Conducting International User Research

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A column by Janet M. Six
February 18, 2019

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses some key considerations for conducting international user research. These include ensuring that the researchers have the proper training to handle international research effectively, as well as knowledge of the legal requirements in different countries. There are also the practical considerations of researchers’ being able to understand the participants’ language during research sessions and the logistics of working in another country.

It is always very important to create rapport with research participants. This is especially true for international research. Not knowing the cultural traditions of the hosting country can lead to uncomfortable moments during studies or cause researchers to miss valuable insights during analysis.

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Each month in my column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Carol Barnum—Director of User Research and Founding Partner at UX Firm; author of Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set … Test!
  • Sarah Doody—User Experience Designer; Product Consultant; Creator of The UX Notebook
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Jordan Julien—Founder of Hostile Sheep Research & Design
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA); author of The UX Careers Handbook

Q: What are the key considerations for international user research?—from a UXmatters reader

“International user research can be challenging for even the largest, most experienced research firms,” answers Jordan. “Those embarking on an international research study should begin by evaluating their team, processes, timelines, and budget. If this is your first time doing international user research, you might not have the right team, processes, timelines, or budget to do it effectively. It is important to evaluate your team’s capabilities and resources candidly—perhaps even by consulting with an outside expert—before beginning any international user-research project.

“Assuming that you can crack that first nut, any user research that is worth doing is worth doing regularly. It’s likely that you’ll need to conduct international user research at least every year or maybe even every quarter. One of the first things you’ll want to do is establish is a localization plan that can work for your organization in the long term. This involves identifying testing regions, but also establishes things such as language usage and messaging differences and determines whether you’ll manage a study centrally or regionally.

“One thing that you should generally manage centrally is the legal aspect of international user research. Each testing country or region might have different laws or legal requirements regarding multiple aspects of user research—from recruiting, to storage of participants’ personal information, to recording authorizations, to incentivization or compensation.”

Understanding Cultural Differences

“Taking your UX research toolkit to another country or culture entails much more than simply packing up and heading out,” replies Carol. “Whether you are conducting usability testing in person in another country or remotely from your home base, consideration of cultural differences should always be part of your preparation for a successful research experience.

For a quick orientation to the cultural norms of doing business in other countries, I suggest that you read Terri Morrison’s book Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. The author has published separate books with the same title for specific parts of the world, including Asia, Europe, and Latin America. If you want to dig deeper, Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov’s Cultures and Organizations provides great insights. Every country and culture tends to be different in at least some ways, but possibly in many ways from every other country or culture. So learning the cultural norms is the first step in getting good UX research results.

“What are some things to take into consideration?” asks Carol. “Here is a list of some of the most important factors:

  • language—What language is the participant going to be most comfortable using? Even if participants are bilingual, they may still prefer to use their native language. If participants are not bilingual, you’ll likely need a translator. If you employ a translator, do you plan to use simultaneous translation or have the translator provide the tasks in the participant’s language, then translate the comments the participant makes along the way. If you are doing simultaneous translation, you may be able to ask participants to think aloud. However, in some cultures, this might make participants feel uncomfortable. If you are not using simultaneous translation, you won’t be able to use the think-aloud protocol because it would significantly interrupt the flow of tasks.
  • moderation—Who should moderate the sessions? Either you could be the moderator—working with a translator if participants speak a language that is different from your own—or you could recruit the services of a bilingual moderator, who would probably not be a UX researcher. In this case, you would need to train the moderator in the techniques of effective moderation, and you would need to provide a complete script for the sessions. Another consideration in terms of who should moderate the sessions is the gender of the moderator and the participants. Would a participant be more comfortable working with someone of the same gender, or is this unlikely to be an issue?
  • localization of the test protocol—Are the tasks and goals of the test protocol culturally appropriate? Most likely, you’ll need to localize the tasks and goals to make them relevant to your target participants.
  • scheduling—Depending on the culture or country, your expectations for making and keeping appointment schedules might not match those of the culture in which you’ll be doing your research. Provide longer breaks between sessions to open up some slack in your schedule. This may be necessary if you are conducting research in international cities with major traffic problems and perhaps even limited transportation options.

“While the considerations I’ve outlined focus primarily on conducting usability testing in other countries,” continues Carol, “many of the same considerations are relevant for other types of UX research such as contextual inquiry or focus groups.

“However, you shouldn’t be scared off by having to take all these considerations into account. Getting to know your users in international markets is thrilling. If you get the opportunity to do international user research, you should seize it. Just recognize that you’ll need to make time to take the extra effort that would ensure you’re properly prepared for doing international research.”

“When you’re conducting international research, it is important to understand the context,” advises Sarah. “This could include the culture, devices, language, social norms, and more. Once I conducted ecommerce research in Sweden. To my surprise, many of the participants didn’t like to shop online because of issues with deliveries when they were not at home. Many of them would browse online, then purchase in a store. Because this was a cultural difference that I hadn’t expected, I had to adjust my discussion guide in real time.”

Getting Involved in the Culture

“Involve somebody in the research who is native to the participants’ culture. It is really easy to miss cues and context unless you’re already heavily embedded in the culture,” recommends Adrian. “Such mistakes are not just the simple ones that occur because of language differences. For example, as a UK native, I have seen US researchers miscode statements from British English speakers because they did not understand our lovably dry understatement!

“You need the input of someone who is immersed in your research participants’ culture—not just during the time you spend with participants, but also during analysis and synthesis. Of course, any user research is almost always better than no research. But without the input of someone who is native to the participants’ culture, I guarantee that you’ll miss some opportunities and misunderstand some things.

“It’s almost ten years old now, but The Handbook of Global User Research, edited by Robert Schumacher, is still a great book. It’s full of useful tips.

“You also might want to dig into some reading around cultural differences. Although the advice in these books is not aimed specifically at user research professionals, the following books include some useful nuggets and can help you identify some of the areas in which you might need help and clarification from third parties.

Before Starting Your Research

Cory provides the following advice: “You should consider several issues before beginning to conduct international user research:

  • internationalization and localization—Determine whether your team has considered issues regarding the internationalization and localization of the product before doing the research. If not, go back, do some homework, and make sure that you take your best first shot.
  • in-person or remote research—Should you do user research in person or remotely? In-person research is often much better when you’re trying to absorb the nuances of cultural differences and may help you to understand participants better when you’re dealing with different accents or are using an interpreter.
  • cost of travel—International research is going to cost more than doing a domestic study.
  • legal barriers—Countries have different laws that can impact the research.
  • simultaneous translation—Read my blog post on this topic, ‘How to Moderate Usability Testing with Simultaneous Translation.’” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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