International UX research: The highs and lows

Wow - conducting user research via the phone is challenging at the best of times.  But when you take three very different markets, four languages (including English), four countries, four different cultural approaches to communicating at work and then throw in an interpreter or two, you would not be surprised to learn that the complexity dial gets turned to max.

I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to conduct generative research in this context, and want to share my learnings. 

It is a small world

The research

Back in 2015 I worked on a project creating a digital framework for the Asia Pac branch of Amway. I talked to local business owners and corporate staff about their experiences with digital in order to create a five year digital road map. As you can imagine, I learnt a lot about how people ran Amway businesses, and also how culture influenced their desire to talk and share information about work and life.

How that research has influenced my current practice

I am conducting evaluative research at the moment and it has reminded me of this earlier work. My current research is very different, I am either on the phone or at the airport talking directly to Qantas customers, however many of the learnings from back in 2015 are relevant.  

One of my most beneficial learnings from 2015 was a heightened awareness of different mental models, cultures and communication styles. Of course I had an intellectual understanding of this, but a lived/embodied awareness is another thing altogether. Seeing some of these concepts in stark highlight allow me to respond better to the more subtle cultural rules I am working with now.

I wonder why they order that way

Different cultures: Korea, Thailand and Japan

My target markets were Korea, Thailand and Japan. I had travelled to the capitals of these three countries, I knew a tiny bit about their language, culture and landscape, but safe to say I had a steep learning curve. I knew for example that Japan had a much more formal work culture than Thailand, but I had no idea how low internet saturation was in Thailand and even to some regards Korea. There was also a cultural and technology access gap between regional and metro areas that I was not aware of. 

In Thailand candidates had quite a good level of English and would use an informal interpreter to confirm meaning occasionally. In Japan however formal interpreters were used, often with a twenty minute hand over cycle between two or more trained professionals. It wasn't just language that was different, The people from Thailand I interviewed were happy to have a joke with me and use slang, while the people from Japan used precise formal language and expected it from me too. Those of you who know me will understand this was a bit of a challenge :)

What I learnt about international research


  • Preparation is key - these markets really want to know exactly what is happening and when

  • Photos are a nice way to get to know candidates better - I asked them to send me a photo of themselves and I sent one back

  • Lead time is doubled

  • Technology was not my friend - international calls - skype, drops outs etc - anything that could go wrong, did go wrong

Cultural differences

  • My cultural naivety meant I needed to do more work to prepare and reassure users who have not participated in user research before

  • Don’t underestimate the differences in work culture and what is and is not acceptable to do and say at work - this was especially emphasised when it came to organisation hierarchy

Using an interpreter

  • Generating candid comments and feedback can be tough - especially through an interpreter

  • Report is harder to build when using an interpreter

  • Using an interpreter makes everything take longer - at least double

  • Using an interpreter gives you more time to make notes and think about where to probe

  • It is very important to use short, clear sentences - clarifying statements often caused more confusion

So all in all, quite similar to local research actually :) My cultural naivety was definitely emphasised and I realised I need to do a lot to educate myself.

Going on a journey together

Educate yourself, be curious and exercise professional empathy

This work  definitely helped me hone my research skills and stretch my professional empathy skills. By that I mean working harder to try to imagine the circumstances that have led to a person thinking about the world in a certain way and hence behaving in a certain way. I may not always like people but I am always intrigued by them. I feel very lucky that way :)

How are you developing your professional empathy and learning more about how different people think, work and play?

I presented this topic to Melbourne Ladies that UX in August 2017.