With our UX research deadline looming, my project partner and I were reviewing user-interview video footage. When analyzing data to validate our project hypothesis, we realized that there were regional differences that were having unexpected influence on our results. Once we’d completed the project, we discovered that not much has been written about regional UX research, so we decided to publish our findings.
Later, when I signed on as a UX Researcher with a software development company, I used those project findings to demonstrate the importance of regional UX research to stakeholders. Understanding regional differences can help ensure we are designing for all of our users.
Often, companies conduct UX research close to their home base. They commonly cite budget and time constraints as roadblocks to doing regional research. The easiest solution to this problem is to conduct remote research. Fortunately, we now have an arsenal of remote research tools and techniques.
However, the first online card-sort test I initiated for the software company I worked for received few responses. The users of their software had never heard of UX research or usability studies. So I quickly learned that an email message explaining my intent wasn’t enough. I needed to get face to face with them and help them understand why I was asking them to sort a bunch of words and phrases on cards.
To get my study started, I took a low-tech card sort to customers. In addition to identifying how users classified the information in our system while working face to face with these users, I learned that spending 10–15 minutes participating in an online usability study was a big deal for them! For these users, time was money. Period. So I had to find another way to reach these users. Sending out a general invitation to participate in a remote session was not going to work. I had to show them the value of participating.
Fortunately, the company employs regional support consultants. The next roadblock I encountered was convincing our support consultants to trust me with the customers in their territories and demonstrating to them that the time users spent with me would mean value for them. To overcome this roadblock, I started my research locally, then expanded outward. Our support consultants enjoyed having users in their territories participate in usability studies because the customers did see the value. They appreciated the opportunity to participate and provide actionable feedback. They got excited about what was to come. Word spread, and soon I had access to users in each of the territories.
Overcoming this roadblock also paved the way for informative remote research. Developing that symbiotic relationship with the regional consultants was key. I was able to involve them in on-site facilitation. These team members set up the online meeting environment on site and obtained participants’ signatures on the consent and NDA (Non-disclosure Agreement) forms. And, as an added bonus, I was able to include their feedback from the usability studies, too. While these support consultants aren’t the primary target user, they are most assuredly users of the software systems.
These remote sessions provided very focused, valuable feedback. However, some of the most insightful research results came from serendipitous discoveries that occurred while visiting users on site and having conversations with them outside the scripted usability sessions.
When you obtain feedback from users in different regions, you’ll discover differences in their expectations, ways of conducting business, methods of interacting with a system, and levels of satisfaction.
When you conduct all UX Research close to a company’s home base, you run the risk of designing for a potentially homogenous group of users. A good user experience is a good user experience. So, if you create a good user experience, it should work for all your users, right? But regional exploration of users’ needs helps you uncover gems that turn a good user experience into a great user experience.
During the research I conducted for my company, differences appeared among geographical regions—for example, the North East versus the South versus the Midwest—as well as for different types of communities within those regions—rural versus suburban versus urban.
Maybe you’ve heard the refrain: “rural communities are slower to adopt technology.” The assumption is that rural communities get access to technology later than urban users. While present-day distribution services are making this reality less prevalent, the second tenet in user research is to validate our assumptions. (The first tenet being: “You are not your user.”) What our research showed us was that rural users were not slower to adopt technology. However, they did respect their local customs and standards of decorum, and the technology got in the way.
These users felt it was rude to place technology between themselves, as a service provider, and their customers. Users expressed this same sentiment across geographical lines—including users in Georgia, Missouri, and Idaho, as well as in a rural area of California just outside Silicon Valley.
What can a software development company do to overcome users’ manners, customs, and culture and increase usage rates among users in rural regions? Streamlining the workflow and tightening up the user interface so users can create or update records more efficiently helps. And this improves the user experience for all users.
However, designing a workflow so it passes seamlessly between team members lets users maintain that feeling of visiting with their customers. It enables users to work together to provide personal service to their customers and unobtrusively capture all the necessary data to facilitate customer purchases without offending local sensibilities.
Another common assumption is that urban users want everything to work faster because they’re always on the go. Our regional research findings revealed that it’s not so much about users being on the go. It’s that urban customers have the ability to leave and go down the block to another service provider.
In more densely populated, better-served regions, customers have more choices. If a customer experiences inefficiencies in a process with service provider A, he may walk out the door and take his business to service provider B. This is especially true if a customer might be able to complete his intended business in less time—factoring in the distance the customer must travel between service provider A and B—than if he were to wait through service provider A’s struggles with inefficient technology.
But simply streamlining workflows—which create a good user experience in general—wasn’t enough. The solution was to give users more control over how their customers progress through the purchase process. When customers had choices, they chose to work with service providers who could give them individualized attention.
If you don’t get out to see how your users actually work, you won’t fully understand their painpoints.
One of the most revealing days I had when doing user research for this company ended with my walking out of the conference room where I had spent the day conducting back-to-back research sessions to find three police cars lined up in front of the store and quite a conversation going on in the manager’s office across from that room.
All of a sudden I understood why this successful, high-volume auto dealership was using old, 1024x768 monitors. The monitors and PCs were installed behind a wall with a bar-height desktop that held the keyboard and mouse wired to each terminal. There was nowhere for customers to sit at these terminals. As a result, salespeople had to be super quick and efficient in looking up and entering information while customers were still excited about their test drive—before they had time to rethink their vehicle purchase.
The design team was creating beautiful, thorough, linear workflows that let users capture the entire customer story quickly, in one shot. However, while that might work for many users, it was a broken model for this dealership in a less than secure neighborhood. The solution was to break down data entry into small chunks and build more robust information-retrieval capabilities into the system to get the user back in front of the customer quickly.
The executives and product teams expected that users would be thrilled with the expanded, responsive screens and that the small percentage of users still working on older equipment would excitedly upgrade. Regional research revealed that this might not be universally true. More valuable equipment might attract more unwanted attention from opportunists. So the redesigned system would continue to support the 1024x768 screen size.
The biggest regional revelations came when doing research with Canadian users. The consulting, sales, and support teams were aware of differences in the business practices of our neighbors to the north and were helping those users utilize the system as effectively as possible.
Users found workarounds that fit their business practices and basically did the job. However, because the workarounds did the job, issues that were bubbling up in the field were slow to make it back to headquarters and weren’t actionable. Conducting research with users from Canada ensured the redesign accommodated the differences in their business practices.
Regional UX research is rewarding. Users throughout North America enjoyed the chance to participate in the research. They welcomed the opportunity to share how they do business, how they interact with their customers, and how they use and would like to be able to use the system. They felt they were part of the design process.
By reaching out beyond customers who were in close proximity to headquarters and learning about regional dissimilarities, the company now has stronger relationships with its customers. In some cases, the results of conducting UX research turned around troubled accounts.
UX research also helped users to understand why they can’t have design changes tomorrow by demonstrating the process that goes into redesigning a rich, robust system. Explaining that we were conducting UX research throughout North America helped users to understand the time and process involved. Being involved in UX research excited users across the continent and earned their patience at the same time.
Our regional outreach built stronger cross-functional relationships within the company, too. Those boots-on-the-ground team members all across the continent felt more engaged with the design and development process. They got excited about what’s ahead. For some, this was the first time they had been given a voice in product development—even though they interact with customers and the products day in and day out. Working with these users also revealed that their work practices are different across different regions.
In the end, one of the strategic services directors declared gratefully, “You are making a positive difference in our future livelihoods!” By extending the reach of UX research beyond the company headquarters’ local region, we made a positive difference to users in 11,000 stores across North America, as well as the team members who support them. That is rewarding!
As a Senior UX Strategist, Alesha employs design thinking and UX research to help improve the design of products, processes, services, and spaces. She has contributed research and design thinking to physical and digital properties and processes, including desktop, mobile, cloud, Web, and voice interfaces. She brings her high energy and enthusiasm for user-centered design to each new challenge and, thus, discovers the design opportunities that lie within. Alesha is a graduate of Kent State University’s User Experience Design Master’s program.