Tips for conducting international user research

7 min read Guest Blogger

Alessandra Millar is a user experience researcher at Google, based in the United Kingdom. Her years of experience in the UX industry have taken her across the world, giving her a unique insight into conducting international user research. Ahead of her presentation at UX New Zealand 2017, Alessandra shares some things she learned while researching in India.

Earlier this year on a research trip to India, I met a woman who had recently bought her very first smartphone. Before buying this phone she could not afford her own handset, or the high data costs that would come with owning one, so she had to borrow her husband’s phone when she wanted to do some online shopping, watch something on YouTube or look up an ailment.

In 2016, a promotion from Reliance Jio (a mobile network provider) caused a disruption to the Indian telecoms market, and changed the mobile internet landscape. Reliance Jio offered free 4G internet along with an affordable device. They also introduced data plans that were significantly cheaper than currently available ones (forcing other telecoms to reduce their prices to stay competitive). This led to a lot of people getting their first smartphone, including the woman who I had met. The promotion from Reliance Jio had unblocked the cost barrier for her, and enabled her to have access to her very own smartphone .

Women underrepresented online in India

In 2015 over 100 million internet users came online in India, making it the second biggest country in terms of internet users. Then another 100 million internet users came online in India in 2016!

Despite India’s huge boom in internet users, there is still a large portion of the population who remain unconnected. Women in India are one of these unrepresented online groups, being 36% less likely to own a mobile phone than males, and making up only 29% of internet users.

By 2020 it is said that 40% of females in India will be online. Jio’s market shake up can make these statistics start to seem like a reality. But getting a smartphone and getting online is just the first step. Making sense of the web and feeling comfortable using different websites is another challenge.

Safety (e.g., concerns about being called and harassed by men) low literacy, and technical-literacy can be some of the barriers to women using specific apps or websites. For example, a login page that asks for a phone number without reassurance that the number won’t be shared (see how Flipkart deals with this) is less likely to be used by women in India.

User research with women coming online for the first time

Conducting research with women, especially those coming online for the first time, can help you understand their needs, challenges and barriers. And this is essential to building inclusive products and bridging the digital divide. By building inclusive products the growth and retention of products and services can be increased.

However, we need to approach user research a little bit differently in these situations. The presence, or the stronger presence, of social hierarchy and more defined gender roles can completely change interview dynamics, and can mean that you have to adapt your research techniques to uncover those needs and barriers.

Here are six things that have worked well for my team and I when conducting research with women who have recently come online in India.

  1. Recruit offline – using online methods for recruitment is bound to skew your participants to people who are more comfortable using the web. We rely on local partners who use word of mouth, local language newspaper adverts and other offline means to recruit participants who have recently come online.
  2. Female-to-male ratio – consider the female-to-male ratio in the room. It can be intimidating, and sometimes culturally inappropriate, to have only men talking to a female participant. When we do have men on the team we always make sure that they are paired with female translators. Spend time thinking about the gender balance and try to make sessions female-heavy if possible.
  3. Low tech – using as little technology as possible during the interview (e.g., small quiet cameras or phone cameras, instead of DSLRs) will make it less intimidating for participants to tell you about their limited technology usage. We have also found it to be less beneficial to video record entire sessions, as this can be more intrusive than it’s worth. When showing mock ups, try showing them on local devices that participants will be familiar with, rather than a fancy iPhone that can add more distance between you and the participant.
  4. Neutral space – often during in-home interviews a husband, father-in-law, or brother will be sitting nearby listening, or even joining in the session. If you are trying to learn about safety or trust, or a sensitive topic such as health, it can be hard to have an honest conversation. In these situations we have found it useful to run sessions in a conference room, or a local hall.
  5. Pictures speak a thousand words – making use of stickers, smiling/frowning faces and drawing tasks can help break through language barriers. Something that can be useful is to ask participants and the research team to each draw something important to them right at the start of the session. This can be a nice warm-up that identifies common interests, and builds trust for the rest of the session. Plus, hand drawn pictures make the best assets for reports.

There is a huge opportunity to grow usage by making sure products are relevant to this new set of users coming online. 

Conducting research in a country you’ve never been to

Of course, it isn’t only research with women in India that requires you to approach research a little bit differently. Just doing research in a country that isn’t your own, and that you may have never been to requires some extra planning. Here are a few more things to keep in mind:

  1. Check visa requirements ASAP – don’t leave the visa process to the last minute. For some countries it can take quite a long time to get the appropriate visas required to conduct user research. You will probably need invitations letters from a host in the country you are going to, as well as a support letter from your company. Start planning your visa as soon as possible!
  2. Get high quality translators – make sure that you work with high quality, simultaneous, translators. If your translators are not simultaneous be aware that the interview can only be half as long. It is also worth checking that the translators you are working with has headsets (so you can listen to the translation through headphones).
  3. Think about the date – check public holiday calendars before you finalize your dates. You don’t want to be running research in India in the middle of Diwali when no one is available to talk to you. Also check what the weather is going to be like. Interviews in 40 degree Celsius heat is really not a good idea.
  4. Learn a bit about the culture – it’s important to dress appropriately for the culture you are going to. For example, in India you should try and dress more conservatively. You also may be asked to take your shoes off before entering someone’s home. Learning a few phrases in the local language (hello, thank you) can also help build rapport with your participants.
  5. Factor in travel time – remember to check the traffic in the city you’re going to and to leave plenty of time between interviews if you have to travel to get to them. Try and avoid peak commuting times too!

In my talk I’ll be telling you more about my experience as an international researcher at Google, and more tips and stories from the field. See you there!

Want to hear more? Come to UX New Zealand!

If you’d like to hear what Alessandra has to say about user research, plus a bunch of other cool UX-related talks, head along to UX New Zealand 2017 hosted by Optimal Workshop. The conference runs from 11-13 October including a day of fantastic workshops, and you can get your tickets here