UX Research for Worldwide Products

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A column by Janet M. Six
June 21, 2021

This month in Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses how best to perform UX research for worldwide products. Creating a successful worldwide product requires understanding both regional differences and local expectations. It’s necessary to translate products’ text into local languages and localize elements such as people’s names, addresses, units of measurement, dates, times, currencies, and other numbers.

When conducting worldwide UX research, you need to learn exactly who would be using the product and for what purposes. Thus, our experts consider taking a Jobs to be Done (JTBD) approach to user research. Our panelists also discuss collaborating with local UX researchers, as well as the importance of conducting usability testing globally.

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In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers 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!
  • Jordan Julien—Founder and Design Strategist at Hostile Sheep
  • Michael Lai—Senior Vice President and Dean of X Thinking Institute at TANG UX
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA); author of The UX Careers Handbook
  • Gavin Lew—Managing Partner at Bold Insight

Q: How should you perform user research for a product that you’re planning to release worldwide?—from a UXmatters reader

“I like taking the Jobs to be Done (JTBD) approach to user research,” replies Jordan. “For those who are unfamiliar with JTBD, it involves identifying jobs your users can complete—or at least make progress toward completing—using your product. Once you define the jobs your product supports, you can start interviewing users who use the product to complete those jobs.

For example, Noom is an application that helps users to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle. If we were conducting user research before launching a global release of Noom, we would recruit users of other products that help users lose weight or live a healthier lifestyle. Our user interviews would focus on the reasons people started using the product or products they’re currently using to complete those jobs. For example, we might recruit Weight Watchers users as research participants and ask them questions about how they decided to use Weight Watchers over another product.”

Collaborating with Local UX Researchers

“At TANG Consulting, we’ve found that the best approach to conducting user research for global products is for researchers from the home market to collaborate with local researchers in each of the product’s high-priority markets,” answers Mike. “We’ve been in both of these situations, working as representatives of the home market and coordinating with local researchers in markets around the world, as well as being the local researchers in China, working with representatives from the home market.

“Beyond overcoming language barriers, the biggest challenge is the impact the cultural context has on conducting research and interpreting the results. When you’re conducting user research with local participants, what you should do and how you should do it varies, depending on region’s accepted cultural norms. Likewise, interpreting research insights and translating them into design requirements requires that you see user needs through the eyes of the local market and express them in the language of the home market. Therefore, it’s often best to have someone on your product team who is fluent in or at least familiar with the cultures of both the home market and a local market, so they can appreciate and express the cultural differences and the reasons why these differences exist.”

Considering Whether a Product Is Really a Worldwide Product

“Saying you’ll release a product worldwide is similar to saying that the product would be available to the public worldwide and, therefore, it would need to work for everyone,” responds Cory. “Just as no product would actually be used by everyone, no product is going to be used by the entire world. Instead, even though the product might be available to whole world, you must think about who would actually use the product.

“For example, if the product is available only in your native language, you would likely focus on target countries that have a critical mass of speakers of that language. Then, within those countries that have a critical mass of speakers of your native language, think about where you should target your marketing efforts. According to market research, who would find out about your product? Then, among those who would find out about your product, for what specific target audience would your product solve their painpoints?

“Initially, you might limit your research to your own country and determine what big user-interface issues and blockers exist. Solve these issues before doing a research road show of sorts. I’ve found that user-interface issues are often common across countries that speak the same language. So, once you’ve solved the issues that users in your home country are experiencing as best you can, add another country or two that speaks the same language. Then, once you’re confident that you’ve solved these problems for speakers of your own language and, as the product team starts translating the product to other languages, find out which countries the marketing department is targeting and begin to recruit speakers of the languages of those countries and consider broader international issues as well.”

“When companies do a global rollout of a product, very few of them launch the product in every market simultaneously,” adds Jordan. “You’re probably looking at a staggered rollout, giving you some control over the markets in which you launch first. Once you’ve taken a JTBD approach to user research, you should continue focusing on the jobs your product does when designing the core product—rather than focusing on the location where your users live. My experience has been that regional acceptance testing should occur prior to entering a market, with the core product as its foundation. This regional testing lets you make minor changes to the product, depending on regional best practices. You can conduct most regional acceptance testing remotely, enabling you to test the product in multiple regions without ever leaving your office.”

Testing Worldwide

“Perhaps this goes without saying, but you must test the product with your target users worldwide,” answers Carol. “For each target culture, you must ascertain whether the product matches their mental model of how it should work. If it does not, how could you address the differences to help make the product usable, useful, and satisfying for that audience?

“Consider the following elements from an international perspective:

  • Are the instructions clear and effective?
  • Is the microcontent appropriate?
  • Do the images, icons, and labels have the appropriate meaning?
  • Are the marketing materials focused on the culture? Have they addressed not just translation but localization?
  • Have you reviewed and revised all aspects of the customer journey to ensure they’re effective for the target users in the various target cultures?

“It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to answer all of these questions for all of the audiences you’re targeting worldwide, but you need to start somewhere—perhaps doing UX research within a few distinct regions of the world—then expand your research and understanding from there. As the Chinese proverb states: ‘A [UX] journey begins with a single step.’”

“You must conduct testing in the markets of those who would use the product,” adds Gavin. “You would initially do research in your own country, then would probably consider getting insights from different regions. We once had a client who was headquartered outside the US. They wanted to test concepts in the US. The usual locations emerged: San Francisco (SF) and New York City (NYC). Well, these are wonderful cities and the client’s desire to travel to these cities was clear. But are they truly representative of the entire US? We were researching massive-screen, next-generation TVs, so we urged them to test in the Midwest, as well as on the two coasts. In the Midwest, we discovered that people use their basement for entertainment—for example, in a man cave. We would not have identified this practice in NYC, where real estate is expensive and high-rise buildings do not have basements. Nor would having a basement have been common for SF residents—simply because of the prevalence of earthquakes there!

“Similar experiences could surface in regard to global launches as well. Typically, your UX research budget wouldn’t support testing in every country, but you should consider testing in all major markets.

“Of course, you could argue that usability transcends geography. When a user experience sucks in one country, it probably sucks in others. But testing in different countries matters. Localization and language differences could lead users to perceive that a product was not designed for their market. Inappropriate workflows or a lack of appreciation for various cultural nuances could impact the product’s adoption and use. So testing in your key markets makes sense—even if can test with only small samples.” 

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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