User-centred design research for international users

It is helpful to consider the principles of user-centred design (UCD) when building any website, but it is of particular importance when creating a site that is intended to appeal to a global audience. At a high level the process is simple: understand your users’ needs, try to build those requirements into your digital solution, the test your design throughout to validate your assumptions or revise accordingly, and only release the product when you are certain you have met as many of these as possible. This should ensure that most potential usability issues have been removed, and that the user has a memorable, persuasive, and compelling experience of the brand and the useful services it offers.

When trying to appeal to an international audience, it is especially important to perform robust user research and apply the results to the experience you are creating.

In this article we look at the best practices for performing user experience research on the international stage.

The need for international UX research

Beyond the obvious differences such as language, wealth, religion and access to technology, there are many subtle differences that need to be accounted for when designing any product that will have a global reach. The more you travel with your eyes and mind open, the more you will be aware of these differences in how people choose to interact with technology.

For instance, a few years ago I was travelling in Colombia, and I was struck by the number of what I called “human phone booths” – people in the city centre with about six mobile phones chained to them and which could be used by people in the street to make calls. There were several factors that contributed to this, especially the relatively high cost to make calls between different network operators (each “phone booth” would have a variety of different network operators on the ends of the chains).

This is just one of many examples of the usage patterns that are best learned from seeing the technology in use in situ.

Ways to perform international UX research

There are four main ways to perform UX research internationally.

  • Do remote research – Thanks to the increasing availability and reliability of screensharing, a great way to test your designs is through remote moderated usability testing where you remain in your home country and conduct usability tests with participants anywhere in the world. There is still the challenge of recruiting the right people (and you may need to engage with partners for this) but if this is done and the sessions are well moderated, remote research can provide valid insights to help shape your designs, and save loads on the travel budget.
  • Go to the foreign country yourself – Technology is often a barrier as much as an enabler, and you can never really learn about the real user needs and natural behaviours offline through remote research. There will always be a need for an ethnographic approach to see how people currently solve the problems that your solution hopes to address. Let’s hope you have a decent budget and enjoy travel.
  • Hire a local UX consultant – If you can’t go yourself, then get a local company to perform the research for you. They will need a solid grounding in your research goals and if you are doing this across several locations, a keen eye on the test plan and consistency is needed.
  • Team from your local office (though not trained in UX) runs research – If you happen to work for a multinational, then a good compromise is to get someone from the local office to perform the research for you, ideally someone responsible for customer insight or marketing.

All of these are valid approaches depending on your circumstance and budget. There is a fifth one as well which is to test within your home city / country but with an audience that is generally representative of your target audience (at least in terms of language and nationality). In London or other large UK cities there are many different ethnic groups available from around the world. This allows you to test your solution locally and gain generally valid results while still remaining close to home. This is often good for pilot testing your research before deploying it more globally.

One general tip is to consider the technology and connection speeds used by your target users in their actual countries. Don’t have the testing performed on your latest Apple Powerbook if the end users are much more likely to be using older Windows machines or relatively antiquated operating systems and browsers. It is worth investing in a bandwidth shaper to replicate the connection speeds more common in the foreign country.

Getting the right people

Whether the research is performed by you or a local agency, recruiting the right people is critical. Nothing is worse than having your carefully crafted, expensive research project devalued by people feeling that it was not performed with the right audience.

Foreign recruitment has to be more inventive and less specific in defining your target audience. Professionals may recruit on the street or by phone in the West, however in some parts of the world accosting strangers to ask a series of screening questions is unacceptable and unlikely to be successful. Research recruitment may need to be more informal, and some of the specific screening requirements (such as specific geodemographic segmentations) may need to be relaxed or interpreted differently for the local international audience.

You may also find that where you are researching may not have a tradition of punctuality, and your usability testing schedule can be riddled with “no shows” and late attendees. Plan in advance for this by over-recruiting and having standby participants. Yes it will cost extra, but it is worth it in the long run, especially if you have expectant observers and there is a no show.

Planning and consistency

Planning is critical in international UX research, especially if your research is conducted by several separate teams with you collating the results. UX research is performed differently by different teams. Some will favour a more passive moderation style, and some are more active in their questioning. Teams in one country will observe behaviours or find issues that the other teams do not consider to be significant.

Your role therefore is to ensure that, as much as possible, these differences are controlled and accounted for in your research. This will require a detailed user research test plan that outlines how, in a usability test, tasks are to be introduced, the types of findings you are seeking, and when to intervene or help the participant. This will need to be backed up and role played through frequent phone calls to your individual research partners.

Time zones and jetlag

You will probably find yourself performing remote moderated testing or having phone calls with partners at decidedly unsociable hours. International research requires flexibility by all parties and odd times for phone calls is just part of the territory.

Your international research starts the moment you step off the plane. When you are performing the research abroad, arrive at least a day early and get a feel for the area and the people. Although you might normally fly overnight and be able get through an important meeting the next day, conducting user research requires you to be fully rested and keenly alert to observe or explore the cultural issues that may lead to people interpreting or using your interface differently than you expect.

Watch your language

Clear understanding of the language is critical in interpreting research results and therefore it is generally best to have research sessions conducted by native speakers of the local language. There is a risk of course that poor translation of the results could occur when preparing the report or presentation back in English. For this reason it is especially helpful for the core research team to observe as many of the local research sessions as possible, ideally with the help of a simultaneous interpreter.

The research materials such as test tasks read by participants are also critical since a slight nuance in the phrasing of a task may make a difference in the instructions to the participant. The best practice to ensure that any translation issues are captured is to translate the original task set to the local language and then translate back into English for validation.

Customs barriers and backups

All of your careful advance planning may be thwarted if you find that you or your equipment are not allowed into the country you are researching, whether brought with you on the flight or by courier in in advance. Customs officials take a keen interest when they spot recording equipment, and I know from personal experience that specialist kit such as an eye tracker can require passionate and persuasive explanation for it to be allowed into some countries. Validation letters from the client company within the country where you are researching can help to reduce this risk, but in any case have a backup plan ready in case your equipment is not allowed in.

Similarly the medication you carry or even images on your laptop and camera could be reason enough to block your research from entry, so research the requirements thoroughly and plan accordingly. Speaking of backups, the data you collect, such as the videos of research sessions, are vital for UX research. Use the cloud to back these up at every opportunity in case they are lost or confiscated on leaving the country.

Research moderation and techniques

One of the key differences in performing international UX research is the need to be aware of the cultural differences and applying these every time that you meet someone from the host country. Typical areas to be aware of during the interaction with clients or participants may include:

  • Greetings and body language – The specific bowing posture for greetings in the Far East can be interpreted closely as can the direction that the soles of your shoes are pointing in the Middle East.
  • Language – Remembering when to apply the formal phrasing of verbs in Spanish and other romance languages, especially when conversing with older people. If you do not speak the local language, at least learn how to say 'hello', 'thank you' and 'goodbye' – it is universally appreciated.

In general for any research sessions, whether ethnographic in nature or for usability testing, you’ll probably find that your research will benefit from more time on the pre-amble and icebreakers than in your home country. The conversation about the weather, your impressions of the country (focus on the positive), culture, traditions etc will help gain trust with your participant, and make them more comfortable with what may be a unique research discussion forum. Time spent on this will be well spent rather than diving straight into the user experience research procedure.

Enjoy your international research!

The world is growing more interconnected and business more international, so it is likely that you will need to design for an international audience at some point. Following these general tips on international user experience research will help you gather better results from your studies, but more importantly it will make the entire process easier, so that you can enjoy the international experience.

Image by ToastyKen licensed under Creative Commons

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