Embarking on International Research
“I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.”
- Alice in Wonderland
International research changes you as a person, it changes the product you work on, and it changes the way your team will think about research for years to come.
During international research, you enter the homes of people living in a very different reality from your own. You have the honor of these amazing people opening up and telling you about their lives in incredible detail. You meet that girl in Thailand who checks into cool restaurants even if she isn’t really there because she doesn’t want her peer group to think she’s doing nothing at home. More than hearing her story, you get to see her home — her room and maybe even meet family members! You feel like Alice in Wonderland where you’ve jumped down the rabbit hole into another world where everything fascinates you. You slowly learn new rules of another culture and their social etiquette, but like with Alice in Wonderland, just when you think you’re finding your way, things can go spectacularly wrong.
This article aims to share some things to consider when embarking on international research.
Stepping into the unknown
We can’t cover every best practice or prepare you for every unexpected turn, but we hope to help you build a plan that takes you on the most insightful and scenic route possible. We’ve outlined a multi-stage process, highlighting a few key things to keep in mind for each stage. The following steps are adapted from our more detailed International Research Toolkit.
Step 1: Decide whether to go — and where
“Where should I go?” — Alice.
“That depends on where you want to end up.” — The Cheshire Cat.”
International research is a major undertaking. Before you choose a destination, take some time to consider whether it’s warranted.
Here are a few conditions that should encourage you to opt for international research:
· A significant, unexplainable change in data has occurred.
· You’re curious about a unique market with extreme patterns.
· You need usability testing in a key market.
· You have high-priority, company-level initiatives.
Once you’ve decided to go, take great care with choosing your destination(s). In international research, country selection is akin to research participant selection in a regular study. A study’s success is dependent on the quality of your recruit, and international research’s success is dependent on the rigor of the country selection. If you have multiple destination options, be sure to choose countries that are different enough to warrant separate investigations. And because international research is a large undertaking, keep the number of countries small.
Step 2: Kick off the project
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh you can’t help that,” said the Cat, “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
Building your team is the most important part of launching your project. That’s because getting the right team members on the ground helps ensure that research insights will be acted upon. Empathy is the key to all change, and nothing kick-starts empathy quite like physically being there. Meeting users firsthand and experiencing the culture (and in most cases the slower connection speeds) will give your team an indelible sense of context for the product.
It’s ideal to have a second researcher join you, to collaborate and brainstorm with and to serve as a backup in the field in case of illness. But be sure to clearly establish roles early on — especially who the lead is.
How many people should you take?
· For one researcher: We recommend a maximum of four product team members. These projects require a lot of management; to stay focused, you’ll want to have a small, strong team. (Keep in mind that a translator or moderator from the vendor will expand the team.) If you’re doing in-homes or intercepts, keep the team even smaller so you don’t overwhelm participants.
· For two researchers: If there are two researchers on the project, the team should have no more than 10 people total. This means that there will be parallel sessions, since 10 people can’t walk into anyone’s home!
When stakeholders are included, they become fully immersed and you end up with a shared experience among stakeholders and research. This shared experience becomes the source from which you draw examples: You can all picture the same person, the same context, and the same emotions felt in that space. That becomes a powerful — shared — motivation for change.
— Megan Witmer, UX Researcher at Facebook
Each role brings its own value and perspective to the insights:
· Data Analyst — Able to query on the fly and answer questions that arise when in the field. This is helpful to learn more about whether what you’re seeing is an edge case or more common.
· Engineer — Notice perf issues and internalize the challenges of low data restrictions and poor connectivity. Can also lead tasking issues.
· Content Strategy — Notice language, words or terminology that are unique to the country. Also notice how people say stuff more than what they’re saying — how they describe things and express themselves. Task incorrect translations.
· Product Marketing Manager — Look at competitive space, other products being used by participants and advertisements in the field. Recognize branding related insights and campaigns that could be effective.
· Designer — To see designs being interacted with firsthand. They can make immediate adjustments, and have a better understanding of how to improve design and navigation.
· Product Manager — For continued buy-in before and after trip. PM’s tend to be more big-picture, keeping in mind the product roadmap and goals. They notice behavior that could be optimized to hit team milestones (e.g. time spent, growth) outside of the product research goals.
People in different job functions will inevitably notice different things, so when they are taking notes and sharing out summaries, it helps to provide a 360 degree view of what is happening in market.
— Vivian Takach, UX Researcher at Instagram
Step 3: Plan and prepare for field research
“How long is forever?” — Alice
“Sometimes, just one second.” — White Rabbit
When one only has four or five days in the field, it’s really tempting to jam-pack everything one can into the schedule. Don’t. When building your schedule, try not to fill the day. You’ll end up spending more time than you anticipate in traffic, debriefing, and let’s not forget about getting some food in! You’ll want to take advantage of being in-field, but you don’t want to exhaust yourself while jetlagged.
Here are some tips for putting together an effective, realistic schedule:
· Jump in: Get started with an immersion activity. For example, have team members buy a popular-in-the-market mobile phone and set it up so they can experience being on a common phone on the local network. It’ll help them understand the local market while getting out and fighting jet lag.
· Limit sessions: If you are doing in-home or in-context interviews, you’ll likely need to incorporate time for traffic, potentially getting lost, grabbing food on the way, etc. With all of this in mind, you should do no more than three in-home interviews a day.
· Debrief at dinner: Debriefing while in the field is one of the most valuable activities to make time for. Leave an hour at the end of the day to talk through some of the biggest learnings from the sessions. You can try having your debrief at dinner so the team can informally chat about the sessions while getting some much-needed fuel.
This example shows how your research schedule compares to an actual day. The research schedule is on the left; the timeline on the right indicates how the team spent the day — much more intense, even without any mishaps!
One great way to get your product team involved while in the field is to assign responsibilities in advance. Not all the work needs to be on you!
Here are some of the ways team members can get involved:
· Prepping data or market insights ahead of time: Ask someone on your team to prepare key data for the market you are visiting and share it with the team before the trip.
· Planning social activities: Since you’ll likely have a few team dinners, have someone take the lead on finding restaurants and making reservations.
· Taking notes: Everyone on the team should be taking notes! Have them capture what stood out in each interview and get quotes from participants. You’ll get a range of interesting quotes from all of the different team members’ perspectives.
· Taking photos or videos: Someone can be the lead photographer or videographer, making sure each session is captured visually.
· Sharing back with the office: To help keep the team back at the office engaged, have a team member share updates, photos, or key insights from in the field. , whether through Facebook groups or another method. This responsibility can rotate throughout the team.
Once in-field, having stakeholders take on specific roles or responsibilities leverages the individual strengths of each team member while enabling the researcher to more exclusively focus on critical components of the research facilitation and logistics.
— Traci Mehlman, UX Researcher at Facebook
Step 4: Take charge in the field
“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice.
Back at home, researchers are used to working hard to get buy-in from product leads. When things are turned around and we are the leads — as we are in international research — we can become very disoriented.
With that in mind, here are the two biggest lessons we hear from researchers fresh off their first international research trip:
· Own the lead: As a researcher, you might be accustomed to being more of a partner or collaborator with your team. But in the field, you’re the one everyone looks to for direction and leadership. You’ll be managing people’s moods, their work, their schedule. Your ability to inspire and lead by example will go a long way. You’ll also be managing your in-field research partner, so you’ll be getting a lot of questions and comments!
· Be flexible and always consider Plan B: Every researcher is used to participants flaking, but when a whole team has traveled across the world to watch the session, it feels so much worse. Our advice whenever things don’t go as planned is to use the time in another way: Visit a popular local market or culturally significant sight, for example. When you’re stuck in traffic, debrief in the car. Learning to be flexible in the field will save you a lot of stress.
I was at an in-home interview in Lima, Peru with some of my international travel team and the vendors. We all sat around the participant’s glass dining room table to talk and gather some basic observations of her use of the product. Well, the laptop I brought was doing its typical overheating thing, and I was doing my best to ignore the obnoxious fan noises. About an hour into the interview, we heard a massive CRACK and the whole table beneath us rattled. The heat of my laptop literally caused the table to splinter down the middle.
— Rebecca Gray, UX Researcher at Facebook
Step 5: Debrief
“Tut, tut, child!” said the Duchess. “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”
So you overcame the floods and in-home accidents and whatever other challenges came your way during the research. Now it’s time for a more formal debrief.
Here’s what we’ve learned make for a good, productive debrief:
· Keep it fresh and focused: Dedicate time to debrief while in-field, ideally every day. Include your in-field research partner so they can add in any cultural context. You should also set aside time at the end of the research to bring the team together — with the learnings still fresh in their minds — to start to identify themes and synthesize insights before returning to the business of the office.
· Have a plan: Keep debriefs organized and focused. Set a time limit; we suggest 60 minutes. Have a clear agenda for the debrief, letting the team know what they need to bring to it, how they should prepare, and what the goals are. Have the team talk through the top findings and common themes. Be sure to clarify product-related and market-related insights.
Debriefs in the field have a number of advantages: they limit recency bias (people give more weight to the last interviews on a trip), they allow the team to discuss and synthesize findings of the day, and they are useful for capturing first ideas on how to cater to the needs encountered on a specific day.
— Florian Foerster, UX Researcher at Facebook
Step 6: Share your findings
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Although this is the last step, it’s certainly just as important as the others. You’ll want to make sure your insights are relevant and actionable for the product team. Craft a story not just about the product learnings, but about how the culture and context affect the product insights. In India, for example, a mobile phone vendor might have a lot of influence over what apps get installed on an individual’s phone.
When putting together your presentation or share-out, keep these things in mind:
· Beware of broad strokes: While it’s helpful to add market-level information, be careful not to overgeneralize. For example, you wouldn’t want to say everyone in India transliterates, based on a few interviews.
· Get creative: Being creative about what you’re sharing is especially important for international research since you’re sharing insights not only about the product, but also about the people you met and what their lives are like to help build empathy. For ideas, take a look at our post about creative ways to share your insights.
Expect the unexpected
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen.
We’ve shared a lot of tips here, but when it comes to international research, planning can take you only so far. There’s just no way you’ll be fully prepared for the experiences and insights in store for you. And that’s the fun of it. Every trip will be packed with its own unpredictable challenges and revelations. Somewhere along the way, you might even surprise yourself.
Despite all the possible bottlenecks and wrong turns — and sometimes because of them — the memories you build during international research might be some of your most cherished. You get to meet people so different from you, and yet so similar. You get to know your team much better than you could have back home. And you get to build a product that’s capable of bridging great distances.
Shivani Mohan, Research Manager at Facebook & Lissette Sotelo Parr, International Research Program Manager at Facebook