Regardless of the sector they occupy, companies that support an internal UX team – or that contract consultancy firms to conduct UX research for them – tend to have or want a global clientele. Profitable companies value the opinions of a potentially hugely expanded client base in emerging markets. While conducting international research is a big initial expense, it’s also a reciprocal relationship. According to Forbes, UX stats show that every $1 invested in UX design yields a $100 return – which amounts to a 9,900% ROI!
We don’t have to be totally fluent in international research best practices, but it’s a good idea to familiarize ourselves with the hows and whys of multinational UXR.
A Quick Use Case
For me, anyway, as an avid world traveler and an anthropologist, it’s a joy, a privilege, and a fun challenge to plan, conduct, and interpret international research. It’s an art and a science, like UX research itself, and a skill set that we can hone with practice.
Recently I led a study looking at the usability of a prototype of an app on a specific device type. I worked with US-based participants and supervised a team of researchers from Germany and another team from Spain, to complement the research I was doing.
I was excited to explore similarities and differences among the international datasets – especially the differences since they are more interesting to me. But it’s seldom valid to attribute these differences to participants’ “culture” or to their country of residence.
In the case of this study, the differences among the participants’ preferences and behaviors turned out to be not as pronounced as I’d anticipated. Quite the opposite: the only nation-specific difference that I could find (and I looked!) involved the availability and adoption of technological platforms. It turns out that most people living in Germany use PCs and Android devices as opposed to iOS devices. In fact, the German team struggled to recruit the required percentage of participants who used the iOS platform on the device type in question. The same cannot be said for the US- and Spain-based samples: recruitment there was relatively simple.
Residents of Germany who do use iOS devices might share certain demographic attributes. I’d wager they’d be age- and occupation-related. But causation is pretty much unknowable with a small sample size. “Germanness” is not a meaningful correlate. Instead, we can make informed hypotheses that “people living in Germany” prefer Android devices owing to local availability, a history of targeted marketing, each platform’s reputation in Germany, or other demonstrable reasons.
All this to say, we can’t render a cultural group a homogenous unit of research analysis. We cannot speak of a monolithic German culture – or a singular Spanish culture either – any more than we can blanket certain beliefs and behaviors under the umbrella of “American” culture.
Why? Because it wouldn’t be a huge leap to start saying “Spaniards do this” or “Germans don’t do that.” That kind of binary siloing is the kind of thinking that starts folks down a steep and dangerous one-way street of nationalism that can bottom out into hatred, racism, or worse.
I could go on and on about the differences between ethnicity and culture and country of residence or birth, but that’s a blog for a later date. Here’s an overview of those concepts in the meantime. Suffice to say that even in a so-called insular culture, not all (fill in the blank) types of people do this or don’t do that. And we’re talking about analysis on the nation level, in a time of ever-intensifying globalization, urbanization, and migration where societal homogeneity is the exception, not the rule.
The following practices will help you conduct salient research with international participants:
- Verbiage is important. When conducting user experience research with populations from countries other than where that research is based, remember to call it “international research” as opposed to “cross-cultural research.”
- Remember to ascribe any international differences only to your particular sample. As an example, note that “among the participants residing in Spain, 70% didn’t like the trash can icon placement while among the participants residing in Germany, 20% didn’t like the trash can icon placement.”
That way you’re avoiding overarching statements like: “Spaniards don’t like this but Germans do.”
- Recruit ethnically diverse participants within and across your samples. Keep in mind, though, that “culture” is not synonymous with ethnicity, just as residing in or being from a country is not synonymous with one’s culture.
- When recruiting and fielding, be sensitive about scheduling. Take time differences into consideration as well as participants’ civic and religious holidays.
- Splurge on a talented translator so you can conduct the research in the participants’ native language. Nuanced meaning transcends oral language into performative affect, gestures, important pauses, and so much more – and some nuances can be specific to a participant’s country of origin and/or native tongue.
Yes, the best translators are expensive but remember that ROI.
- Along that same theme, collaborate with local research teams and make an effort to brainstorm insights together.
- Unify the methods, protocols, and other research tools among each participant group so that you can start to make empirical statements and informed recommendations.
- Attractive data visualizations are particularly useful for deliverables about international UX research. They help convey complicated international findings in a more digestible way. For example, in a given visualization, each country’s sample could be represented by a different color so results can be easily referenced.
Multinational research is vital to fostering longstanding relationships with new and existing customers around the world. It’s pricey, but an investment well worth budgeting for. Key Lime Interactive has a team of diverse, experienced researchers ready to assist with organizing and executing international UX/CX research. We collaborate with research teams in many countries, and as a longtime member of the UX Fellows Alliance, our collaborations are ever-growing.
For more information about conducting international qualitative research, check out the these resources:
- How to Conduct International Research: 6 Steps to Success by Jay Zaltzman, 2014
- International User Research: Creating Great User Experiences for a Global Context by Xperienz, 2020
- International UX Research Best Practices slideshow by Miki Konno, 2011
- Six Tips for Better International UX Research by Interaction Design Foundation 2020
- Why Most Global Communication Fails and What to Do about It TEDx Talk by Masafumi Otsuka, 2016