weather. it was extremely hot there (especially in the northern part of the country), many people told us that for fear of fire hazards caused by smartphone overheating, they would turn off apps very quickly or shut the screens off frequently. Some even said they played Buddhist meditation music to help cool off their phones.

The third finding was about financial services. Wavemoney, a local startup, developed a new business model. They started out by asking the question: “How to help the unbanked or digitally-underserved transfer money to friends or families?” Perhaps, you wouldn’t be as surprised by this question had you known that just 5–6 years ago, for setting up Facebook accounts, most people in the country visited a telecom retail store for help and even had to pay for the service. That was what inspired Wavemoney to create banking services not tied to bank accounts and accessible by a mobile app. With Wavemoney, shop clerks turn into bank clerks, and customers remit or withdraw money at telecom shops nearby, making digital banking simple and easy. Its good market feedback also shows that this idea works.

Indonesia Insights

“Kampung” is the general term for lower-income communities. Sitting in the center of a Kampung is usually a small mosque, surrounded by vendor stalls and shops. This creates a unique, self-sufficient living environment for the residents whose everyday needs can be met in the community without having to travel to a large city. In communities like Kampung, you experience a different vibe and lifestyle from larger cities in Indonesia.

Another observation we made was around the “small-pack” economy. With annual GDP growth of 5.18%, Indonesia has 9.82% of its population living below the poverty line (monthly income of less than Rp345,386, or NT$746, according to the 2017 official definition).

Given that some consumers are unable to make big purchases for groceries or mobile data/airtime due to their financial positions, many retailers sell merchandise of various pack sizes to lower the burden of buyers. From large shopping malls to warung (like traditional, mom-and-pop grocery stores in Taiwan, but smaller) everywhere, we saw mini packs of shampoo, shower gel, soybean sauce and chicken stock cubes on display. Telecom carriers also offer multiple types of data packages (1–2 day, 6–12 months) to allow consumers to access to network and call services without having to pay big money at once. So, when you visit Indonesia or the Philippines next time, don’t think such offerings are designed for tourists like we did in the beginning!

Retailer sell merchandise of various pack sizes; telecom carriers also offer multiple types of data packages

We will discuss some cultural studies theories and design methods in the next article.

Meanwhile, the MozChat forum will come back again in December (topic expected to be about Indonesia). Stay tuned!

Related articles

On Thailand: From observation to insights — Digital behavior observation in Thailand

On India: Digital behavior observation in India (in Chinese only)

Let’s chat next time.


This post was originally published on Ricky Yu Blog.

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