Research without borders
Tips for embracing global perspectives in design research
Kathrine Smith, Design Researcher | 6 min read
One of the most exciting parts of doing research at Xero is getting the chance to interact with users all over the world. Even though I work in the US, I collaborate with designers and researchers in Australia and New Zealand, and delve into the perspectives of users internationally.
In a recent coffee-fuelled session at 7 am, I was having microphone difficulties while my participant (in a happy-hour time zone) joked that technology can make things possible and unravel them, often simultaneously. It sums up what I’ve learned about global research: you need to be flexible and open-minded, with a healthy sense of humour.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned doing research across multiple countries and regions.
Managing time zones
Xero is used in more than 180 countries, with the largest user groups in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the US. This is a critical consideration when looking for the right mix of people to involve in a study. It also means that time zones can range from annoying to problematic when running research sessions.
Because I’m based in New York City and many of my participants are overseas, doing research outside of normal working hours is fairly common for me. In my early days of doing international research, I would run sessions at both 10 pm and 7 am for a week.
It taught me a valuable lesson: while I can do late night and early morning sessions for multiple days (in addition to my regular workday), it doesn’t make for the best focus or a balanced life. Now, I try to keep late and early sessions to a few days at a time, with room to breathe (and sleep) in between.
- If you need to schedule sessions outside normal working hours, try to cluster your availability so you’re only doing evenings or mornings (not both). Think about what’s sustainable for you.
- If you can, consider partnering with a colleague based in the region where you’re conducting research to help you run sessions, troubleshoot problems and generally help maintain your sanity.
- Sending automated reminders or queueing reminder emails to send in the participant’s time zone can be helpful. By considering when people typically check emails and schedule requests, you can reduce no-shows and scheduling headaches.
My colleague Katie learned first-hand the importance of localised prototypes when doing global research. During her study on bank feeds, she found that people were getting distracted by the unfamiliar logos. By removing logos or only using logos from banks in the participant’s country, the participants were able to focus on the research questions.
- Try to make the prototype invisible in terms of branding and other country-specific elements so participants can focus on the task at hand.
- Consider creating localised prototypes for participants in each country you’re researching, even if it means developing multiple prototypes for each study.
- If you begin the session and realize that something isn’t localised to your user, try to understand why and make it better for next time.
Understanding language and culture
I do a lot of research about how businesses get paid, which means I’ve come across a range of terms that people use to talk about bank transfers depending on where they’re located. For example, when talking about bank transfers initiated by a merchant with the customer’s authorisation, I’ve heard people use the terms:
- bank debit
- ACH debit
- pre-authorized debit
- direct debit
- bank transfer
When I ask participants how they receive payments from customers and they answer with a simple phrase like the ones above, I ask some follow-up questions so I can make sure we’re all on the same page. How does your customer do that? How is it set up? Do you have to do anything?
My colleague Anna encountered a similar situation during a study on sales tax in Canada. At Xero, we use the term ‘late claims’ for transactions that have been added to a filing period after it’s been filed with the tax authority. But in Canada, no one understood this. It was completely foreign to them.
Anna said she spent a while trying to understand what term users had for this phenomenon, and eventually discovered that where Xero uses the term late claims, participants use ‘prior period adjustments’ or simply ‘adjustments’. No matter what industry you’re in, the language and culture of participants can have a big impact on your research.
- Even if participants speak the same language as you, they might talk about things using different terminology. If you’re speaking about a specific topic, research the local vocabulary before the session.
- Online resources are great, but there’s nothing like talking to people in the region. If possible, invite colleagues who live in the same country as your participants to research sessions, so they can help you understand the cultural context of responses.
- Remember that some terms may have a different meaning in another country. Look for contextual clues, ask participants to describe it in a different way and rephrase what they’ve said to make sure you understand what they mean.
Considering local laws
Before we kick off a research session, participants sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) which explains how we’ll use the information they provide and establishes confidentiality for the research session. Asking someone to sign an NDA in person is straightforward, but for remote research it’s a bit trickier – you can’t exactly slide a pen and paper across the table.
If the document hasn’t been signed before the session, there’s inevitably a scramble while the NDA is located, signed and submitted. The issues I’ve experienced in the past range from ‘I can’t seem to find the attachment. Can you send it again?’ to ‘I can’t download Word documents/Google Docs/PDFs’ and ‘I don’t own a printer’.
- Make sure your NDA has been approved for use in the countries you’ll be using it. At Xero, our legal team has to approve all research NDAs before they’re used.
- Ask participants to sign and return the NDA before your research session. The more organized you are, the less time you’ll waste in the session waiting for the participant to sign and send the form.
- Make sure participant data is carefully managed and your organization is compliant with local personal data protection laws (like GDPR). Only collect information you need for your specific research project, and treat all your research artefacts (notes, recordings, transcripts, surveys) as personal data.
We always send participants small gifts to thank them for being part of our study. Recently, I spoke with participants from a small but growing market for Xero. When it came time to send them a gift, we realized that the gift cards we usually send were not available in that country. This delayed the delivery of the incentive, which was frustrating for participants.
- Make sure everyone is clear about what the incentive is and how it will work before the research session begins. What will the value be? Will it be in the local currency? When will it be sent? Having these details in advance will make sure things run smoothly.
- If you have a standard incentive (like our gift cards), make sure there are vendors in the participants’ local area, or ask someone who is a native to the area about what might work.
- Some countries have laws about how research participants can be compensated. Make sure you understand these restrictions in advance to avoid any headaches and ensure the incentive is sent and received in a timely fashion.
Embracing global perspectives
When conducting research on a global scale, you’re bound to face a range of obstacles, some you anticipate and others you never expect. The practical challenges of global research can be exasperating, but the value in understanding diverse perspectives is meaningful and can never be underestimated.
Forming connections with people who are geographically distant but close to your product makes the world seem a little smaller, in the best way. By being prepared and staying curious, you’ll grow as a researcher and gain insights that will help your team build a product that’s more relevant for users around the world.