Making multi-country research work

We at Designit are already present in 13 different cities and we do research in many other countries and cities, whenever the projects require it. The challenge of working on projects with fieldwork in different countries becomes part of our routine. Clients often want to understand if there are differences in people’s behavior if their pains, needs or expectations vary depending on location.

In the best case, we have enough time and a team that speaks the different languages needed for the fieldwork. In that case, the same people can perform all the interviews, no matter which country. This means also that they have all the information at just one place. In that case, many of the learnings we will share will still be valuable, but when you have to make fieldwork in several countries at the same time, there comes your biggest challenge. Especially when you have to gather all that information and analyze it afterward with a very tight schedule.

Recently we had a project that had us doing focus groups, co-creation sessions and ethnographic interviews in three countries at the same time. We only had one week and a half to analyze and manage to finish the deliverables for a very strategic meeting of our client. That means we had to be fast, very fast.

Done with the introduction, let’s get to what you really want to read about, how can we make this work.

Plan ahead

Planning fieldwork in different countries is basic and might seem obvious, but not always is it done properly. And by planning we don’t mean just knowing when you will be traveling to a certain country, where you are going to stay and at which time you have the interviews. You should have:

Interview guides, observation guides, video and photo guides of what you want exactly, having all the equipment, having all the material ready for each team, and having all team members in the clear about what they have to do, what you will need to gather, on what things can’t be left out under no circumstance.

Debriefing sessions

You should always have daily debriefing sessions. Especially when running tight schedules and a multi-country fieldwork. Not only with your colleague about the interviews you have done, but also with the rest of the teams. This helps you be on the same page all the time, even taking into consideration things that might have come up in other countries or interviews and see if there are differences or similarities, etc. Also, this is a good way of starting the analysis with part of the job already done once the fieldwork is finished.

Work with local recruitment companies.

This is really important when you have to do fieldwork in a country you barely have knowledge of. Yes, you lose some control over the recruitment, but having a local company helping you can be key. They will be much quicker, they will help you understand certain things about the culture, context, and market that you might not be completely aware of, and they can manage everything for you: dealing with incentives in a foreign currency, organizing transportation, adapting privacy disclosure documentation for the participants, etc. On top of that, it makes it way easier for your administration department who will only have to deal with one payment.

One thing to have in mind is that you will have to spend quite a lot of time dealing and controlling the recruitment companies. Always brief them correctly, talk to them regularly, check the recruitment filters, ask them about how far away one participant if from the other, etc.

Take commuting into consideration

Talk to your local recruitment company about the commuting. But check it out on your own too when you plan the fieldwork. Be persistent about this, because you might be in a country where you don’t know your way around, meaning that commuting might take a bit longer, since you have to figure out many things. And traffic can be hell in South America for instance. So plan ahead, and have this in mind.

Remember to document well

Documenting is always important when doing fieldwork, but with these extensive research it gets even more fundamental. Apart from taking good notes, which is very important, taking pictures and videos to document everything is also key. And gets even more key for the final outcome of the project. Because talking about the people is never as good as showing the people expressing themselves. The empathy level you create is enormous.

Centralize knowledge and material in one office

Having many offices involved is a lot of fun, makes work very interesting, but also requieres a lot of discipline. Therefore, having one office working as a hub where: all the needed materials are done at the beginning, and later on the analysis is worked on, seems to be the best way of working it out.

This we had control over format of the materials, so we could guarantee that we all had the exact same guidelines, co-creation materials, canvas, etc. Also, we established, how we wanted to upload all the documentation to Dropbox folders and a shared spreadsheet to gather verbatims and fieldwork notes of the different countries, etc.

In order to being able to centralize the analysis, and do this properly, you must have done a good documentation process, good debriefing sessions, and have everything needed at disposition of the central team. And obviously the team will talk to the extended team to challenge those insights.

Now that you know all this, have fun and good luck with your next international fieldwork. And please, feel free to share your stories about best practices or worst experiences doing fieldwork abroad.